Meet the Baker Behind the Loaves: Michael Hilburn of The Sourdough Podcast

When it comes to defining food and drink products that are produced with quality rather than quantity in mind, the term complexity is often used a way to describe depth of flavor. However, I feel that complexity can also describe the layers that comprise what it took to create a given food or drink product. When it comes to sourdough bread, recognizing its “layers” becomes increasingly easy once one chooses to bake with grains and flours sourced from local and regional mills rather than those found on supermarket shelves. Millers and state grain commission members work closely with farmers on cultivating staple, heirloom, and ancient grains in a sustainable manner. In turn, creating a complex network of quality relationships between those who live their lives as a result of their role/s within one of the “layers” of sourdough bread production. Getting to know individuals within each “layer or “link in the chain” creates inspirational opportunities for learning, sharing, and increasing the quality and complexity of one’s daily life.

Amongst those who have fully embraced the complexity of the worldwide sourdough community lies a group of passionate bloggers and podcasters sharing their baking knowledge, making themselves available to their fellow bakers, and spreading the word about individuals within each “layer” of the community whom they find to be inspiring. One such podcaster is this week’s featured baker, Michael Hilburn of The Sourdough Podcast. Since 2018 he has interviewed an impressive variety of men and women whom he finds inspiring and have in their own right majorly contributed to both their local communities and the the worldwide sourdough community as a whole. As a fellow blogger/podcaster who started interviewing such inspirational bakers, millers, and farmers this past July. I can truly say that its been a blessing to have Michael as a source of inspiritation within our ever growing number of individuals dedicated to maintaining and increasing the quality of life of others through all that goes into a loaf of sourdough bread

So without further ado, it is may honor to present to you, Michael Hilburn of The Sourdough Podcast and Mission Bakehouse.

Barry (The Brewed Palate): I’d like to start with getting to know your baking background. How long have you been baking sourdough bread? and Who were your first sources of sourdough inspiration?

Michael: I started my first sourdough starter in 2014 after a rather ordinary meal at a cafe in Santa Barbara. Growing up in California, I had eaten sourdough my whole life but never really thought twice about it or considered how it was made. But for some reason the bread at that cafe and the description “naturally leavened” sent me down a rabbit hole online and within a few days I had a bubbly glass of starter fermenting on my window ledge. My first sources of sourdough inspiration and education came from blogs and instagram. But the first blog that really helped make sense of everything for me was one called Food Travel Thought (later to be called The Perfect Loaf by Maurizio Leo).

Barry (The Brewed Palate): Having recently started posting podcast episodes for season 3 of The Sourdough Podcast. Can you describe the process that you go through while preparing for an interview of a fellow baker (podcast guest)?

Michael: I typically compile a “short list” of potential guests by saving photos on Instagram of accounts that I find inspiring. I’ll reach out via DM or email, and if they are interested we’ll schedule an interview. I’ll start a google doc and try to learn as much as I can about my guest. It reminds me of cramming for an exam in college. The day before I like to request questions for the guest from everyone on Instagram and I’ll add those questions to my notes. Depending on the time zone of my guest, the interview could be anytime of day. This involves a balancing act of scheduling with my wife, kid’s schedules, and my cottage baking activities. If everything works out, I’ll have a quiet room for about an hour to record! 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): How has your view of the worldwide sourdough community evolved since starting your podcast in 2018?

Michael: Since I started the podcast I’ve come to see the sourdough community in many new ways. My first experiences as a home baker exposed me mostly to other like minded “bread heads” as we all shared notes, pictures, and information, all looking to bake our own “perfect loaf.” But when I started the podcast I started to see how intertwined sourdough was with other groups like farmers, scientists, millers, entrepreneurs, etc. I learned how making sourdough can support local grain economies and change our communities and planet for the better. I started to see sourdough more clearly as the worldwide community that it is, with all the cultural influences and histories it carries with it. I’ve learned how diverse our community is and, at the same time, seen how much we all have in common. 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): Through podcasts like your’s and meeting men and women at all levels of the bread production process (seed to loaf), I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the lives that people live as a result of being in touch with the ingredients that they cultivate and then bake with. How would you describe what you’ve learned from your podcast interviews and its influence on your perspective on sourdough baking?  

Michael: Over the last three years of interviews and interactions with the sourdough community my greatest influence has come from cottage bakers. Cottage bakers showed me how meaningful baking for your immediate community could be. I saw my own passion for bread and community reflected in my guests and connected with their stories on a personal level. I saw how they elevated their local bread scenes using locally grown ingredients and supporting (or creating) their local grain economies. This is what ultimately inspired me to take the leap and start my own cottage bakery last year. 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): While northern California has a rich history of sourdough baking at least partially due to the popularity of San Francisco sourdough. What does the sourdough baking community look like in your immediate area? 

Michael: We only recently moved to our new town of Turlock, CA, from San Diego, in 2019. Needless to say, the bread scene was quite different. No more beachfront bakeries like Wayfarer Bread to drop in on after a surf sesh. What we did find was a handful of traditional bakeries, cafes, and bistros but none that specialized in, or carried, artisan style sourdough. Of course when I found a local college girl and her mother selling sourdough at the farmer’s market I immediately introduced myself. I probably overwhelmed them with my enthusiasm and definitely worked my podcast into the conversation (even though I am sure they had never heard of it). A few weeks later they invited us over for dinner and made us sourdough pizza in their ROFCO oven. Since then we’ve remained friends and Annie (Flourish Bread Co.) has even picked up flour for me on her way home from college in Sonoma. Of course, I had to make the pilgrimage 20 mins north to see Bonnie Ohara at her bakery (Alchemy Bread) in Modesto, CA. That’s where I worked up the courage to ask her to be on my podcast. Since then I’ve visited several times and she always has something delicious cooking or baking to share. So, my sourdough community here is small, but like most, it is generous, hospitable, and welcoming.   

Barry (The Brewed Palate): Taking the previous question a bit further, I’ve enjoyed seeing how much you support grain farmers both in Turlock and the state of California. What are some recent experiences that have stood out to you? and What have you found to be unique about California’s grain economy?

Michael: My first experience supporting my local grain economy is one I’ll never forget. I met up with another stay-at-home dad and cottage baker, Justin Gomez (Humble Bakehouse), at Frog Hollow Farms in Brentwood, CA. There we got a tour of their beautiful farm and I bought my first 100lbs of White Sonora wheat. However, finding sources of local wheat (even regional) has not been easy. Most wheat farmers are in Northern or Southern California, not the Central Valley where I live. After a couple years I was finally able to get my hands on some locally grown Yecora Rojo from Adam at T & A Farms. Other than that, my local sources have been few and far between. One thing I find so unique about the California grain economy is it’s history. California’s mediterranean climate makes it ideal for wheat growing wheat. Over 100 years ago, before irrigation was developed, the Central Valley was primarily used to grow wheat and helped make California a leading producer of wheat in the world. Wheat peaked in the 1880s and gave way to dairies and higher margin produce like irrigation dependent nuts and fruit trees. Most large scale mills here now ship in wheat from the midwest. However, I am beyond excited that a local farmer and friend of mine, Jon Eck, will be growing his first wheat crop this year. I even got to participate in the planting! With any luck (and a little rain) I’ll be baking with “hyper” locally grain from Eck Farms this fall. 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): In 2020 you became a cottage baker through the establishment of Mission Bakehouse. If you were to have a mission statement for your bakery, what would it be?

Michael: I love this question. It’s something I really haven’t put down on paper yet but something I have thought a lot about. It would be something like, “At Mission Bakehouse we strive to feed our community by making real bread using naturally leavening and only the best, simple ingredients possible – flour, water, and salt.” 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): As an avid follower of cottage bakers like yourself, I enjoy following each baker’s process of slowly acquiring baking equipment as demand grows. What did your equipment acquisition process look like? 

Michael: As a home baker turned cottage baker, I’ve tried to only buy equipment when I believe it’s needed to get me to the “next step.” This has resulted in a very piecemeal approach. For example, early on, I tried to concoct an elaborate steam creating system, only to learn the most efficient way to trap steam in a home oven is with a dutch oven. I found one on craigslist for $20 and my second one at an estate sale for even less. Similarly with baskets, I’ve acquired a strange collection as I’ve learned what works best for my ever changing needs. I first tried using kitchen towels and cereal bowls. When that ended in sticky disaster too many times, I bought one wicker banneton on Amazon. Then I tried one with linen lining. I bought 15 brotforms from a Germany company after seeing Betsy Gonzalez use them on Instagram. I also have a collection of thrift shop bread baskets! When I bought my ROFCO oven (another Craigslist find, thanks Justin Gomez!) owning one was only a daydream. But someone was selling 2 of them and Bonnie Ohara and I decided to go halfsies on them. It was too good, and too lucky, a deal to pass up. My latest purchase was my Estella 60qt mixer. I researched and messaged with Humble Bakehouse and Lucky Penny Bread for weeks before buying. Like most everything to do with my cottage bakery, my purchases are usually inspired by bakers I admire.    

Barry (The Brewed Palate): How would you describe the learning curve of going from a home baker to a cottage baker?

Michael: I’d say the learning curve can be as steep or as gradual as you want it to be. As a stay at home dad my first priority has always been my kids, so my cottage bakery has always had to fit into that context. No quitting my day job and diving headlong into baking. Slow organic growth is what has worked for my bakery. I started like many by just baking one or two loaves for years. Then one day I doubled the recipe to make 4 loaves. This doubling is always where the biggest challenges presented themselves. More dough meant more chances to make mistakes but also more opportunities to learn and share bread with neighbors. Large masses of dough ferment differently than small ones. More dough means bigger equipment and more physical energy needed to mix, shape, and bake. Soon I was doubling yet again to 16 loaves, then 32! Quantities that seemed unfathomable when I first started. I gave a lot of bread away to neighbors at first. We were in a new town and it was an amazing way to get to know people. Then for many months I bartered bread. I traded for honey, olive oil, homemade wine, oranges, almonds, and eggs. This also extended my “network” of local craftspeople, growers, and artisans – just my kind of people. Finally, by the time I did my research about our county’s cottage food laws and submitted my paperwork, I had an amazing pre-existing customer base from my community excited to support my new endeavor. 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): While I was at first a bit reluctant to follow many of my fellow bakers and create a ‘master’ or ‘base’ recipe, I eventually did so as a way to experiment with different wheat varieties. Do you have a base loaf recipe that you bake regularly as part of your weekly Mission Bakehouse menu? If so, what did its formula’s development process look like?

Michael: For the longest time my main formula was based off of Maurizio Leo’s “my best sourdough recipe” from his blog. I mainly camped out on this recipe, experimenting with hydration levels, types of flour, and other variations, as I learned what type of bread I liked to bake. Another early formula I used was “Pain au Levain with mixed sourdough starters” from Jeffrey Hamelman’s BREAD book. This formula introduced me to the amazing flavor and enzymatic properties of rye. Today, my Mission Sourdough is a fairly common “country loaf” style bread, popular in many cottage bakeries. It is 75% bread flour, 20% fresh milled whole wheat, and 5% rye, and around 80% hydration. One thing that makes every bakery unique is the ingredients it uses. I like to use locally grown grain whenever possible. White Sonora from Frog Hollow Farm is my favorite. I mill the wheat in-house just moments before I use it. I use sea salt harvested from San Francisco Bay. I’d like to say I’ve finally arrived at my final formula but I am on a constant journey of tweeking and modifying in hopes of baking better bread. 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): While things like chasing Instagram worthy high hydration-open crumb loaves can be both fun and a sign of baking achievement. If I were to pick one factor that has kept my sourdough baking exciting it would be having the ability to mill my own flour and cornmeal at home. In your case, I saw that not only have have you been home-milling California grown grains and helping out at local farms, but you’ve planted wheat in your own backyard. What do you enjoy most about baking with freshly milled flour? and What steps did you need to take in order to start growing your own wheat?

Michael: There is just something about the smell, feel, and taste of freshly milled grain that changes the way someone thinks about bread. It reminds me of when I toured a coffee farm in Guatemala. Experiencing the raw bean being processed from start to finish with my 5 senses, I learned to pick up the different smells and flavors in the final product that I wouldn’t have recognized otherwise. It’s the same with wheat milling. Holding warm whole grain flour in your hand, seconds after being milled, allows you to experience flour in a completely different way than from a bag that’s been on a store shelf for weeks. You’ll start to pick up on smells and flavors you never noticed before. 

Growing your own wheat merely expands your experience and understanding of using fresh flour even further. It didn’t take much research on my part – just some elbow grease. I found a small 10×10′ plot in my backyard and tilled it manually with a shovel. I added a couple bags of compost, mixed it in, and delineated my crow rows. I googled how much grain to use per square foot and hand sowed the seeds (only about a cup’s worth). I made sure to time the planting right after the first good rain of our winter wet season and pretty much left it alone until harvest in late summer. I harvested just over 5 pounds of wheat. Not a lot ,but a fun project nonetheless! I highly recommend trying it out.  

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

Michael: The act of eating, sharing, and making bread is a very spiritual exercise for me. In the book of John, Jesus identifies himself as “living bread” and the religious symbolism of life, death, and rebirth experienced in the making of sourdough are not lost on me. There is a great TED talk given by Peter Reinhart in which he talks about the process of bread making. He first describes the process literally, and then poetically, evoking the symbolism in the cycles of life and death of wheat and microorganisms as the baker guides their path to becoming bread. Listening to that talk as a Christian, I couldn’t help but hear echoes of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. It makes sense why Jesus used bread over and over as a metaphor. And of course the bread they would have been making 2000 years ago would have been naturally leavened. There are also the communal aspects of bread – the symbolism of bread in the last supper and breaking of bread during communion. These are all aspects of “living bread” that I meditate on while making and sharing my bread. 

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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