When describing one’s desire to never stop learning about the art of sourdough bread baking terms like journey, adventure, and quest are often used. Each of them meaning something different to each individual baker based on how he or she goes about learning new baking skills and harnessing what drives their unique passion for sourdough baking. For example, I often describe my baking as a journey because my passion is driven by things like experimentation, ingredient research, and learning from fellow bakers that I meet as a result of sharing my baking experiences with the worldwise sourdough community. This week’s featured baker has chosen the term “quest” to describe his pursuit of sourdough knowledge and quality baking experiences. In its simplest form, a quest can be defined as “an act or instance of seeking” (Merriam Webster dictionary). In my opinion this definition may be a bit too general because while one can go on a quest to seek something for him or herself. A quest can take on a much deeper meaning when it is carried out on behalf of others.
More specifically, Karl De Smedt aka the sourdough librarian has dedicated himself to ensuring the future of sourdough baking and constantly learning more about each sourdough culture’s story and capabilities through his “Quest for Sourdough” and research at the Puratos World Heritage Sourdough Library. After interviewing him I excitedly and sincerely shared the following on Instagram . “One factor that I’ve cherished over my years as a blogger is that while I’ve never amassed a sizeable amount of followers etc, I’ve been able to meet and interview quite a few individuals who inspire me on many different levels. This morning I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing one such individual, Karl De Smidt aka @the_sourdough_librarian. I found out that he is as much of a fermentation enthusiast as I am and values what it means to live a life that is defined by all that goes into truly “living food” and “living bread.” In other words, I found his passion, wealth of knowledge, and genuine personality to be inspiring, enlightening, and relateable on many levels.
So without further ado, it is may honor to present to you, Karl De Smedt of the Puratos World Heritage Sourdough Library.
The following topics were discussed during the course of this interview(podcast episode):
0:00-1:48 – Episode Intro – including one of the historical facts that I learned during this interview that blew my mind.
1:49-3:06 – Karl’s baking background before and after joining Puratos.
3:07-6:18 – History of the Puratos World Heritage Sourdough Library and its primary goals.
6:19-9:50 – Do sourdough starters in the Sourdough Library stay true to their original cultures and characteristics? and Plans to investigate this by revisiting their original sources.
9:51-12:00 – Lambic (wild) beer fermentation in Belgium – the unique wild yeast and bacteria present in each brewery and its surrounding area.
12:01-14:09 – Notable discoveries made so far at the Sourdough Library.
14:10-15:43 – Unique properties of lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, a lactic acid bacteria that was originally found in San Fransisco, but was later found in sourdough cultures all over the world.
15:44-17:53 – What Karl has gained from interacting with fellow bakers while on his “Quest for Sourdough.”
17:54-21:16 – An outsider’s view on the prevalance and history of sourdough in the United States versus that of European countries.
21:17-23:07 – Were classic French and Italian breads originally made with sourdough?
23:08-26:53- Why countries with histories of baking rye breads have longer stretches of uninterrupted years of sourdough being their primary bread leavening agent? and The science of baking an evenly baked loaf of German sourdough rye bread.
26:54-29:06 – What effects does rye flour truly have on sourdough starters that are not performing (fermenting) as expected?
29:08-31:20 – Sourdough culture in Belgium and its relation to well known American sourdough bakers.
31:21-33:20 – Countries that bake using sourdough, but purposely avoid sourness in their breads. Also, Karl’s experiences with sourdough in China and Japan.
33:21-35:26 – Notable friendships that Karl has formed since officially launching his “quest for sourdough.”
35:27-40:52 – Karl’s perspective on the terms “living bread” and “living food” and how it relates to the history of bread and fermentation. – What came first beer or bread?
40:53-43:21 – What’s being worked on now at the Sourdough Library? and What are some future plans for experiments (sourdough culture analysis)?
43:22-44:56 – The scientific study of sourdough’s effects on grain digestibility at the University of Bozen/Bolzano in Italy using starters from the library.
44:57-47:08 – Getting in touch with Karl and keeping up with the Sourdough Library’s activities…What are the benefits of registering your sourdough starter on questforsourdough.com?
Admittedly, I have yet to decide where I stand on the definition of sourdough starter discard and creating opportunities where one would end up with it. However, in my quest to use my discard to learn more about both its potential and different flour combinations, I’ve enjoyed a number of successful baking experiments. My most recent one began on December 16, 2020, when I found some 6 day old discard in my fridge and asked myself the following question. Can I make rolls with the same appearance, texture, and flavor of full sized loaves?
After three recipes iterations and a successful bake by my baking buddy Melissa Johnson, I’m quite certain that the answer to this question is a resounding yes.
Recipe Parameters: In line with many sourdough roll recipes I kept recipe iterations in this experiment between 65 and 70% hydration, included 22% all-purpose flour for a lighter crumb texture, and made sure each roll weighed no more than 220g prior to baking. Next, as with the majority of my full sized loaf recipes, I used between 18 and 20% starter so that bulk fermentation would progress at a similar rate until preshaping. Lastly, as in many roll and loaf recipes, I added extra virgin olive oil in the second and third iterations of this experiment to create a soft crumb texture.
Techniques use: With an enriched dough being defined in this case as a dough that has had butter and or sugar added to it. All dough preparation techniques used in this experiment were the same as any non-enriched sourdough until pre-shaping. Though I will note that one December 16th, I preshaped each roll’s dough like I would a full loaf, but changed coarse when shaping iterations 2 (December 17th) and 3 (December 31st) and pre and final shaped my dough segments the same way (cupped hands rotating and pulling the dough to create tension).
When it came to proofing I used both 8 and 16oz plastic take out containers (see photo) to help each roll retain its shape while proofing in the fridge over night. (see below for alternative proofing vessels)
Baking the rolls went much like baking full sized loaves. I used both my Lodge combo cooker and Challenger Breadware bread pan to bake four rolls at a time. However, baking on a baking stone or steel with a tray of hot water below for steam would work as well. Lastly, for aesthetics I misted each rolls after scoring to achieve a blistery and crispy crust.
130g Turkey Red Flour (freshly milled berries) or another hard red wheat flour – 14.3%
135g Whole Rye Flour – 14.8%
610g Water – 70% total dough hydration
21g Salt – 2%
22g Extra Virgin Olive Oil – 2.2%
Mix flours and salt then incorporate the sourdough starter discard, water, and olive oil. Cover and rest for 30 minutes.
During the first 2.5 hours of bulk fermentation perform 3 sets of stretch and folds. My bulk fermentation lasted just over 5.5 hours as 72F ( I used an infrared thermometer to measure the temp of the dough’s surface).
Once bulk fermentation is finished, transfer your dough onto a clean counter or large cutting board and divide into eight 210-215g portions.
Preshape each portion into a ball can be done to ways: A) by folding in the edges (like you would during a set of stretch and folds), flipping it over and rolling it tight with a cupped hand. B) Use your bowl or bench scraper to round the dough into a rough round and then use a cupped hand to roll it tight. Cover with a clean dish towel and let rest for 20 minutes.
To final shape: Flour your hands to prevent them from sticking to the dough and once again roll each dough ball with a cupped hand to develop surface tension. Then transfer to a 8 or 16oz bowl or round plastic deli take out container that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Note: Small bowls or a baker’s couche (proofing clothe) can be substituted if needed.
Cover with plastic wrap or quart sized Ziploc bag and proof overnight in the refrigerator (12-15 hours).
Preheat over to 475F with a dutch oven (e.g. Challenger Bread Pan), baking stone, or baking steel (see techniques above) for 45-60 minutes.
Dust the bottom of each roll with rice flour and transfer onto parchment paper, score, mist with water.
Bake covered (with steam) at 475F for 20 minutes and then uncovered at 450F for 12-14 minutes i.e. until desired color is reached.
Editing this week’s interview gave me a new appreciation for the steps that I’ve taken while pursuing my passions for cooking, baking, and brewing. Therefore, before introducing this week’s featured baker I’d like to share some hopefully relateable quotes about what it means to follow one’s passion/s. “Passion (n): intense, driving, or overmastering feeling or conviction.” “Following your passion means exploring areas that spark your interest, developing your skills in a specific area, and using those skills to contribute to something beyond yourself.”… “passions are developed, not simply found” – Steve Rose, Phd. As Cal Newport said “Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.” Furthermore, “I think that people that are really successful or people that are really good at what they do are genuinely obsessed, passionate, and into it” and “I’m lucky that my passion is something that everyone has in common, we all eat.” – Chef Matt Duffy
Following over a decade of working as a professionally trained chef, Matt Duffy left the restaurant kitchen to pursue his passion for baking. Doing so by finding and then working with well known bakers around the world, reading a multitude of books, and viewing his baking as a never-ending journey of learning. His hard work and passion have in recent years evolved into his current focus on teaching both future professional bakers and current home bakers through the courses he teaches as the Centennial College’s baking and pastry arts management program and the online courses and webinars that he offers through his website and Instagram feed (links below). Admittedly, I was initially drawn to his baking after seeing pictures of his pizzas and loaves challah bread. However, after conducting and editing this interview, I am looking forward to following all of his baking pursuits more closely.
So without further ado, it is my honor to present to you Chef Matt Duffy
The following topics were discussed during the course of this interview(podcast episode):
0:00-1:37 – Episode Introduction
1:38-4:01 – Matt’s transition from working as a professionally trained chef to being a full-time baker.
4:02-6:27 – Matt’s current sources of baking inspiration.
6:28-9:10 – Sourdough baking in Canada (with a focus on Toronto): Sourcing grains, bakeries, and recent growth.
9:11-13:41 – Professor Matt: how he got into teaching and what bread related skills are taught at the baking and pastry arts management program that he coordinates at Centennial College in Toronto.
13:42-15:44 – What to look out for when working with and then baking naturally leavened sweet doughs.
15:45-18:14 – Tips for making sourdough pizza.
18:15-22:14 – Matt’s goals for his first cookbook.
22:15-25:23 – What role sourdough baking should play in the kitchen of both an avid home-cook and professionally trained chef.
25:24-27:41 – What makes baking an ideal passion to share with one’s children.
27:41-34:36 – The meaning of “living bread”: How Matt currently maintains his sourdough starter and uses recipes as guides despite what is written in sourdough books and presented in YouTube videos and online recipe articles.
34:37-36:14 – Matt’s tips for beginner sourdough bakers.
36:15-37:08 – Closing remarks and Outro. Follow Matt’s baking via his website and on Instagram.
During a year when the world has been in a state of mental and physical upheaval, sourdough baking has become a therapeutic hobby and outlet for thousands of men and women all over the world. While the social media community surrounding it existed prior to the onset of the pandemic; both new and experienced sourdough bakers chose to share their baking journeys via social media as a result of other forms of engagement being limited. Facebook groups grew in size, Instagram accounts were created, and YouTube channels were both started and/or inundated with views. Not only has this allowed bakers to hone their baking skills quicker; it has also given them a glimpse at how much every aspect of sourdough baking can increase one’s quality of life and appreciation for what it takes to produce truly healthy food.
Having come to sourdough baking with a background of culinary and fermentation related hobbies. Good quality ingredients and community have always been quite integral to the growth of my knowledge and passions. Being that I was already an avid Youtube viewer, I went there first immediately after creating my starter. One channel that I found was created by a duo of bakery owners who happen to be this week’s featured bakers. From the start of their channel and simultaneously my personal sourdough journey, I have found Jon and Amanda’s videos to be full of inspiring, honest, and caring dedication to the artistic, agricultural, and community elements of sourdough baking. With the unexpected yet fast approaching build out of their new commercial bakery looming as 2020 comes to an end, I was quite excited when I recieved their answers to my interview questions when I did.
So without further ado, it is my honor to present to you Jon and Amanda of Proof Bread.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Before we get into question about your bakery, I’d like to start with a couple questions about both of you. Firstly, what role did baking play in your lives prior to opening Proof? (e.g. baking with your family, a way to de-stress, and/or a way to get in touch with the food that you were eating)
Amanda: Honestly, nothing. In fact, I was very anti-baking. I was more accustomed to cooking on the fly and thought baking, in all of its science and accuracy, was too restrictive and tedious. Baking sourdough was a whole new world for me, and I found it to be much more intuitive than baking something like a cake. I’m drawn to whimsy and this was like magic.
Jon: Food preparation has always been an important part of my life. I grew up in an immigrant household that enjoyed home cooked meals. My parents retired back home to Poland after 30 years in Chicago. On visits to Poland we would buy huge sourdough miches, and enjoy fresh butter with butter. Amanda and I sought out similar bread here in Arizona, and found Proof when it was with its founder, Jared Allen. It was a one market bakery, but we happened to go to that market weekly, and Proof was a Saturday ritual. When I learned the original founder was moving away, I felt a strong calling to take the baton and continue Proof.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Next, what inspires you to wake up in the morning and bake the best artisan bread and pastries that you can for your community and family?
Amanda: For me, it’s how much people love it. It’s very satisfying to watch the joy on people’s faces when they find and taste fresh bread. So many of these breads are connected with fond memories (who doesn’t love eating bread!?), and it’s motivating to know that I had a part in manufacturing that happiness. Secondly, I find sourdough to be more than just baking bread. It’s a statement. It’s a rejection of many modern conveniences in exchange for skills. It’s a curbing of the individual in favor of community. It’s a forced slow down, a protest of our society’s constant pressure of rush. If done right, there’s revolution in bread.
Jon: In the beginnings of our sudden dive into sourdough, I was fueled by the joy our customers were expressing to me every Saturday as we exchanged our sleepless night’s work for their overwhelming excitement, gratitude and joy. Then, as I became more connected with the rhythms of being a bread baker, I grew addicted to the management of all the variables. I find deep satisfaction in the incremental improvement of formulas, tastes, processes, spaces, and experiences.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): One lesson that I’ve learned from watching your amazing YouTube videos is that workflow optimization can be applied to every aspect of one’s baking no matter what level they’re baking at. How has your view of this important strategy evolved along with the steady growth of Proof Bread?
Amanda: It’s essential. Without a focus on workflow management and optimization, our world would be run by Harriet (our starter) and not the other way around. It’s an important component to achieving a semblance of balance and profitability.
Jon: Its perhaps the single most important lesson I would pass to someone else trying to head down a similar path. Question every process, every timing. Run experiments without ceasing. There are incredible strides to make where you may least expect them. Optimizing workflow declutters your mind as you bake, and allows you to gain a stronger relationship with your doughs.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): In your opinion, would you say that your choice to be a 100% sourdough bakery provides you and your team with additional inspiration to be as in touch as possible with the ingredients that you work with and those who produce them?
Amanda: Yes, and no. I think that was more something instilled within us as children, which has permeated our daily lives and therefore our community culture at Proof. Both Jon and I are first-generation Americans. We grew up with the heavy influence of our native cultures, both of which are heavily tied to agriculture, old world traditions, and general resourcefulness.
Jon: Taking care of a sourdough starter so that it is viable and consistent enough to make a wide range of items requires a study of fermentation daily. The constraint of sourdough requires our team to be more in touch with the fine details of temperature and time. Sourdough baking is after all less forgiving on the whole. Small mistakes can lead to devastating results. I believe the choice to remain a sourdough only bonds our crew together and with Harriet. I believe that as a result of the desire to make the best breads, we also care to be as in touch with the ingredients as we can be. Our breads after all are the ingredients they are made of.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): After watching your recent videos at your local mill, I became even more curious about your custom flour blend. Can you describe the process that led you to finalizing the blend that you use nowadays? Furthermore, would you recommend that home bakers work towards creating their own unique blend of flours that they can use for a variety of loaves?
Jon: Our custom flour blend is a template, more than anything else. A signature flavor wheat. Of the locally grown wheat, much are heritage grains like White Sonora, or Blue Beard Durum. We wanted to offer a flavor profile in our bread that is unique to our region. Now, when I play with new formulas I often blend our custom blend as a base, and then add other grains or flour types in for desired effect. We came up with that particular blend based in large part on dough strength, the quality of the dough development, and ultimately taste. In the beginning we trialed all types of ratios of various flours from our local stone mill, until a particular formula stood out.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): When a sourdough baker enters the world of pastry, the croissant is often the first pastry that he or she attempts to bake. What are 3 tips that you would give to sourdough bakers attempting to prepare and bake sourdough croissants for the first time?
Jon: 1. Warm, humid, long final proof above all else 2. Refrigerate your dough in sheets before lamination, 3. Laminate with the butter at +/- 3 degrees of 60F.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Going beyond croissants, can you describe your sourdough pastry recipe development process?
Jon: We have been pretty constrained by cottage food laws in the types of pastries we can pursue, and so variations of croissant dough have been an intense focus. Sourdough offers a more neutral pastry dough, which can pair with either sweet or savory. As a result, our pastry development program has been a continual variation of the sourdough croissant dough base. We are making good headway in sweet breads these days. An enriched sourdough, that can be used in a number of variations to create different types of dessert sourdough breads. As we move to a brick and mortar we will be able to expand our methods of recipe development beyond the constraints of cottage food laws.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): As a bakery who values bread scoring as a form of artistic expression, what are 3 tips that you’d give to bakers who are looking to improve their decorative and functional scoring skills?
Amanda: 1) Practice your functional scoring before getting too creative. Everything is connected. The more you practice your hand at the basics, the better understanding you will gain for your more complex scoring. Bonus tip: cut at an angle under the skin to get a “lip” to help your ear.
2) Use a sharp blade. Just like in the kitchen, a dull blade doesn’t get you very far. Dull blades will cause you to drag the dough potentially misshaping your loaf or design. A sharp blade will help even the most inexperienced baker.
3) Observe. Observe everything. To me, scoring is a form of meditation. It’s the moment to reconnect with your dough. Each loaf will be different (this is the fun of sourdough), so notice how it feels, how it reacts to your blade when you cut it this way or that, etc.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): With so many sourdough bakers opening cottage bakeries nowadays, 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?
Amanda: Define your motivation and write it down. It’s not easy to run your own business. The days ahead will be long and hard, and you will need the reminder from time to time. Also, figure out how to keep the things you love in tact. For us, we dived in head first, and may have hit our heads a couple times at the bottom. I can fully admit I had a few meltdowns that could have been avoided if we spent more time doing other things we loved. Don’t forget that life is about BALANCE!
Jon: Build a customer community of your own. Wholesale is a tempting way to build volume, but I found it to be very difficult in the beginning, when we didn’t have the business infrastructure to cut product costs sustainably, nor the logistics capabilities to run deliveries on wholesale timelines. If you can work with a Farmer’s Market, it really is an excellent way to grow your own community.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Though your need to start the process of transitioning from being a cottage to a commercial bakery began under less than ideal circumstances. What are some goals that you hope to accomplish once you’ve settled into your new location? and How can the sourdough baking community help you accomplish them?
Amanda: Operating under AZ Cottage Law in our home restricts us from using or making certain fillings, so I look forward to the opportunity to showcase and experiment with a wider variety of ingredients. It will also be fun mingling with our community on a more regular basis. I anticipate warm conversations with regular or frequent visitors that become friends. I hope that we can create the type of environment that will inspire creativity and encourage community (and in a post-pandemic world, actual gatherings). In high school, I enjoyed literature, and was always fascinated by the stories behind the novels. Where the authors would write, who knew who, where they’d go gather. I’m hoping to create something classy, lounge-y, but also comfortable, and still whimsical. A smart, industrial, warm and inspiring place to hang out, work, meet with friends, etc. The community can help by visiting us!! ❤ We can’t wait to get to know more and more other bread heads! Lastly, I’ll say that we hope that once this is set up, Jon and I will get a bit of a break, maybe sneak in a few travels before jumping into offering some breaducation, classes and workshops.
Jon: While our current bakery build out is happening earlier than I wanted, it is also serendipitously falling into place. We are in love with the new location in the heart of Downtown Mesa. The historic building has plenty of charm, and no shortage of opportunity. Our most significant goal is to invest in our team. This bakery can no longer be sustained only by us, so we are on a mission to create the best team we can. Visits, feedback, and idea sharing are all great ways to engage us as we enter some of the more challenging chapters of our development. When things settle down, perhaps Amanda and I can visit some bakeries too.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): One topic that is often discussed within the sourdough baking community is gluten intolerance. What do you feel are major factors that contribute to the prevalence of gluten intolerance nowadays? and How do you explain the higher digestibility of sourdough bread to your customers?
Amanda: That’s a good question. Jon can probably explain more scientifically, but I truly feel that a lot of the food allergies that we’ve been experiencing as a growing humanity have emerged as the variety of our food supply homogenizes. I find myself often thinking about survival. How did the first humans live? What and how did they eat? I learned yesterday that the first supermarkets popped up around the 1940s. That’s such a short time ago if you think about it. Before that, how did we get our food? We grew it in our backyards and we shared it with our communities. If it was grown, it was grown for sustenance instead of profit. Motivation aligned with health. Survival. With such a connection to the source, I think it would be so hard to find as many picky kids. I feel so lucky to have grown up on a Lebanese diet. We eat things most people would discard as weeds. Haha. I remember my aunt harvesting wild mint or purslane from her back alley. In hindsight, people may have thought she was crazy, but this is the resourcefulness example with which I grew up. We eat what the land provides, and in return we’re granted nutrition, health, and viability. It was sustainable. Now, as we destroy our biodiversity in favor of monocultures or cow lots, we shun this basic principle. It’s like if you are a kid, and you get a new toy and thrash it about, how long will you really have that toy? Or how well will it function for you? That’s what we’re doing to our Earth, and we’re part of that, so what are we really doing to ourselves?? These intolerances are a BIG sign, and we shouldn’t be ignoring that. Obviously, I don’t have time to rant all of this to customers at a farmer’s market, haha, so I just tell people that sourdough has many health benefits because it’s done in a slow way, allowing beneficial bacteria to break down the harmful factors that contribute to gluten intolerances. And that allergies are a different thing altogether.
True story. I cut out cheese for a while because I thought maybe dairy was giving me digestion issues, but my whole life changed when I ate a grilled cheese on our sourdough and I didn’t bloat! It was the BREAD all this time (sorry cheese)!!!!
Jon: Recently, I looked up the simple definition of the word “fermentation”. Oxford defines it as “the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms”. A baking process that is sourdough only is a baking process that requires lengthy enough fermentation in wheat to fundamentally change its digestibility. From the toughness of the gluten itself, to the anti-nutrients such as phytates lurking in whole wheat, fermentation changes the bread eating experience. Bakers yeast is so concentrated, that fermentation is clipped. Bread has been harder on our diets since modern times, as more and more bread was made fast. To piggy back on Amanda, we ought to get to know what we are eating. If it requires fermentation to be more nutritious, so be it. Time shouldn’t be a factor.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Sourdough bread is often called “living bread.” What do the terms “living bread” and “living food” mean to you?
Amanda: Living food is food that contributes to life. It’s sustenance. It’s nutrition. It’s something that actually serves your body. To paraphrase Joel Salatin, if it doesn’t decompose (which is totally natural and part of the circle of life), I don’t wanna eat it!
Jon: Simply that we work with elements of nature in the production of our product. Fermentation is a natural process that we are using to alter a prolific human staple crop. It is amazing really that the breakdown of a portion of wheat is what leads to a process that allows for the alteration of the rest into something that can make a species thrive.
“I found myself dreaming about bread” and in turn ” I(‘ve) spent years learning and digging into what at the time was very scattered and sometimes well protected knowledge and as a result my baking (has) improved and at some point the world noticed and I started gaining attention and flown around the world to several gatherings to teach and to lecture and its been a crazy adventure that started as a catch me if you can with a bit of impos(t)er syndrome…but I just went with it and and realized eventually that I did have something to offer the baking world…”
When I began my sourdough baking journey this past April and looked to bakers on Instagram for inspiration, this week’s featured baker and his artful, educated, and passionate approach stood out almost right away. Beyond his perfectly lit bread photos and inspiring ability to incorporate unique ingredients into his loaves, Guy Frenkel’s multifacted approach to continuously learning about both the hands-on and natural processes involved in sourdough baking became increasingly relatable. As I developed my own multifaceted approach to sourdough baking, I closely followed his baking activites, read and listened to interviews he gave to other bloggers, and viewed his instructional presentations. Therefore, once I started this series, I knew that I had to get in touch with him and find time for an interview that would capture what makes his approach inspiring to me and sourdough bakers around the world.
So without further ado, it is my honor to present to you Guy Frenkel of Céor Bread.
The following topics were discussed during the course of this interview(podcast episode):
0:00-1:02 – Episode Introduction
1:03-3:47 – The beginnings and subsquent evolution of Guy’s baking and involvement in the worldwide sourdough baking community.
3:48-6:56 – The “home baker advantage” – Are home bakers limited when it comes to the level of bread baking they can achieve in a home kitchen?
6:57-11:04 – Adapting the artistic principles of Bread Couture to the large scale production format of Céor’s new sourdough baking factory.
11:05-14:10 – Defining “artisan bread” in terms bread baking being both being an art and a craft. Going beyond the classics and celebrating local and seasonal ingredients, the unique creative expressive of each baker, and opportunities for growth.
14:11-17:09 Viewing bread through a cuilinary lens. Bread as the main attraction rather than “the canvas on which other creations are being painted.” and as something to bring to a meal instead of an expensive bottle of wine. Deconstructing and then adapting your favorite restaurant dishes with your local farmers market and imagination being your only limitations.
17:10-21:10 – Guy’s experiences with fellow bakers all over the world. Developing long lasting friendships full of shared learning experiences along the way rather than just accumulating contacts.
21:11-25:07 – Past and present artisan sourdough baking in Israel.
25:08-28:30 – Understanding fermentation beyond “you add a leavening agent and it makes the thing (dough) rise.” Researching the unknowns of sourdough fermentation through the lens of other types of fermentation such as beer brewing and its focus on style specific yeast strains.
28:31-31:08 – Do sourdough cultures change their yeast and bacteria composition when moved to a new location?
31:09-33:51 – Stone milling as part of Guy’s baking philosophy and practices.
33:52-40:18 – What do the terms “living bread” and “living bread” mean to you (Guy)? An in depth discussion of the triggers of the growth of the sourdough baking movement. Followed by a look into the history of sourdough bread and fermentation in general. Including how they changed with the discoveries of Louis Pasteur.
40:19-43:15 What you should know about the planned opening of the Céor bread factory and the Cast Your Bread charity baking movement.
A major theme or should I say mission of many of the inspirational individuals that I’ve interviewed in recent months is their dedication to restoring their state and region’s grainshed (grain economy). This week’s featured sourdough baking community member has teamed up with local farmers and researchers to work on bringing high quality grain cultivation and milling back to New Jersey and its surrounding states. However, before introducing him I’ve decided to share the following article excerpt as means of sharing a piece of the rich agricultural history of the northeastern US.
“Grist mills constructed in the early 1600’s to grind corn and wheat to make flour for the early English settlers of coastal areas. Two words in this sentience reveal was the mill was constructed to do. These words are: corn and flour. To English speaking people of the 1600’s and 1700’s a corn mill means a mill that grinds corn and makes flour. Corn is the English generic word for grain. More specifically meaning a mill that grinds wheat, rye, oats, and or barley into flour and meal. The common American word “corn” meaning maize the English and Puritan settlers would have called it maize and not used the word corn. In America the English use of the word corn did not change until the War of 1812, when the people of the United States wanted to separate themselves from England.
Wheat was grown in New England primarily along coastal areas. The rocky soil and climate of New England never made New England a large wheat growing center. Wheat was a more important crop in the areas of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia. Early milling centers of America was New York (first by the Dutch and then later because of Rochester and the Erie Canal), Wilmington (along the Brandywine River), Baltimore (along the Patapsco River), Georgetown (along the C & O Canal), Richmond (on the James River and the Kanawha Canal). Then after the Civil War the wheat growing areas sifted to the Midwest. The Mennonites brought hard wheat from the Ukraine and the milling methods changed, places like Minneapolis (the largest ever in the world) became milling centers.” (full article).
In 2016, after meeting with local grain farmers and researchers Mike Hozer, Len Bussanich, and Larry Mahmarian formed River Valley Community Grains with the mission of “re-imagining local grain production through the lens of collaborative and regenerative agriculture.” Since then they have continued working with local agronomists and farmers to grow high quality seasonal wheat, oat, and rye varietals. In addition, they also mill, process, and sell whole berries, flours, rolled oats using grains grown and harvested by the farmers that they work with. So far I’ve baked with their hard red spring wheat and einkorn flours and can attest to their amazing flavor and great baking properties (gluten strength, great final crumb textures, etc).
So without further ado, I present to you Len Bussanich of River Valley Community Grains.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): To start, I found the River Valley Community Grains story to be quite inspiring. However, I’d like to hear more about how you’re currently operating. What do daily operations look like? and What’s the breakdown of the River Valley team?
Len: As we are a start-up, we currently are not doing this full-time but that is the goal. My colleagues, Mike Hozer, Larry Mahmarian, and I work full-time day jobs. We operate one night a week, Tuesday evenings, at the Red Barn Kitchen Incubator where we mill flour and roll oats. On the weekends you can find us at various farmer markets, such as Morristown, Bedminster and Ramsey.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): What do you find to be most unique about cultivating, sourcing, and milling high quality grains in New Jersey and its surrounding states?
Len: We are working with several landowners/farmers in New Jersey who are planting and harvesting the grain while River Valley focuses on the infrastructure and the marketing. Being present at farmer’s markets has shown that there is consumer demand for local and healthy grains. New Jersey was once a significant producer of flour as attested by the multitude of dormant stone mills scattered across the state. There are quite a few streets in NJ called Mill Street and there is also the town of Millstone and the Millstone River. Inspired by history, we are striving to reintroduce local and healthy grains for human consumption in NJ.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Beyond the grains themselves, I’ve found that relationships between farmers, millers, and bakers represent an integral part of telling the story of what goes into a loaf of artisan bread. What have you gained from your relationships with the farmers that you source grains from and the bakers who bake with your flours?
Len: Part of our mission statement speaks directly to this and we agree that it is absolutely an integral part in telling the story. We learned a great deal about this in Amy Halloran’s, The New Bread Basket, and we hope to replicate it here in NJ. Several bakers have mentioned they love how the grain is procured from a single source and their customers love the taste and flavor.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Due to the dominance of commodity wheat, many farmers feel incentivized to grow it instead of natural and organic varietals. What does your process of making sure that the farmers you work with are paid fairly for the hard work that they put into cultivating high quality grains look like?
Len: We are still in the process of working through these dynamics; however we recognize the need that it has to work for the farmers in order for this to be successful. We believe farmers can make more in the local markets as opposed to the commodity markets. It does require a paradigm shift. Earlier this year we attended the first gathering of the Northeast Grainshed Symposium in Canton, MA. Farmer Thor Oeschner made a poignant remark when he said that farming is a backwards business because the farmer only receives 12 cents on the dollar. A paradigm shift is certainly needed.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): I’ll have to admit that when we first started messaging each other on Instagram I was surprised that there is a New Jersey based mill. What do you enjoy most about interacting with home bakers and millers via social media?
Len: I love the interaction and engagement on social media, telling our story and sharing bakers’ stories of the breads and other items they’ve made with the grains we’ve supplied. It’s exciting and fun!
Barry (The Brewed Palate): One exciting part of the continuous learning process that sourdough bakers experience is learning that there is more to flour than just buying a bag off the grocery store shelf. As someone who has an intimate relationship with the flour production process, how do you approach learning about the grains that you work with?
Len: We learn a great deal from bakers, both home and commercial, about their experiences with the flour. Especially at farmers markets, we engage directly with consumers. Some like higher protein levels, while others prefer lower protein. For instance, one of the first crops we marketed was a hard red winter wheat, warthog. Winter wheat tends to have a lower protein content than Hard Red Spring. The warthog was harvested at Ruthie’s Farm (Ruthie Perretti, owner of Ruthie’s Pizza & BBQ in Montclair) in 2019 and the protein content was 11.1%. This year, Ruthie’s farmer harvested Hard Red Spring, a lower yield but the protein content is at 13.6%. Also, some bakers have their own mill so they prefer to purchase the raw grain itself, grain berries.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Of all of the wheat varietals that you’ve come across, what are some that surprised you upon milling and then baking with them?
Len: We’ve noticed there’s quite a bit of difference in throughput when milling a hard red wheat compared to an ancient grain such as einkorn. Milling einkorn has a higher throughput than milling a hard red such as a winter (warthog variety) or spring (bolles variety).
Barry (The Brewed Palate): How would you describe the differences between natural and organically grown grains?
Len: We are hoping to encourage farmers to use a regenerative agricultural approach to growing grains, essentially a non-chemical-based approach to growing grains. We’ve relied extensively on the advice and guidance of agronomist Dr. Elizabeth Dyck, founder of Organic Growers Research Information-Sharing Network. She recommends farmers use cover crops instead of pesticides to minimize Canadian thistle weed pressures here in NJ. Some of our grains are certified organic while others are organically grown, they just don’t have the official certification so the difference really is minimal. Customers at farmer markets are satisfied that the grains we offer are organically grown.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): How often do you get a chance to bake bread? What types of bread do you bake most often?
Len: Unfortunately, I don’t really bake. I’m too busy milling and processing.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Sourdough bread is often called “living bread.” What do the terms “living bread” and “living food” mean to you?
Len: I think it speaks directly to the part of our mission statement about nutrient-dense flour, bread and cereals. And it all starts with healthy soil, which then translates to healthy grains, healthy flour and breads!
Background: The events leading up to receiving my Mockmill 100 Professional home grain-mill brought together my passion for learning as much as I can about every ingredient that I cook and bake with and my drive to meet and get to know as many sourdough baking community members as possible. In the beginning of August, shortly after sending Hannah Dela Cruz of Make It Dough questions for her Meet the Baker Behind the Loaves interview, I remembered reading an article on her blog where she mentioned a conversation that she had with someone from Wolfgang Mock Companies (aka Mockmill) and asked for his contact information. Since first emailing Paul Lebeau, managing director at Wolfgang Mock Companies (GmbH), has been both a baking role model and great friend. After posting his Meet the Baker Behind the Loaves interview, my interest in acquiring a Mockmill of my own intensified and a conversation about Mockmill and Breadtopia (Mockmill’s US partner) becoming sponsors of The Brewed Palate began. To make the rest of this story short, after some delays Paul decided to look for and send me a Mockmill to review and take my home-baking to the next level. Suprisingly, on September 29th, one day after being shipped from Germany, I received my Mockmill 100 Professional.
Initial Setup: As shown in the video above, set up was quite easy. After unboxing it and clearing off a space on my kitchen counter, I proceeded to unscrew the upper portion (hopper) of the mill in order to get a look at the mill stones and check whether stabilizers were present to protect them during transit (there weren’t any). After seeing that the internals looked good, I put the hopper back on and set the mill to grind setting number 6 in order to mill my first handfuls of grain. Doing so served two purposes, first to clear the stones of any debris and residue from the manufacturing process and then to make sure that the flour was of even consistency. I chose to mill two handfuls of emmer (Farro) and was delighted to see that my new Mockmill was working well and producing consistent whole grain flour.
Learning curve: Due to the ease of adjusting grind size with this model (compared to the base Mockmill 100), the only curve that I’ve had to get over was with milling legumes such as chickpeas which are larger and therefore don’t descend from the hopper to the millstones as quickly or smoothly as whole grain berries do. However, further discussions with Paul and Breadtopia‘s Melissa Johnson helped me figure out which grind size (mill gap setting) to use for the various grains, corn, and legumes that I’ve been working with.
Overall thoughts: I purposely waited until now i.e. a little over a month into using my Mockmill 100 Professional to write this article. Doing so in order to experience as many of the benefits of being able to mill fresh flour at home as possible and collect my initial thoughts. In terms of texture and flavor, I’ve definitely noticed improvements in my loaves when using as little as 20% and up to almost 100% freshly milled flour (see video above). Process-wise, I’ve recently started preparing my flour blends the night before I plan to use them for my next loaves and when using fresh flour I store them in my refrigerator in order to best maintain their freshness. However, I’ve also milled flours and cornmeal day of for either my main dough/s or porridges.
One sourdough baking related factor that I’m still investigating for myself is how much using freshly milled flour increases the rate of a dough’s bulk fermentation and proofing time. With so many other factors in play once the levain has been added to the dough; I think it’ll take quite a few more milling and baking experiences to notice the subtle differences made by the incorporation of freshly milled flour.
When it comes down to it, I think that weighing pros and cons with a home grain-mill is not necessary. While one may not be fully satisifed with his or her mill of choice and need to save up for a replacement. The benefits of being able to mill whole grain flours at home in my opinion greatly outweighs learning curves, extra prep time, and at times not knowing the exact protein content of one’s fresh flours. In fact, the more I use my Mockmill, the more I wholeheartedly identify with Paul Lebeau’s mission to get a Mockmill into every home. Cooking and baking with and then consuming whole foods nourishes the body and mind at a level that can only be believed with experience. Therefore, I’d highly recommend that my fellow sourdough bakers and home-chefs purchase a Mockmill to take their baking and cooking to a higher and healthier level.
When getting started with sourdough baking finding a sourdough starter guide and beginner recipe to follow are often one’s first steps. However, anxious moments ensue when things don’t appear to be going as described and research shifts to troubleshooting articles, YouTube videos, and Facebook group posts. In my opinion, the most important lesson that home sourdough bakers should take out of getting started is that both their starter and chosen flours are living ingredients. Therefore, they require constant adaptation to a variety of environmental factors.
Taking the importance of adaptation a step further, recipes are often best viewed as guides towards achieving specific flavor profiles and crumb textures rather than rigid lists of ingredients, parameters, and instructions. Though I will admit that putting this into practice tends to become easier as one learns to trust his or her overall dough preparation and baking processes. Therefore, baking one or two recipes repeatedly is good way to both adapt and learn at the same time.
As an example I’ll describe my recipe development process:
Foundation: I typically bake 2 loaves per batch and aim for 900-1000g of flour (not including the flour in the levain), 16-20% innoculation, 75-85% hydration, and 2-2.2% salt. In order to make this process easier I use Foodgeek’s Bread Calculator.
Inspiration: Whether I want to figure out how to highlight at specific grain or create a specific flavor profile. I start off by reading a bunch of recipes, researching ingredients, and sometimes asking fellow bakers for their input. Then I slowly piece together my final recipe and plan my dough preparation process. I say slowly because for me, developing a recipe is a game of baker’s math percentages. Meaning, by keeping this perspective in mind I can do the following once I find a recipe or source of information (article, video, social media post) that most closely resembles the flavor profile that I’m aiming for. Firstly, I can decide how close my recipe will resemble the recipe that I’ve chosen to use as a guide. Secondly, I can then keep track of how much each ingredient and process decision ends up influencing key characteristics of my finished loaves.
Which brings up to this series of loaves…
After being gifted some Niles Red Flint and Yellow Dent corn by Melissa Johnson of Breadtopia. I did some research and found her Corn porridge and Rosemary loaf recipe. Using it as a guide, I kept her innoculation rate, hydration percentage, and heirloom corn percentages the same because this was my first time baking with corn. However, I chose to add a whole grain component to complement the color of each variety of corn and add additional complexity. For my “yellow loaf” (formula) I chose khorasan (Kamut), an ancient wheat varietal in the durum family known for its yellow color and sweet and nutty flavors. Next, for my “red loaf” (formula) I chose a hard red spring wheat varietal that is appropriately named Yecora Rojo. Process-wise I also followed Melissa’s recipe’s instructions, but admittedly had some difficulty deciding when to end bulk fermentation.
Step 1: Milling the corn and wheat berries
I used my Mockmill 100 professional to mill the corn on a coarse setting and then on a fine setting before combining it with boiling water to create a cornmeal porridge that would be added to the dough later on. Both the khorasan and Yecora Rojo were milled on a fine setting (1).
Step 2: Mixing the dough
Once the porridges were measuring below 120F I mixed my doughs. I added the porridge after I was sure that the levain was fully incorporated. Both doughs were left to rest for 30 minutes prior to their first set of stretch and folds.
Step 3: Bulk fermentation
Because I was fermenting two doughs I opted to ferment them at room temperature. While gluten developement looked good after three sets of stretch and folds (spaced 40 minutes apart), both doughs recieved a fourth set for extra strength (and piece of mind). In the end both fermented for 6.25 hours prior to preshaping.
Step 4: Shaping
Because I was a bit nervous about whether bulk fermentation was complete, the doughs bench rested for 35 minutes instead of my usual 20-25. I final shaped the red loaves into batards and the yellow loaves into boules. All four loaves were then put in my refrigerator for a 13 hour cold proof. Of note, Melissa’s recipe calls for a 30-60 room temperature proof prior to putting the loaves in for their cold proof, but I chose to stick with my usual process of putting them straight in the refrigerator.
Step 5: Baking
When upon taking the loaves out for baking I was a big concerned about their lack of growth, but carried on with baking them as planned. I scored “red” loaves with ears of corn and the “yellow” loaves with an attempt an Autumn leaf. All four were baked covered at 480F (⍨250C) for 23 minutes and uncovered at 450F (⍨230C) 18-20 minutes. Of note, the yellow loaves seemed to be moist on top after the covered portion of the bake, but I knew that it would evaporate after baking uncovered so I wasn’t too concerned at the time.
Finals results/future iterations:
“Red” Loaves: Overall these loaves came out great. Their crust and crumb were recognizably red with a soft and even texture and appearance. In terms of flavor, the whole grain Yecora Rojo flavor was more apparent than the sweetness and flavor of the corn porridge, but I definitely enjoyed the hearty wheat character. Compared to the “yellow” loaves, the crumb on these loaves was more open, which was probably due to differences in protein content between the Yecora Rojo and khorasan. Lastly, in terms of future iterations of this recipe, I’ll most likely use a bit less Yecora Rojo and/or try out a different red wheat in order to bring out more corn flavor.
“Yellow” Loaves: The soft porridge loaf crumb texture that I’ve come to enjoy was more apparent in these loaves and so was the sweetness from the corn and honey. As noted above the crumb wasn’t nearly as open, which gave these loaves a texture similar to enriched doughs. While at first I wasn’t sure if I liked the crumb texture, I ended up liking it more with each slice. Next time I baked this recipe I’ll probably use less khorasan to allow the corn flavor to be more obvious and raise my innoculation percentage to 18%.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
While I’ve been homebrewing beer since 2009, I’ve yet to visit a malt house or interview a maltster. However, ever since dipping both feet into sourdough baking this past April, I’ve done increasingly more research on the cultivation and milling of heirloom, ancient, and more well known grains. Some of which I was familiar from cooking thems as side dishes and incorporating them into my weekly challah bread. Hence when I discovered Castle Valley Mill, I was immediately impressed by the variety of whole berries and flours that they mill and sell.
On Wednesday, October 14th I drove 90 minutes from New Jersey to Doylestown, Pennsylvania to get a firsthand look at the impressive work of Mark and Fran Fischer, owners of Castle Valley Mill. Before sitting down with them for an interview, Fran guided me on a wonderful tour of the mill and its property during which I learned a lot about both the history of the mill, its restoration process, and the cultivation and milling wheat in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
I chose to record the audio of the tour while taking pictures with my cell phone along the way in order to edit together this audio-visual presentation about the mill and its history. I hope you enjoy this video as much I enjoyed the tour. Happy Baking!
Key points from the tour:
Castle Valley Mill was not in operation for 150 years prior to when Mark Fischer started restoring it 13 years ago. The restoration is close to being complete. Next steps include transitioning back to operating on water power and completing the restoration of additional milling stones and machines inside the mill.
Grain is moved from the basement to the third floor of the mill by a bucket elevator system (vertically) and archemedes screw (horizontally).
While the mill currently runs on 3-phase electric power. Mark always checks the original patents of each machine that he restores and looks for architectural signs first in order to make sure that modern touches are only added when absolutely necessary.
Before being milled, grains and corn go through a number of cleaning steps in fully restored machines such as the first-pass cleaner and revolving disc aspirator.
After being milled grains and corn are sifted using bolting cloths and then packed for distribution and retail business.
If a piece is missing during the restoration of a milling machine it is 3-D printed, tested, and then cast if it functions as intended.
All of their grains and corn are stone-ground using restored and well maintained milling stones.
All of the products that Castle Valley Mill sells are cleaned, milled, packaged, and stored cold on premises.