With stay-at-home becoming bake-at-home for many, Faria Bakery’s "Head of Bread" offers up the lowdown on sourdough
With the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic and people spending almost all their time at home, many are embracing a back-to-basics lifestyle in their search for comfort during this chaotic time. Baking bread, you may have heard, is at the forefront of this quest.
Over the last few weeks, social media has been deluged with examples of #quarantinebaking, including daily 140-character updates on the maturation of sourdough starter. This elemental mixture of flour and water comes alive as it’s exposed to the natural yeast in the air, developing bread dough organically, without a packet of Fleischmann’s.
Some budding bakers are even hanging packets of sourdough starter in trees to share with fellow sourdough enthusiasts while maintaining physical distance. In my own efforts to be part of this bread-making movement, I am working with an Alaskan milk starter, which trades water for milk, from 1895—a gift from a friend. Suffice it to say, taking care of that kind of legacy can be a bit daunting.
Even with this coveted king of starters at my disposal, I’m still a novice who’s taking on bread—a complicated art form despite its simple ingredients. To get some insider tips on how to “rise” to the challenge, I spoke with master baker Grace Kerfoot of Oak Park’s Faria Bakery, known for its hearty sourdough loaf.
You’re the “Head of Bread” at Faria Bakery, which sounds like a level you attain in a video game.
It kind of feels like it, actually. I run the entire bread production from mixing the levain [a large batch of sourdough starter] at the start of the day to the final bread shaping at the end. I oversee all fermentation and I’m also the bread idea generator, so I think of new loaves like milk buns and pain de mie. I pretty much handle anything outside of the actual bread baking, which is funny because I don’t spend as much time baking as you would think.
In response to stay-at-home orders across the country, a sourdough movement has spread over the past weeks. What’s the appeal of this style of bread during the coronavirus quaratine?
Sourdough is a living thing, so it has a lot of character. I love the idea of bread being alive and something you get to take care of—you build a routine of feeding your starter and checking in on it every day. It almost becomes part of you. It’s always changing and you’re always trying to get conditions just right to make it happy. It makes you feel less lonely. It becomes your buddy.
Which must be why people have been naming and introducing their sourdough starters to the world all over social media. Is there a backstory to your starter?
Faria’s owner, Chris Beattie, created the sourdough starter and he’s had it since he started baking bread six years ago. It doesn’t have a cute name, we don’t have matching sweaters with its name on them, but we do call it Mother. It’s an endearing industry term of respect because the starter is what makes the whole bakery run.
But to understand how starter comes to life, you have to know a little about fermentation. Among other things, flour is a carbohydrate. The bacteria that’s growing in your starter [which is what gives sourdough its signature flavor] is thriving off the natural sugars in your flour. Over time all that sugar is going to get digested by the bacteria, so in order for it to keep thriving you have to keep “feeding” it more flour. We feed ours twice a day, once in the morning around 5 a.m. and again in the afternoon around 3:30 p.m.
Faria is currently offering a sourdough kit with flour and starter. Is that something you started offering recently in response to the stay-at-home mandate?
This was completely because of the lockdown. People were asking for our starter, so we started giving it out—we were actually giving away so much starter that we didn’t have enough to build our own bread at night, so we had to dial that back.
One great way for people to start baking bread at home is by making a pan loaf. We have a spelt and oat porridge pan loaf at the bakery that requires a short two-hour proof. [The recipe for the loaf, which is made with a sourdough starter, is below.] It makes great sandwich bread and it’s a little bit easier to maneuver. Some people think it’s cheating to put bread in a pan, but it’s totally not true.
If you’re going to make bread, start feeding your starter three days in advance and be diligent about that process. Keep it in a place where you won’t forget about it! You don’t need to put it in your closet or in a dark little corner. If you’re using it regularly, just leave it on your countertop and if you’re not using it, just put it in your fridge. But if you’re not feeding it regularly it’s going to be weak and the bread won’t turn out properly.
Because starter takes on the natural yeasts in the air, each has its own geographic flavor profile. Your bakery is in Oak Park—what are some of the characteristics of your starter?
Ours has this very fruity, tangy smell of a strong plain yogurt, but even within that profile it can change. A couple hours after we feed it, it smells a lot sweeter and milder. I’ve always banked on this with all of my fermentation projects: your nose knows when something’s wrong. If you stick your nose in there and are taken aback because of an aggressively vinegary smell, that’s a problem. You might also see a water residue on top—the slang word for it is “hooch”—or the whole thing might start to get flat and thin. Those are some telltale signs that something’s wrong.
Is there one big secret to making great sourdough?
Patience. Don’t rush the process. Take temperatures of the water, the starter itself and the dough. That will really help you understand the whole process a lot more. You want to see what your dough temperature is riding at, because if you have cold dough because your house is cold, fermentation is going to be a lot slower. The same thing goes for when it’s hot. If it’s 80 degrees inside and the dough is 83 degrees, you can cut back your fermentation time. The yeast in bread is a lot like us—it’s happy when it’s warm. Temperature gives you a gauge for how active and how fast your fermentation is going and will help you understand how your starter behaves.
What are some of the biggest mistakes novice sourdough bakers make?
I’ve seen a lot of underproofed loaves, meaning that the bread is being baked before fermentation has reached its optimal level, which leads to a dense crumb structure or gummy bread that tastes like flour. When you nail the proofing process and your fermentation and flavor and volume are properly in balance, it’s like watching the stars align.
People also don’t heat their pots properly. [Many home bakers use Dutch oven pots, which are excellent for retaining heat, but take longer to heat up than other cookware like pans.] If you heat your oven to 500 degrees and then put the pot in, the pot won’t be the right temperature. You should really be heating your pot [inside] your oven for around two hours before baking if you want some good and proper temperatures for bread baking.
What are some characteristics of a quality sourdough loaf?
Bubbles or small blisters on the crust of the dough show fermentation activity. A sign of underproofing can be a light-colored loaf, so you really want your entire crust to be a deep, robust amber brown. When you cut into the crust, it should be crisp and crunchy. On the inside, honestly, you’re just looking for really good flavor. I think that’s the most important thing.
How should people store their bread?
I wrap mine in a paper bag at room temp. I find leaving the bread facedown on the countertop dries it out too quickly for my taste. You can use a plastic bag too, but it’s going to be a little bit mushier. If you want to save it for longer, I would just slice it, put it in a Ziploc bag and put it in the freezer—I wouldn’t refrigerate it because that normally dries it up pretty quickly.
How do you like to eat your sourdough?
I just eat it with butter. That’s what I want when I come home. But I think people know what to do with bread. There’s no wrong answer. There are times when you make toast or croutons or French toast, whatever. People just do whatever feels right, and for me, at the end of the day, I just want to eat it with butter or even plain. If your bread tastes good to you, then you did a good job.
$22 for starter kit, which includes 5 pounds of stoneground whole wheat flour, 5 pounds of bread flour and sourdough starter. You can order the kit, as well as fully baked breads, on Faria Bakery’s website for pickup (no walk-ins; menu changes daily—check availability). 3417 Broadway. fariabakery.com
Sourdough Spelt Oat Porridge Loaf
Levain (12-hour fermentation time)
90 grams spelt flour
70 grams water
2 grams mature sourdough starter
4 cups cooked oatmeal, prepared according to package instructions
2 cups raw rolled oats for coating
525 grams water (lukewarm)
770 grams spelt flour
154 grams levain (from above)
700 grams cooked and cooked plain oatmeal
14 grams salt
Makes two loaves
The night before you make your bread, mix the levain and cook your oatmeal.
For the levain: Mix starter, flour and water by hand, leave covered at room temperature overnight or 12 hours. If your house’s temperature is cooler than 75 degrees, just add a little extra starter (1 tablespoon) to your levain.
For the bread: In a large bowl, combine lukewarm water, spelt flour, levain, cooked oatmeal (cooled to room temperature) and salt. Mix by hand for 3-6 minutes. Dough should feel shaggy, and there should be no dry bits of flour.
Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and leave in a warm place (on top of the refrigerator, for example) for a two-hour proof. At both the 30-minute mark and 60-minute mark, gently turn the dough two times using the stretch and fold method.
At the end of two hours, uncover your dough. It should feel billowy. It won’t bubble like it would with the use of commercial yeast, but it should feel active—kind of like touching a waterbed.
Prepare two bread pans (roughly 8 1/2 inches by 4 1/2 inches) by spraying with cooking spray or greasing well with butter or canola oil. Pour 2 cups of raw rolled oats into a cookie sheet with a rim.
With wet hands, take roughly half the dough into your hands. Coat the dough in the raw oats, as if you were coating something in bread crumbs. Act quickly, because the dough can get sticky.
Place oat-covered dough in one of your prepared pans. Repeat the process with the remaining half of dough.
Let the loaves rise at room temperature for another 30 minutes. The dough should still feel active and somewhat billowy. Don’t worry if you can’t see a lot of bubbles. It should only rise maybe a half-inch in volume. At the end of 30 minutes, you can bake immediately or move the pans to the fridge to rest uncovered overnight.
To bake, place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 500 degrees.
Once your oven reaches the desired temperature, use scissors to score the bread at a 45-degree angle. Then place the pans in the middle of the oven and bake for 45 to 50 minutes. If you have a thermometer, check for an internal bread temperature of 205 to 210 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don’t have a thermometer, immediately pull pans from the oven, but don’t turn it off. Carefully remove each loaf from its pan and place onto an unlined cookie sheet. Check to see that the sides are firm and that the bottoms sound hollow when you tap them.
Put both loaves back in the oven on a cookie sheet for five more minutes to firm up more if necessary.
Once out of the oven, let your bread cool on a wire rack for at least two hours before slicing.