Meet The Baker Behind The Loaves: Sarah Owens of Ritual Fine Foods

While one of the primary reasons that I started this series was to tell each baker’s unique story through the lens of an interview comprised of personalized questions. I chose to ask every baker the following question. “Sourdough bread is often called “living bread.” What do the terms “living bread” and “living food” mean to you?” I did so because the individuals behind the loaves of sourdough bread that we’ve come to respect and be constantly inspired by are in essense showing us what it means to bring bread to life. They help us see that through our relationship with bread and by assocatiation, the art of fermentation, we can work towards helping others live a healthy, happy, and sustainable lifestyle that benefits both ourselves and the environment around us. This body-mind connection is what I feel helps foster a deep sense of community amongst those who pursue the artistry behind their interests. In turn, it has been a true honor to get to know the bakers whose stories I’ve shared and hope that you find them as inspiring as I have.

Photo Credit: Sarah Owens

Award-winning cookbook author, naturally-leavened baker, professional horticulturist, culinary instructor, and advocate for many important social and environmental causes. This week’s featured baker, Sarah Owens, harnesses the power of baking and utilizes it to foster community and social change, advocate for regenerative agricultural practices to rebuild global grain sheds, and spread her belief that stone milling can bring good bread back to the table. While reading her bio, her self descriping as “a student and teacher of nourishing food traditions, who (she) travels globally to encourage an interest in ancient techniques interpreted within a modern context” really hit home for me. Through my culinary and fermentation related hobbies I’ve tried my best to constantly be learning, sharing what I’ve learned over time with others, and being a participating member of the communities surrounding each hobby. Hence, when Sarah agreed to be featured in this series I was elated and driven to come up with questions that would capture just how amazing, commited, and inspirational she is.

So without further ado, it is my honor to present to you Sarah Owens of Ritual Fine Foods

Barry (The Brewed Palate): You initially explored sourdough baking as a way to manage your own digestive intolerances and honor fond memories of baking with the women in your family. How has your view of fermented foods evolved over time as a result of baking sourdough bread and the healthy lifestyle that you’ve developed?

Sarah: Fermented foods are both deliciously enjoyable and beneficial to our well-being. I now use fermentation as a method of creative culinary expression and mode of preservation as much as a preventative and remedial approach to health. When I began fermenting however, my goal was simply physical healing. This involved recognizing and listening to the needs of my body outside of commodified health care and the nefarious superiority of a ‘healthy lifestyle’ defined by capitalist pseudoscience. 

Sarah @ Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School in Sicilia.

My gateway ferment to reintroduce healthy probiotics was pickled vegetables like sauerkraut before discovering that sourdough makes prebiotics more digestible. I began considering the microbial dynamics of the digestive system and how intertwined they are with mood, immunity, and sleep. These three things were equally as troubling in my life at the time as my digestive functions, but I had never considered them as being associated with the gut. This was around 2009-10 when research on our microbiome was much less available. It was difficult to find solid information on the subject outside of documentation of traditional fermentation customs and their assumed nutritional influence. Since this journey began, I am now much more in tune with my intuitive experience of fermented foods but there is also thankfully more proven scientific information available to support their benefits. 

Since beginning this journey, I have adopted a more holistic consideration of health that also embraces spiritual and mental aspects. I attribute the ritual of sourdough in particular to a practice of mindfulness through engaging the senses. This has helped me to develop keen observational skills and to remain anchored in the moment while considering the future. All of this assists with freeing the mind and nurturing the spirit with delicious, nutritious food.  

Practicing fermentation has become more than just a way to preserve food or make it more digestible but allows participation in the cycles of life and death and expands the ways that we experience both. Fermentation provides an opportunity to connect to the earth and our food in a way that nurtures both self-preservation but also stronger community with others. Food is an ancient expression of culture and the more I study the various customs of fermentation globally, the easier it has become to celebrate our similarities and also beautiful differences. There is an unlimited diversity of microbes in any one fermented food, and likewise the culinary creativity and use of those foods is vast, delicious, and often very place-based. Coupled with my curiosity for travel, connecting to the people of any particular region through fermentation has allowed me to learn more about what native foods grow there, subsequent agricultural developments, the historical uses of those foods, and ritual/religious significance associated with those food traditions. 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): How have your baking and cooking pursuits been impacted by the feedback and accolades that you’ve received for your three books?

Photo Credit: Sarah Owens

Sarah: A published cookbook lands in the hands of more people than you could ever imagine and the information it contains can have a profound impact on those who consider its narrative and use its recipes.  Although I don’t think an award is necessary to make a book valuable, the James Beard given to Sourdough has helped spread the joy of naturally leavened baking, its versatility, and its power. The most valuable feedback has been from personal messages or workshop attendees who have shared their experiences of healing and reconnection to the earth, their bodies, and their communities. That has inspired me to keep digging deeper into the craft and I have immense gratitude for being enabled by an audience and a publisher that supports this. It has inspired me to take a closer look into how agriculture, milling, and sourdough fermentation together can positively affect both the planet and our quality of life globally. In short, being recognized as a voice in baking and fermentation has allowed more opportunities to explore and share resources for making this world a better place.  

Barry (The Brewed Palate): Now that it’s been a year since your relocation from New York City (Rockaway Beach, Queens) to California, what do you find unique about sustaining a whole foods and fermentation-focused lifestyle in California? How does it differ from doing so in New York? 

Sarah: I left NYC in October 2019 but relocated to California mid-January of this year after a long cross-country book tour, fire evacuations from Sonoma county, and a 5 week stint in Mexico leading baking workshops. When I finally landed in California, I was unaware that the well water of the house where I lived was tainted, and I fell incredibly ill. I had already been sick in Mexico a few weeks before and really struggled with being a healthy human until I understood the source of illness. It was a frustrating introduction to California but exposed the reality of pressure on natural resources in this state and the lack of adequate and affordable housing for those who live here. I wasn’t eating a complex diet through most of February while I was reclaiming digestive health. Then, the lockdown happened that made it difficult to really explore the agriculturally rich area of Sonoma county. My personal and professional circumstances changed shortly after and I moved to southern California, which is again, a vastly different lifestyle than northern California. 

Photo Credit: Sarah Owens

I did have some growing space earlier this year however and the opportunity to return to a love of interacting with soil, plants, and weather. Exploring this very unique region through gardening and sustainable foraging was a real gift through the lockdown and allowed me to stay grounded in the moment when all else seemed to fall into a state of turmoil. This connection with nature outside of manipulating microbes was missing from my work as a baker and educator in urban Rockaway and part of why I began seeking a lifestyle outside of the hustle of NYC. I was also lucky to be neighbors with some generous folks who raised delicious duck and goose eggs. We traded eggs, vegetables, and sometimes cheese for breads and pastry, which was perfect, as recipe testing baked goods can be extremely wasteful if you don’t have someone to feed! This exchange is what makes rural living so attractive to me even though access to its abundance is often traded for the cultural diversity of a bigger city. 

There is an abundance of fresh produce in California due to the generous growing season, but it is extremely expensive to eat well. I couldn’t answer this question without addressing the assumption that everyone in California lives a healthy lifestyle. While that may be true for those who can afford to live in areas with clean air and to pay for the high cost of housing and food here, this state is also home to a great number of people who cannot. This has been exacerbated by the problems of the pandemic as well. It’s important to remember that there is a large population of migrant farmworkers in California who live a very brutal life under the scorching sun and smog of the central valley where vegetables, nuts, and fruits are grown in monoculture to be shipped to the rest of the country. My consumption of certain foods has been curbed because of this, and the expense of a more sustainable alternative often makes them inaccessible, particularly in an era of frugality. I do however save up and splurge occasionally to support the amazing farmers and craftspeople who are dedicated to their work and honoring the precious resources of this fragile ecosystem. Although I have become increasingly sensitive to alcohol this year, I have enjoyed access to the abundance of organically grown, dry farmed, naturally-fermented wine and cider made with low-intervention methods. This method of winemaking is a beautiful movement in Sonoma and Napa counties in particular and now that I am near the border with Mexico, I hope to have the time and resources to explore the food and wine of Valle de Guadeloupe in the near future. 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): With one of the reasons that you moved to California being to open a “cook-the-farm” school. Are there any updates that you’d be willing to share about how your plans are progressing? 

Sarah: Unfortunately due to the previously mentioned circumstances of this year, my partnership with the “cook-the-farm” school in Sebastopol has dissolved and I have relocated out of Sonoma county due to the ongoing fire pressure and cost of living during this uncertain time. The challenge now is to reassess where it would be best to continue working as a writer, educator, gardener, and community-supported baker. Teaching is and will continue to be my passion and I would love to develop an alternative plan for eventually resuming in-person workshops that have a closer connection to the land. For now, I am staying at a friend’s place in southern California through the winter where I will focus on writing and recipe development and explore whether the realities of this state jive with my priorities for the future. Patreon has thankfully provided a somewhat stable source of income during this time so I can remain flexible. I’m so grateful for this platform to share recipes, videos, and workshops and will reassess my options in the spring when we hopefully have a better handle on the global health, economic, social, and climate crises.

Barry (The Brewed Palate): One message that I took from your most recent book ‘Heirloom’ is the importance of utilizing recipes and cookbooks as guides toward building upon one’s baking and cooking knowledge. From my own personal experience, doing so has allowed me to make the continuous development of my baking and cooking skills into an immersive journey of creative expression. Can you share an example of how a home-baker could utilize one of your published recipes as a guide rather than a rigid list of ingredients coupled with a recipe specific set of instructions?

Photo Credit: Ngoc Minh Ngo courtesy of Roost Books

Sarah: The last 10 years of teaching and writing have sharpened my sense of how people develop a lifetime of skills around this very organic and variable process of fermentation, particularly when working with ingredients that haven’t been standardized by industrial processing. I like to focus on celebrating uncertainty rather than conforming to a specific set of dogmatic instructions. Traditionally, baking recipes have focused less on the sensuality and immersive moment-to-moment decision making of the process and more on the chemistry and reliability of standardized ingredients. However, to move forward with ingredients that have a better nutritional and environmental footprint (which inherently lead to more robust, digestible, and unique flavors so many seek through sourdough) we have to embrace the variability and intuitive nature of using these ingredients and the bacterial fermentation that honors them. We are hard-wired for seeking success without failure though, so it is tricky to try and provide the answers and guidance for adapting to this expansive approach. When working with the regional, stone ground flours that I prefer, I have to make sure readers have the right expectations before they launch into a recipe or technique. I wrote Sourdough back in 2013, before a lot of stone ground flours were as available as they are now. The way I write recipes and guide workshops continues to evolve accordingly and I’d like to say the best book and recipes I will write is yet to come. 

Creativity can only come after basic techniques have been mastered and hand skills have been homed in tandem with intuition. As an educator (both author and instructor), I strive to make sure both of those things are within reach regardless of your experience when you pick up one of my books or attend a workshop. A perfect example would be the Table Loaf recipe that was published in Heirloom (not the shortened excerpt that has become so viral on YouTube). It includes a more adaptive approach to using stone ground flours in various percentages of whole grain and being able to respond to the variables of time, temperature, and bioavailability of nutrients as they influence fermentation. 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): Over your time as a sourdough baker and author, advocacy and education have gradually taken up a bigger portion of your involvement in the worldwide sourdough community. What would you say are today’s most pressing agricultural issues affecting home and professional bakers? 

Sarah: We have to address the use of natural resources and both the short and long-term consequences on ourselves and the planet. ‘Sustainability’ was trending for a while but is being replaced by the increasingly popular concept of ‘regenerative agriculture’ on social media, in documentaries, and cookbooks. It is essentially a powerful holistic land management practice that uses traditional farming methods to draw down carbon and increase soil biodiversity, with the benefits of severing reliance upon chemical inputs, becoming more water-wise, and reversing the effects of climate change. It is also nothing new. My hope is that by increasing awareness of these practices and their power, it inspires those who want to heal our earth to consider the historical context of this knowledge and who benefits from it. Language is important, and we must use it with ancestral respect and to empower those who continue to struggle in the shadow of colonialized systems of oppression. Regenerative agriculture means nothing if land and water rights aren’t restored to indigenous peoples and descendants of slave labor who are the sources of this knowledge. When this isn’t addressed, extractive behavior continues to be disguised as regeneration. 

With that out of the way, we can consider our actions as bakers. According to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research Program on wheat, at least 531,276,570.15 acres of the planet have been devoted to growing wheat in 2020, making it more widely cultivated than any other staple food crop. We cannot underestimate the environmental impact of the farming methods used to cultivate the majority of this wheat. We need to reexamine the consequences of industrial farming and cheap, commodified flour that makes up the greatest percentage of this statistic. If we pivot the way we bake to embrace more regional and diversified cereal crops, I truly believe commodity agriculture and its environmentally devastating consequences can be supplanted with affordable alternatives for all. Home and professional bakers have to stop relying upon the crutch of cheap flour as an excuse for not supporting better farming and milling. It’s a lazy way of dodging a complex issue and comes at the expense of the most vulnerable and marginalized. It continues the cycles of extraction and land occupation. Marginalized communities are feeling the greatest effects of climate change as the rising cost of climate disaster and public health crisis accelerates. 

For most people however, knowledge of how to work with less standardized, regional ingredients is out of reach. This is what I hope to continue exploring in my books and recipes and as I hopefully resume travel to other countries in the coming years. Aggregating and passing on this ancient knowledge is very important in a fast moving world, but I am constantly striving to do so with respect to those who are generous enough to share it. 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): With so many old world cooking and baking techniques being reintroduced back into the mainstream of modern cooking and baking, how do you view the recent growth of scratch cooking and baking? How would you describe the health and overall lifestyle benefits of cooking and baking with raw (minimally processed) ingredients to someone who is not already an avid home cook or baker?

Sarah: It’s great that these traditions are being revisited! If they aren’t made relevant to modern times, they risk being lost and along with them, knowledge of who we are and where we come from. 

Nourishing food made from minimally processed ingredients can look and taste so different depending upon the culture from which they came and the preferences of those who are eating it. We all know people who prefer refined, nutritionally devoid foods like white bread and soda pop over the aggressive flavor identities of healthier options like whole grain loaves, kombucha, and kale salad. That should be honored without judgement. If the scratch cooking and baking movement is to improve health, the approach needs to contain ingredients that are culturally appropriate for various demographics and focus on the feeling of nourishment. Healthy eating or scratch cooking is a dangerous badge of honor when it is measured by external values of body image or is imposed upon a community who is unfamiliar with its flavors and customs. 

Photo Credit: Sarah Owens

There is also the consideration that not everyone feels empowered to make health their priority. If a population’s self-esteem and corporal existence has been compromised for hundreds of years by the insistence that it is inferior to or should be sacrificed for another superior race, social healing has to be addressed before physical healing can be. Scratch cooking can be a gateway to social and physical change for the better if it is presented as an invitation into a world of pleasure and communion. As I mentioned above, that can be a challenge when you don’t possess culinary knowledge, time, or resources. As with land and water rights, we have to restore access to ancestral knowledge of scratch cooking as well for historically marginalized people that statistically suffer the most from modern disease.   

People who wish to change their lifestyle habits, often do so out of necessity. They may have a health crisis like I did. Their doctor may threaten the risk of heart disease or diabetes if they don’t remove unnecessary refined carbohydrates from their diet. There has to be a good reason why someone wants to explore the world of minimally processed foods and their benefits because it takes effort and often time to prepare them. Flexibility and an openness to new experiences are key to instigating personal change. But it’s also important to realize that small changes can have a huge impact on health without a major time or monetary investment. Little steps allow us to embrace foods, recipes, and unfamiliar customs at ease and with the ability to measure their effects on how we feel. That is extremely powerful and encouraging! We can all start by identifying one thing that could use an upgrade and then devise a plan. For my father recently, that was addressing an addiction to soda pop. When I described how he could make a healthier, probiotic version with less sugar using a kombucha or jun culture, he was open enough to consider learning how to do it. 

Again, preparing food with minimally processed ingredients can be challenging to those who wish to improve their health but do not have the knowledge of how to do so. When you push through the learning curve though, your body responds with healing, strength, better sleep, clearer thinking, and generally just feeling good. That is more addictive than the alternative and eventually, the positive feedback loop pushes us toward better choices

Barry (The Brewed Palate): One thing that we have in common is that our cooking is influenced by a variety of cuisines. How would you describe your style of cooking? Who/what are your current culinary influences?

Sarah: I don’t really consider myself to have a style although I am predisposed to cuisines that contain spicy foods, nourishing broths, loads of cooked or fermented vegetables, and use of whole and heirloom grains. Most people would associate this with a Mediterranean diet, but I find inspiration in a much broader range of flavors and customs. There is so much to discover and experience! I am inspired by and am extremely curious to learn about foods that I have little direct experience with and am encouraged by the attention that is increasingly being given to authors from lesser-known or recognized cuisines. I have a long list of cookbooks to explore this winter including Kiin: Recipes and Stories from Northern Thailand by Nuit Regular, East: 120 Vegan and Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Beijing by Meera Sodha, To Asia with Love by Hetty Lui McKinnon, Parwana: Recipes and Stories from an Afghan Kitchen by Durkhanai Ayubi and Farida Ayubi, and In Bibi’s Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers from the Eight African Countries that Touch the Indian Ocean (A Cookbook) by Hawa Hassan and Julia Turshen. 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): Have you baked breads with specific food pairings in mind? If so, what steps do you typically take to ensure that the pairing turns out how you originally envisioned it?

Photo Credit: Sarah Owens

Sarah: Although I have pursued particular styles of breads that are identified in a classic way (ciabatta for mopping up saucy foods or brioche buns for hamburgers) more often lately I am inspired by the unique properties of regional, stone ground flours and how they can be best expressed in a baked good. When you stop trying to fit a round peg in a square hole, there is so much more freedom in baking.  Using these flours as foundations rather than replacements for more refined counterparts allows you to explore their remarkable textures and flavors. It becomes a matter of learning their behavior or performance and only then, can I begin to fantasize about more intentional food pairings. 

Otherwise, there are breads that just functionally fit into my personal preferences. A porridge loaf with moist keeping quality is what I aim to create as my breakfast or midday snack, as I love the way the butter melts into the toasted crumb and crust and how the natural sweetness from the grain contrasts the bitterness of my coffee. A tin loaf with a high percentage of whole grain is what I aim for in a sandwich bread, as I love how soft and flavorful the crumb can be when stuffed with cured meats, aged cheeses, or roasted veggies. If I’m preparing a mezze spread, then of course I want to bake a good flatbread for scooping and transferring those bright flavors from plate to belly. 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): As someone who fully embraces cooking and baking with seasonal ingredients, what are five tips that you would give to home bakers and cooks for taking full advantage of seasonal ingredients? 

Photo Credit: Sarah Owens

1. Work with whatever is most abundantly available either from the farmer’s market, your own garden, or what is sustainably gleaned from the wild or with permission from your neighbor’s yard! This can be challenging, as it may be an ingredient that you are not familiar with or only have so many recipes for use. This approach however encourages culinary creativity, frugality, and problem solving. 

2. Consider ways to preserve abundant seasonal ingredients for later usage. Squirreling away ingredients for the off-season is a great way to avoid fatigue by whatever seasonal abundance you may be experiencing at the time. In a four season climate, this is particularly important for the stark contrast between summer and winter abundance. Even if you are a sweet potato or butternut enthusiast, come March, I bet you will be really excited to dig out that bag of frozen sweet corn from the freezer! Not every year will produce abundance of the same seasonal ingredients and it’s important to ensure you have access to a diverse diet for creative inspiration but also health. 

3. Share your abundance with others. We tend to approach feeding ourselves in a very practical way and sometimes get stuck in a creative rut. When giving freely, people will often tell you of the food they have made. We may learn about a cultural tradition previously unfamiliar, discover an old family recipe, or otherwise learn a new technique. It is a great way to keep inspired and stay connected to our community. 

4. Anticipate the abundance and what you will do with it. This helps to avoid waste. If you know a plum tree in your yard or neighborhood will drop its fruit at roughly the same time every year, make a plan to harvest and process or share the fruit and incorporate that into your schedule just as you would a yoga class or church service. 

5. Embrace the timing of seasonal foods that complement each other and incorporate these into your meals. A good example for autumn is a salad made of fruits, root veg, hearty chicories, and toasted nuts. Roasted golden beets pair well with apples, endive, and hazelnuts (or walnuts or pecans) in a delicious, seasonally-appropriate salad that feels and tastes fresh. The earthiness of the beets is complemented by the sweet, crisp texture of the apples, the bitterness of the endive, and the robust aroma and crunch of hazelnuts. Brought together by a bright dressing of yogurt, olive oil, lemon juice, and a pop of mint (fresh or dried), brightens the dish and is taking advantage of what is seasonally abundant. 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): With so many sourdough bakers opening cottage bakeries, what are some lessons that you’ve learned from your cottage baking experiences that you’d like to convey to home bakers choosing to turn their baking hobbies into a profession?

Sarah: Although my answer looks a bit different because of the current health crisis and its limitations for commerce, there are a few things that remain constant. 

Think ahead and decide what business model will be the most sustainable for your priorities and lifestyle. This will look very different for each baker, as we all have different motivations, access to resources, and familial responsibilities. Many baking entrepreneurs open a business based upon their passion for the process and want to find a way to subsidize becoming a better baker through feeding their community. What many don’t anticipate is that when you are making bread with quality ingredients and a dedication to fermentation and the time it takes, you will never be able to make enough bread to satisfy your customers! Consider growth or your ceiling for production and what that looks like in terms of equipment, space, and monetary investment. But also think about your quality of life and what you need to stay healthy and inspired. 

Photo Credit: Sarah Owens

Diversify if you can! This is one of the key strategies for sustainable longevity in the new normal and considering the physical demands of production baking, even on a small scale. Each business model should reflect locally available ingredients and the needs of the community, but also the ability of the baker to meet those needs without sacrificing their health or happiness. Direct-to-consumer is the most profitable way for a cottage baker to sustain long-fermentation bread baking but that might not make sense for every community. Wholesale may be another cottage baker’s best option, but this requires more units to be sold to meet the same profit as direct sales. This should be evaluated in advance of investing in space and equipment, but it is also important to remain flexible and open to letting the business grow organically, particularly if your bread is relatively unfamiliar to your community. You can never anticipate what opportunities may come your way once people get hooked on your passion! 

Leading workshops is a great way to diversify your business. This has always been an activity I find deeply satisfying because I love introducing the magic of sourdough, but it is also a fun and cerebral alternative to the physicality of production baking. It can also be potentially more lucrative than the profit margins of sourdough bread baking and provide you with a bit of relief from the grind of a routine. 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): Sourdough bread is often called “living bread.” What do the terms “living bread” and “living food” mean to you? 

Sarah: Our increasingly urbanized existence has been an efficient way to centralize resources and yet it distances us from the never-ending cycle of life and death. All of our food really should be considered an opportunity to connect with nature. Sourdough is literally alive and teeming with microbes, particularly when made with freshly milled flours that are remarkably bioactive. It is a powerful way to create and strengthen bonds to nature through the act of nurturing.

Each step in bread making is an opportunity to honor not only the land on which our food is grown but the hard work and expertise of each person involved in getting that food to our tables, including the farmers and the millers. Bread making provides an opportunity to connect to a life force bigger than ourselves, to step outside of our personal experience and feel the common thread that sews together our existence: How we source our flour impacts the microbial health of the soil in which the grain was grown. How that grain is processed affects the bioactivity of the flour that creates our starter and leavens our bread. The choices of how we leaven our bread affects the nutritional availability and thus the nourishment it can provide. And when we choose to nourish ourselves and one another, we provide opportunities to thrive together, as one living organism. It’s all connected!

Sarah is currently producing a series of online recipes and workshops through Patreon, exploring the alchemy and digestive benefits of natural leavening, fermentation, and preservation. 

Happy Baking!

About Barry W

NJ (formerly NYC) based home brewer and fermented food enthusiast sharing his brewing, cooking, and baking adventures on thebrewedpalate.com.
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