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.