Humans have been baking fermented breads for at least 10,000 years, but commercial yeast and flour companies have never seen demand so high. National Geographic shares “a story for quarantined times, about extremely tiny organisms that do some of their best work by burping into uncooked dough.”
Scientists describe the microbes behind the work fermenting the bread. “It’s this wonderful living thing you’re working with,” says Anne Madden, a North Carolina State University adjunct biologist who studies microbes. She and partner scientists showed recently that when bakers in different locales use exactly the same ingredients for both starter and bread, their loaves come out smelling and tasting different. “Which I think is fantastic,” she says. “It’s evidence of the unseen. And as a microbiologist, you so rarely get to measure things about microbes with your nose and your taste buds.”
Read more (National Geographic)
The man behind the world’s only sourdough library shares how he maintains a collection of 125 sourdough mothers from all over the world. The mothers are stored in Mason jars in a chilled cabinet. Library founder Karl De Smedt cares for them in France, refreshing the jars every two months with back stocks of the original flours used (and contributed) by the providers. De Smedt travels the world for new mothers, prioritizing “renown, unusual origins, the type of flour used, and the starter’s approximate age.” He adds up to two dozen new sourdoughs each year, ranging from cooking schools, home-bakers, pizzerias, artisan and industrial bakers.
“Most importantly, the sourdough must come from a spontaneous fermentation, and not inoculated with a commercial starter culture,” De Smedt says. “Sourdough is the soul of many bakeries. When bakers entrust you with their souls, you’d better take care of it.”
Read more (New York Times)
Open crumb and flavor depth are hallmarks of a fermented, artisan bread. But as artisan bakers scale up production, “fermentation has been the ultimate challenge,” according to Baking Business. “It is critical to a craft bread’s profile, and bakers are often unwilling to compromise on this step.” Making extra dough can decrease the fermentation process if not handled properly. Baking Business, the baking industry e-zine, explores how artisan bread bakers are using automated fermentation to transport mixing bowls, proof and oven load, without losing the artisan style.
Read more (Baking Business)
Wired writes about the “Stay at Home Bread Boom,” which is causing flour and yeast to sell out on grocery store shelves. More people are baking at home during the coronavirus outbreak, some to start a new hobby and others out of necessity because bread is also selling out. Stephen Jones, a wheat breeder and the director of Washington State University’s Bread Lab, recommends people start with sourdough because it doesn’t require yeast. “You can start a sourdough culture in just a couple days. I mean, you just basically mix flour and water and let it sit there, and the bacteria and yeast will come to it. So that’s a nice experiment.”
Jones also encourages people not to get discouraged by the perfect “Instagram bread load.” He explains: “Well it’s open crumb, so it’s — it’s called the Hairy Forearm Crumb Shot. It’s somebody holding up a rustic loaf that’s been cut in half and has these huge bubbles in it and things like that. People think if they can’t do that, they’re failing at baking. It’s part of this notion that your bread has to look perfect to be good, right? People should take pressure off themselves in that way.”
“It doesn’t surprise me in this environment that people are baking, because they need to and they want to. But I think an important part too is how little time it takes to bake a loaf of bread. Not totally, but in terms of the work that’s required when you’re actually working on the bread, that can be about 20 minutes. Even if you’re doing a long ferment, and it goes for a full day and then you bake it … including prep and folding and cleanup, you’re talking about 20 minutes out of your day. The rest of the time is waiting.”
Read more (Wired magazine)
Bread sales continue to flatline as consumers grow leary of gluten and chemical preservatives. But there’s one bright spot in the market: sourdough. Preservative-free, clean ingredient, fermented sourdough bread is growing increasingly popular.
Read more (CNBC)
A feel good story from a fermentation dogooder — an anonymous sourdough baker in Washington DC is delivering free sourdough boules to lucky recipients on Twitter. The mysterious Samaritan posts a photo of the daily bread on Twitter (@FermentDC), then delivers it via bike to the first responder. Their Twitter bio reads “Fermentation without representation” and their purpose is to brighten someone’s day. The idea has now spawned another sourdough giveaway account in Durham, N.C. (@FermentDurm).
Read more (The Washingtonian)
Ask Trevor Wilson how to bake a perfect sourdough boule and Wilson will happily spill his secrets. A rare breed in the realm of professional bakers, Wilson aims to enlighten everyone from hobbyists to master fermenters in the art of creating a great sourdough.
“It’s a fascinating thing. The idea that a simple mixture of flour and water can house a symbiotic culture of wild yeast and bacteria, and that this mixture can be used to leaven bread entirely without the aid of commercial yeast seems astounding to me,” says Wilson, author of the book “Open Crumb Mastery” and the kneading hands behind the blog Breadwerk. His popular Instagram account is full of close-up videos of a knife cutting into a steamy sourdough crust and magazine-worthy images of a gorgeous inner crumb.
“Even after all these years, I still get excited at the thought. There’s just so many possibilities! Every sourdough culture is unique, and therefore the breads made from these cultures are unique as well. I’ve worked with many different starters over the course of my career, and the range of different flavors that can be achieved is simply mind-blowing. Sourdough is more than just a style of bread, it’s a process. A craft. A way of life, really.”
Wilson quit his computer drafting job nearly 20 years ago to bake full-time. He spent 10 years baking at Klingers Bread Company in Vermont, an experience he says was “better education than any baking school could ever provide.” His refreshing philosophy on baking is “that good bread is more than just nutrients and technique — it’s the attention and care you put into it.”
Below, a Q&A with Wilson from his home on the a small island off the coast of Vermont.
How did you first become interested in sourdough baking?
It was actually quite by chance. I was flipping channels on the television when I happened upon a show called “Baking Bread with Father Dominic.” Here was this Benedictine Monk – robes and all – baking bread by hand on public broadcasting. I was drawn in immediately! There was just something so appealing about the simplicity and tradition of it (not to mention the fun of getting your hands deep into the dough). I had to give it a try!
The very first chance I had I decided to make a cinnamon raisin loaf. It was for the family Christmas gathering. I just used the ingredients on hand at my mom’s house – cheap bleached all-purpose flour and a package of long-expired yeast that had been sitting in the pantry for years. As you might imagine, it came out terrible. Dense and underbaked. Like a brick. It didn’t rise at all. Nobody even touched it. But it didn’t matter. I was hooked!
I started baking bread every day – my own recipes because I just have to tinker with things like that – and read everything I could get my hands on. It wasn’t long before I discovered sourdough and sourdough starters. That’s when I truly became obsessed.
Tell me what intrigues you about sourdough.
It’s a fascinating thing. The idea that a simple mixture of flour and water can house a symbiotic culture of wild yeast and bacteria, and that this mixture can be used to leaven bread entirely without the aid of commercial yeast seems astounding to me. Even after all these years, I still get excited at the thought. There’s just so many possibilities! Every sourdough culture is unique, and therefore the breads made from these cultures are unique as well. I’ve worked with many different starters over the course of my career, and the range of different flavors that can be achieved is simply mind-blowing. Sourdough is more than just a style of bread, it’s a process. A craft. A way of life, really.
How did you get your start in artisan bread baking? You’ve worked for multiple artisan bread bakers in Vermont, like Klingers Bread Company and O Bread.
Shortly after I got hooked on bread baking, I decided that this was it – this is how I wanted to spend my life. I was certain of it. Even though I had recently graduated tech school and was ready to start my career as a computer aided drafter – something which I actually really enjoyed – there was no question in my mind that bread baking was my calling. There was just one problem . . . I couldn’t bake a decent loaf for the life of me!
Since I had no clue what I was doing, I figured the first thing I should do is get a clue. I knew I could go back to school and study bread and pastry arts. But I didn’t really care much about pastry at the time, and it seemed rather foolish to pay to learn a skill when I could just get a job at a bakery and get paid to learn that skill instead. So that’s what I did. I applied to every bakery in the area, and I was fortunate that Klingers Bread Company took me in and trained me.
I say I was fortunate because at the time (back in 2000) they were one of the few local bakeries that focused primarily on sourdough breads. And that’s what I was most interested in learning. The ten years I spent with them was better education than any baking school could ever provide. Learning to bake bread at high volume under the constraints of ever-changing production conditions, schedules and demands will teach you so much about the process, the craft, and the business. I wouldn’t trade those days for the world.
Where are you currently working as a baker?
Currently I’m baking at home! But not for production. Primarily it’s for educational purposes (and for fun). My business these days is mainly online. I probably spend more time in front of the computer than at my bench. There are pros and cons to this. It’s nice that I’m able to set my own work schedule and be my own boss (and that I don’t need to wake up at 2 a.m. anymore), but I miss the camaraderie of the bakery and the joys of production baking.
Your blog is full of great insights. I love your philosophy that good bread is more than just nutrients and technique – it’s the attention and care you put into it. Tell me more about that.
I believe that the value of a food is determined by more than just the quality of its ingredients or the recipe with which it is made. There is a subtle and intangible “something” that can be added as well – if the food is made with care and attention, that is. Call it a piece of soul, if you will. This is especially true for something as dynamic and responsive as sourdough. A baker who bakes with heart adds a piece of soul to every loaf. That is the true nourishment of sourdough bread.
Tell me about your book, “Open Crumb Mastery.” It’s a guide for intermediate sourdough bakers.
Well, I wrote it to answer one of the most common questions in bread baking, “How do I get an open crumb?” It seemed to me that most of the answers to this question were either entirely wrong or, at best, severely lacking in nuance. There was actually very little literature on the topic, and what there was usually just glossed over the intricacies of the subject. Simply adding more water to your dough – the answer most commonly given – is terrible advice for newer bakers. They have a hard enough time handling dough as it is, how is making it even wetter and stickier going to help them? What was needed was a book that actually did justice to the topic, and since no one else had written such a book, I figured I might as well do it myself.
I aimed the book at the “intermediate” baker primarily because I didn’t want to waste space covering the same old information that is covered in every other bread book out there. How many times do we need to read the same five day method for creating a sourdough starter? How many times do we need to rehash the same information about ingredients and procedure? The reason all these books covered the same topics over and over again is because they each had to provide information with the beginner in mind. But the problem is that by the time you’ve covered everything the beginner needs to know, you’ve practically run out of space! All that’s left is the recipe section! There’s no room for depth of discussion. Because I self-published my book, I could write whatever I wanted. So I skipped all that and went straight to the good stuff.
You just released your second edition. Tell me what is new in this updated book.
There’s actually quite a bit of new material – almost 100 pages worth (including plenty of new pictures since the first edition was kind of lacking in that department). The main addition to the book comes in the form of a new section dedicated to understanding how the methods discussed in the previous sections relate to other loaf qualities such as shape, height, and volume. There is more to a loaf than just its crumb. The original edition just lightly touched upon these topics; the new edition gives them their due. Along with some other additions (such as a discussion of whole grain, and a couple new crumb analyses focusing on retarding bulk fermentation), the new material provides a more complete picture regarding how the variables of technique and method affect the entirety of the final product.
Describe the open crumb technique.
That’s a tough one. It’s such a deep discussion that I could never do it justice in an interview alone. That’s why I wrote a book! My main point is that open crumb is primarily a matter of fermentation and dough handling. Hydration, while important, is only a distant third.
You said “Open crumb is 80% fermentation and handling.” Tell me more about that.
It seems to me that much in life follows the Pareto Principle – that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Bread baking is no exception. When it comes to achieving an open crumb, fermentation and dough handling will provide you with 80% of the effect. Therefore, it seems prudent to me that a baker interested in open crumb should spend the bulk of their time learning the skills of fermentation and handling. That will provide the highest return on time invested.
And make no mistake, these are skills. Skill takes time to develop. Practice is paramount. Only through experience will a baker learn to master fermentation and dough handling. But it’s a necessary and vital part of the craft. There’s really no way around it. For any baker that’s seeking to achieve an open crumb, they must start with fermentation and dough handling.
What makes a fermented sourdough unique from other breads?
It’s all about that sourdough culture! The starter is the heart and soul of it all. It provides qualities to bread that commercial baker’s yeast simply can’t replicate. Now whether that’s for better or worse is a matter of opinion. Not every style of bread benefits from the use of sourdough. There’s a large world of bread out there, and yeast breads certainly have their place.
But sourdough has its place as well. And judging by the growing interest, its place seems to be expanding day by day. For good reason, I think. Sourdough possesses a combination of crust, crumb and flavor that is difficult – if not near impossible – to achieve with baker’s yeast alone. Especially flavor. It’s just so much more complex than yeast bread. Deeper. More interesting. Intriguing, even. The acids and other flavor and aroma compounds generated by a sourdough starter are what make sourdough breads truly stand out. Comparable crust and crumb might be had with yeast breads that are long-fermented and skillfully made, but the flavor of sourdough can’t be copied and can’t be faked. Only the real thing will do.
How do you ferment your sourdough?
Many different ways. As I often say, the method makes the bread. How you choose to ferment your dough will have a huge impact on the bread’s flavor, as well as many other qualities of the final loaf. Different methods of managing fermentation will therefore result in different breads. So the manner in which you choose to ferment a dough is dependent upon what kind of bread you are making, and what qualities you are seeking in a loaf. When you include other variables such as folding methods/schedules, shaping techniques, starter maintenance routine, etc. then the possibilities really are endless. It’s up to each baker to ferment and handle their dough in a way that works best for them and their needs.
Tell me about the sourdough starter you use.
That’s a tricky question, because I use many different starters. In fact, you can say I have a bit of an addiction. I love trying out new starters – and I have a fridge full of them! Some are better suited for certain flavors or styles of bread than others, but still, I often bring different starters into rotation based on nothing more than whim. I just like playing around with them. Many I’ve created myself, but quite a few I’ve purchased as well.
I’d say my favorite starter (you could call it my main starter since I use it more often than any of the others) is an “Alaskan” starter that I got from the last place I worked. They had purchased it online but hadn’t had any success in getting it active. I took it home and brought it to life, and I knew it was a keeper from the first test loaf I ever made with it. It practically brought tears to my eyes. The flavor was so close to the old Pioneer Sourdough I’d grown up eating in Southern California that I simply couldn’t believe it. It was a flavor I’d been searching for — and had yet to find — since I first started baking sourdough. That old bakery closed a long time ago and so I thought I might never experience that taste again. It’s a bit of a fickle starter, and I don’t always get that perfect flavor from it, but when I do it’s a glorious thing.
More and more retail news show sales of sourdough bread are increasing. Why do you think more people are buying sourdough bread?
Over the last 35 years or so, there’s been a strong “push” by bakers themselves to bring awareness to this style of bread. The old methods of sourdough baking had practically gone extinct in many parts of the world (though they were still thriving in others). This was especially true in the United States, where factory-made sandwich bread had almost completely taken over the market. For many, sourdough was something either long forgotten or completely unknown. For those bakers back in the day who were making bread the old way, it was quite the struggle to find customers.
Fortunately, over the years they – and those who followed – have managed to bring awareness to the pleasures and benefits of sourdough bread. It wasn’t always an easy sell. But through education and promotion, sourdough is now part of the scene and here to stay. You might even say it’s become rather trendy. The reasons are many: nutrition and health, flavor, crust, crumb, history and tradition, etc. It seems to me that artisan sourdough bread is the food fashion of the moment, but then, I might be a bit biased here.
Do you think consumers awareness of fermented foods is increasing?
Awareness of fermented foods is definitely increasing. Quite drastically, I might add. It seems that fermented foods are everywhere nowadays, with more and more popping up on the shelf every day. And that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. The more that folks are exposed to these foods, the more they will be enjoyed — and eventually adopted as a natural part of the cuisine. That brings more interest, more variety, and more flavor to the food scene.
What challenges do fermented food producers face?
There are many challenges faced by the current crop of fermented food producers, and different industries face different challenges. Probably one of the bigger challenges that crosses over many categories of fermented foods is simply getting consumers – many of whom have had little exposure to these types of foods – to open their minds and give fermented foods a try. This is especially true for producers that market raw ferments with live cultures. Most of us have grown up in a world of pasteurization and sterilization. The idea of a raw fermented product – though perfectly natural throughout most of history – may seem unnatural to those who have no history with it. Needless to say, educating the market will be an ongoing challenge.
Another major challenge these days is simply the matter of competition. With more and more producers jumping onto the fermented foods bandwagon, competition keeps growing and growing. Of course, this is regional and market based. So long as the market keeps growing, then there is more room for additional producers. But in places where the market has slowed, or that are already oversaturated with producers, expanding competition will cut into already slim profit margins.
I see this all the time in the baking industry. New artisan bakeries are constantly opening up on a daily basis. Many are (similarly) making a trendy style of dark, crusty, high-hydration bread. So it’s becoming more and more difficult for these bakeries to distinguish their product from all the rest (at least in the saturated urban areas). Baking is a hard business with slim margins, and it is made harder all the more when you have a bakery selling the same kind of bread on every corner. I fear that many of these bakers – even those who bake outstanding bread – will be forced to close shop in the not-too-distant future.
What are the fermented food industry strengths?
Its biggest strength is its growing popularity. As more and more folks are exposed to the wonderful variety and flavors of fermented foods, and as more become aware of their health and nutrition benefits, the good word will continue to spread. The market is growing rapidly, and will likely continue to do so for quite some time. Producers of fermented foods are well-positioned to grow their businesses as the industry continues to expand and evolve.
Where do you see the future of the fermented food industry?
It’s hard to say. I’ve spent an entire career in just one small segment of the industry. With “nose to the bench,” so to speak, I’ve had a rather limited view of the fermented food industry as a whole. I’m no trend forecaster. It seems to me that authors such as Michael Pollan, Sally Fallon, and Sandor Katz (to name a few) were instrumental in bringing us to this place of awareness and appreciation for wholesome and traditional foods that we now find ourselves in today. Who’ll step up next and where do we go from here? That’s the million-dollar question.
What’s your advice to other entrepreneurs starting a fermentation brand?
Know your product, know your market, know your margins.
The first one is usually the easiest – most of the folks that are jumping into the fermented food business are doing so precisely because they are so passionate about their product. No need to elaborate this point.
The second is vital to those who actually wish to sell a product. Who is your target customer? Where are they? Why should they buy from you? Are you selling wholesale or retail? Or both? Are you selling at farmer’s markets? Whole foods markets? Supermarkets? Are you selling to restaurants, delis, or other food preparation establishments? Are you selling online? In catalogs? At local farm stands? Who’s your competition? Where do they sell? How does your product differ from theirs? Why should a customer purchase your product instead of theirs? What is your value proposition?
When you have answers to these questions (and many more) then you can begin to understand your market. Understanding your market helps you to understand how best to sell to it. Often times in the food business (particularly in craft foods), customers don’t just want to buy a product to eat. They’re looking for a higher value. Can you sell them that higher value? Can you sell them history and tradition? Can you sell them nutrition and health? Can you sell them a story, or a feeling, or an idea? Can you sell them a way of thinking? A way of life? A community? The business that can sell these things is the business that succeeds.
The third point speaks to the bottom line. So many new entrepreneurs jump into the food business out of passion and idealism, but they forget the business part in “food business.” It is a business, and don’t forget it. If you can’t turn a profit or manage cashflow, then you won’t be in business very long. From an operations standpoint, efficient production is profitable production. So focus on efficiency.
Inefficient production includes things like making too many different products in order to appeal to every taste instead of focusing on and maximizing the big sellers (Pareto Principle again), using wildly different production methods for different products when you could combine and/or streamline the processes instead (i.e. completely different recipes for different products instead of using just one or two base recipes that can then have specialty ingredients simply added to them in order to create different products), and poorly designed production environments that don’t allow for economy of motion (if you’re running around all over the place like a chicken with its head cut off then you may need to improve your floor layout). Those are just a few examples of inefficient production.
Be especially careful how you grow and never lose sight of your margins. Many new business owners are too quick to accept large accounts in an effort to expand their business – especially if they’re struggling. But far too often they come to regret that decision, particularly smaller craft producers. Large operations are built to benefit from economies of scale, but small local producers often struggle due to limitations in batch size, work space, and available labor. So accepting large accounts results in more batches which results in more labor. As labor costs go up, profit margins go down. The end result is a lot more work for just a little bit more money. Quality tends to go down, capacity gets maxed out for little added profit, and cashflow gets tied up in additional inventory. Now you’re stuck, unable to pay bills, and unable to take on new or more profitable accounts. Avoid that situation like the plague.
It’s pretty simple really; a dollar saved is a dollar kept whereas a dollar earned is but a dime kept. That’s margin. Efficiency saves you dollars. Responsible cost cutting saves you dollars (so long as it doesn’t come at the cost of quality or efficiency). And intelligent growth saves you dollars. If you can produce efficiently, earn a profit, and effectively manage growth and cash flow, then you’ll do just fine.
Ready-bake and frozen pizza is a market with little disruption. Processed ingredients, chemical-filled cheese and cardboard-like dough are the mainstay of a grocery store pizza.
But Alex Corsini wants to change that. After battling an autoimmune disease, quitting his rat race job in the tech industry and completing an apprenticeship at a Michelin-star restaurant, Corsini wondered why there wasn’t a delicious sourdough pizza in a consumer packaged goods brand. He started Sourdough Story in 2018 as the first USDA organic and Non GMO Verified pizza on the market.
“We wanted to hone in on ultra-thoughtful sourcing and really meticulous preparation, and celebrate slow sourdough fermentation” Corsini said. “I think there’s a lot of dogma in nutrition, and I want people to listen to their own bodies and also think about the roots of where their food is coming from. Pizza is an interesting canvas and platform to showcase this narrative and perspective.”
Below, a Q&A with Corsini, who believes food — especially fermented food — “is the foundation of healthy people.”
Q: Why did you start Sourdough Story?
Around 2016, I was working in the technology industry in startups. I developed this autoimmune condition out of nowhere. My doctors didn’t really have a name for what I was going through, they kept testing me and concluded this was something I’ll have for the rest of my life. I decided to turn to nutrition to mitigate symptoms. I read about the Whole 30 Diet and basically cut out every major allergen. I did it for 60 days, and all my symptoms went away. It was really powerful for me to overcome this through food and not really any medication at all.
Eventually, I started slowly adding back in foods. I started reading about wheat and the ancestral diet. My ancestors are from Sweden, and fermented dairy and sourdough is big there. I started baking sourdough and, the first loaf I ever made, me and my roommates just devoured the whole thing in minutes. And we still felt really good.
I had this epiphany that this whole anti-gluten movement I fell into, there’s definitely valid signs, some people have Celiac Disease. Some people can’t digest wheat as well as others. But there’s also this layer of dogma that I’ve succumbed to. Maybe this is about the ingredients and preparation than the reductive nutrition side of things that’s all too common in the media.
I started getting obsessed with sourdough baking. I decided I didn’t want to go back to the tech industry. I applied to sourdough bakeries and Michelin rated restaurants that focus on sourdough baking. I got an apprenticeship at Kadeau in Copenhagen and I literally walked into my tech job the next day and quit. I said I’m done with technology and I want to focus on food.
I spent a month apprenticing, learning about fermentation and the farm-to-table movement. Copenhagen is this booming food scene. There’s this identity and really strong sense in bakeries around California — it was even greater in Copenhagen. I had this realization — why is there not a sourdough pizza in a consumer packaged food brand? And why is there not a brand focused on sourdough as a general concept?
My whole thing was, let’s create a brand around sourdough. We started with pizza, but it’s a broad category. When I decided to do a CPG concept, I talked to the founder of my favorite natural food store in Sausalito. I asked to stock or work in product and get a sense of the retail store environment. I spent three months working in the grocery department, stocking at a natural food store. I told them about my sourdough pizza concept and asked if I could put a couple pizzas on the shelf and see how they sold. We have this idea of what our movement would be — we’d vacuum-seal pizza, we’d put them on the shelf in the deli section, people could take and back. We put out 12 pizzas, and in a few hours they were gone. The orders started getting bigger and bigger from there.
We officially launched in June 2018, making 50-70 pizzas a week for that location alone. We were written up in the local independent journal, and it started a domino effect. Now we’re in about 100 stores in the Bay Area and just throttling growth. We’re at the point where we’re ready to make a big footprint.
Q: You said when you were learning how important fermentation is to people’s diets, that pizza is a great platform to showcase that. Why?
My initial idea, going back to working at the Michelin star restaurant, I loved the idea of knowing where every ingredient came from. I love going to a customer with the menu and saying “This butter is from a grass-fed cow, its name is Mike.” Having that level of granularity was really important to me. With pizza, there are so many ingredients that make up pizza. It’s also a great creative product. It’s a product everyone is familiar with and everyone is passionate about it. If you ask somebody what their favorite type of crust is, you’ll get lots of different answers. They’ll fight you on their favorite pizza place in New York. They all have a favorite topping. It’s a passion product.
Our toppings, the tomato is the best organic tomatoes in the U.S. from DiNapoli, an hour away from us in California. Our flour is freshly milled flour by Central Milling Organics, an old family mill based out of Northern California. The cheese is from grass-fed cows from the Rumiano pasture, the oldest family-owned California dairy. I love the idea of partnering and showcasing with these companies, being on a first-name basis. Pizza is a great vehicle for that.
Q: Why is modern bread bad for the gut? What’s better about sourdough?
We think of modern bread making, conventional bread is a process of simply leavening bread, giving rise to the dough. They all use the same commercially manufactured yeast that was derived from a lab back in the late 1800s. The whole concept around this was to mass produce bread to make sure you can create an industrial product that you can scale to consistency. Before that, it was all sourdough-based bread products, dating back to ancient Egypt.
Sourdough is a process of not only leavening bread but acidifying bread. The key benefits come from the acidification. So you’re getting benefits like a lower glycemic index, more available vitamins and minerals from grain, some people think it’s easier to digest and you’re getting better preservation. The higher the acidity, the lower the propensity for bacteria or mold to affect the product.
The science of it — it mainly comes down to phytic acid, which is an organic, indigestible compound that all grains and seeds possess.
Unfortunately, humans don’t have the enzyme to break it down — it’s called phytase. Some animals have this, and can eat raw grains and nuts and benefit. So when we eat grain in modern bread today, there’s a ton of potential nutrients that we’re not absorbing. There are two primary ways of breaking this down. One way to break this down would be sprouting the bread, one would be sourdough fermentation. Lactic acid fermentation and the acidification process of sourdough, you are breaking down fidic acid. There are studies that show you can get up to 90% percent of the available nutrients in the dough, whereas conventional bread would get like 20%, according to clinical trials.
A lot of the indigestibility of bread is around phytic acid, but gluten is coming to the mainstream, it’s become the easy thing to blame.
It’s great to be able to say, with clinical backing, there’s more bio nutrients in sourdough. That’s powerful. What we’re trying to do now is be the first party and authority on validating the science around lactic acid fermentation. There really hasn’t been an interested party or corporation interested in investing in the science. Our goal is to work with these scientists.
Q: How do you ferment your sourdough?
Modern bread, industrial bread or pizza on the shelf, you probably see an hour to three hours of fermentation time. With us, we do a full three days of fermentation time. We constantly have this starter, this mother culture, that we feed twice a day. We slowly mix our batches, low and slow. We do a bunch of small batches rather than one large batch, we find we get better quality that way. We do a really slow batch, then we take our dough and ferment it in a proofing room for two full days and nights. It will vary a little bit, but each ferment goes above 70 hour.
We use 100% organic flour from Central Milling. The better the flour, the more microbial activity in the flour. We use a specific flour that’s grown three hours away in california, there’s a lot of whole grain in the flour. So the microbial activity is really active. What you get is a really healthy ferment with more lactic acid, so you get that classic sourdough tang and that’s what we’re going for.
Q: The flour seems really critical in fermentation to create a good dough.
It’s one of the important elements. You could have a company that says “We’re organic sourdough,” but they could be using terrible bleached flour and putting vinegar in it to make it taste sour, there are so many shortcuts.
Q: Tell me about the sourdough starter you use to create your dough.
For the starter, we use a local whole wheat starter and triple filtered water. Good water is super important with any ferment. We feed our starter local whole wheat, but our starter is decades old. It’s an heirloom starter from a natural foods business out here in Fairfax, California. It could be over 100 years old, we’re not sure. Feeding the starter is a constant point of stress. There’s a reason people mass manufacture bread, let’s put it that way. It’s like having a pet.
Q: What is the most challenging part of fermenting sourdough?
All the variables. It’s similar to any fermentation, where you need to measure the time and temperature. One thing that’s especially challenging is making estimates based on the temperature of the room and the seasonality. Thankfully we’re in San Francisco, so it’s not dramatic, but sometimes we’ll get a heat wave and it will change the dynamics of our operation, we’ll have to make adjustments on the fly.
Q: What flavor difference does sourdough bring to pizza?
The biggest difference is that, with any baked good with conventional yeast, you’re going to taste yeast. It’s a very distinct taste. Our sourdough specifically, what you’re going to taste is something that’s a little more nourishing and wholesome. You’re doing to get a little bit of the whole grain but not too much, it doesn’t taste like a whole-grain pizza. It’s something more artisan. You’re going to get a finish that’s slightly acidic, enough that you want to take another bite. It’s addicting — it makes you salivate. With any ferment, there’s this metabolic process where you’re salivating more, you’re wanting more, it’s your instinct.
Q: Sourdough Story was the first USDA organic and Non GMO verified pizza on the market. Why was that important to you to get those certifications?
This was a point of contention. Just because industrial organics and the fact that having this certifications does not inherently validate that you’re a thoughtful brand. The reason I would argue it was the right decision is it creates immediate consumer trust, and puts us in channels that we want to grow into quickly, whether its natural or conventional. It gives us a point of differentiation against brands that aren’t thoughtful at all. It helps us with our sales funnel, and through the sales process being able to go to buyers and check the box. It also gives us leverage in closing new accounts.
For consumers, if anything, having both shows we’ve done our due diligence and we’ve been vetted. Overarchingly, I think it was the right decision.
Q: Is there a lot of competition from the gluten-free market?
My whole thing is that, whether you’re gluten free or not, at the end of the day, people want to feel good about eating pizza. We’re providing people an avenue to feel good about eating pizza.
There’s so many new entrants in the gluten-free space. What really bugs me about gluten-free products is a lot of them don’t care how they’re sourcing their ingredients. They’ll get terrible rice flours you don’t even know where they’re coming from, or cauliflower from international markets, or processed cheeses making up crusts. Our thing: we’re going with tradition. We’re going to trust the heirloom staples, sourdough being one of them, that’s been around for thousands of years, that’s touching every culture. I think it’s good for us to be different.
Q: Where is your copacker, are they in Northern California?
Yes, they’re in Berkeley. It’s a copacker made up of artisan pizzaiolo from Italy. Every pizza is handmade and hand stretched. It’s a USDA organic facility. It’s only us and then their line of organic products. It’s a special little manufacturing facility.
Q: More and more retail news shows fermented pizza dough is an increasing trend. Why do you think so?
If I had to say one thing I’d start with flavor. You win people on taste. And I don’t think there’s anyway a modern bread can taste better than sourdough. The reason being it’s pure umami flavor. If you ferment dough correctly, you’re going to get this incredible flavor that’s unmimicked by conventional applications.
Q: Where do you see the future of Sourdough Story?
We want to have a national footprint in natural and conventional. More importantly, we want to be the authority for all things sourdough based. We want to provide research, we want to provide recipes and information on how to get people involved in traditional baking, we want to be the point on all things sourdough based, and really creating a category for it. And we see the brand expanding beyond pizza in the future, too.
Q: Do you think consumers awareness of fermented foods is increasing?
Wholeheartedly, yes. Almost all my friends have jars of kraut in their fridge now. The whole microbiome, all the understanding and science coming out on the importance of the microbiome, how it influences all elements of health from your mood to your skin to you name it. I think it’s an extremely exciting industry. Not to mention that fermented foods are popping up everywhere. Look at kombucha, look at fermented, plant-based yogurts. They’re everywhere. I think it’s one of the hottest trends.
Q: What challenges do fermented food producers face?
From the manufacturing side, it’s hard to scale a fermented food. It’s hard to scale any manufacturing product, but with fermented food, there’s value in having a smaller volume. It’s also a living organism, it’s really a living thing with a personality that you really need to really thoughtfully think of how to scale. You also just have to learn from your mistakes, it’s just a trial by error thing. It’s a growing category and there’s a ton of competition.
Q: What are the fermented food industry strengths?
I think the entire ecosystem of retail is going to healthy food, functional food, slow food. When you look at Wal-Mart being the largest seller of organic products, that’s exciting. That’s correlated to the fact that people want to eat healthy. Fermentation is a staple and tiller of health in every single culture, you name it. Every corner of the world has fermented food.
Q: Where do you see the future of the fermented food industry?
I think the future would be people being a household necessity to the point where people are trying to get a form of fermented food in their diet every single day. It’s becoming a preventative medicine, and that’s promising.
Q: What’s your advice to other entrepreneurs starting a fermentation brand?
Start small and don’t grow too fast. We’ve had some serious growing pains, and just really try to add value to the product, listen to your consumer, and you get in front of it as many consumers as you can and gather feedback so you can find your niche.
And also, tap into the community. What excites me the most about fermentation and food in general is there’s so many people willing to help and provide advice.
Q: What can the fermentation industry do to better educate the public about fermented foods?
The onus is on, the brands. this was one of the reasons I started a food company, people vote with their dollars. And the best was to educate is to create a really good product.
Enhanced flavor, tangy dough and gluten-sensitive ingredients are making fermented pizza dough a new trend. Slow, fermented pizza dough is starting to appear on more pizzeria menus. Chef Max Balliet of Lupo in Kentucky said “The sourness is the biggest variable that you can affect with time. But what I like, instead of going full-force sour, is more of a balance. That way, there’s a bit of intrigue there. When that’s done properly, it gives you a dough that’s got complexity.”
Read more (The Manual)
A “bread nerd” in California made a loaf of sourdough using yeast extracted from 4,000-year-old Egyptian artifact. Baker Seamus Blackley (creator of the Xbox) is a bread hobbyist who collects ancient yeast for delicious dough experiments. The New York Times feature on Blackley’s latest sourdough says: “Yeast is a living thing — a fungus. … Once they run out of food, yeast spores go dormant — rather than simply dying — and stay quietly viable for thousands of years until they are extracted.”
Read more (The New York Times)