The Art of Bread: Sour Flour


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I like to bake. I can whip up killer cookies, delectable pies, cheesecakes and more without batting an eye.

But bread is another story. Bread scares me.

I have always been in awe of bakers who can make a perfect artisan loaf. You know the bread I’m talking about; those rustic, hand-shaped loaves with a crunchy, golden-brown crust and a soft, chewy interior. Achieving that result takes technique, patience, and a basic understanding of alchemy.

I wanted a membership in THAT club.

San Francisco is known for its sourdough bread. Established local bakeries like Boudin and Acme have built their reputations on it. Every time I pass a display of freshly baked sourdough, I feel a twinge of envy. How do they do it? How do they make those perfect, tangy loaves? IMG_7841

I decided to “rise” to the occasion and do some research. That’s when I learned about Sour Flour, a company dedicated to helping people discover the joys of bread baking.

Sour Flour was born in 2008 when founder Danny Gabriner started baking, and giving away, his loaves of sourdough bread. Danny’s idea blossomed into a bustling business and “breaducation” center where people could learn the art and science of bread baking. Intrigued, I enrolled in their “starter” bread making workshop.

Classes meet in the commercial kitchen at the iconic La Victoria bakery in San Francisco’s Mission District, and offer fun, hands-on instruction in a small group setting.

IMG_7856Leading our group was bread educator Cat Shimizu, a former hospital administrator who began baking with sourdough two years ago and never looked back. During the two-hour workshop, Cat patiently took us through the process of developing a naturally fermented wild-yeast starter, and shared trade IMG_7867IMG_7864 1techniques used by artisan bakers for making the delicious breads I’ve always longed to create.

On this day our class made sourdough flatbread. Gathered around a large wood prep table, we experienced the fun of mixing flour, salt, water, and a five-year-old sourdough starter named “Dolce” into wonderfully elastic dough.

Next we learned how to stretch and fold our dough, before setting it aside in the warmth of the kitchen to “relax” before baking. IMG_7870

While we waited, Cat presents each of us with our own dollop of starter to take home along with instructions for its care and feeding.  She tells us to name it, since starter personalized with an identity is more likely to be tended to over time. I name mine “Baby” since it will need air, water, regular feedings, and some TLC to create future loaves of sourdough bread.

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Finally we divide the dough into small portions and finish with our choice of toppings–sesame and poppy seeds, fresh herbs, chopped onion, and a grey sea salt. We lay them IMG_7886on a baking sheet for a short firing in a hot oven.

The kitchen fills with the smell of fresh bread as anticipation grows. In ten minutes time the flatbreads emerge—golden and inviting. We add a drizzle of olive oil, fresh parmesan cheese, and a bit of spicy arugula before we taste. The instant I bite into the chewy slab of warm flatbread I know I’m hooked. There’s nothing like the simple pleasure of fresh-baked bread.

I’m still a bit afraid of baking bread, but Sour Flour and Cat made the process less intimidating. And the memory of the flatbread we made at the workshop gives me hope and courage to keep trying. I can hardly wait to experiment with my “Baby” in the months ahead, hopefully birthing some homemade sourdough bread for family and friends.

If you’d like to be “breaducated,” check out Sour Flour’s website for a list of their upcoming classes.

Categories: Bakers, Chefs and Cooking Classes, UncategorizedTags: , , , , , , ,

4 comments

  1. Karen, I would love to be on the receiving end if you want to practice. I won’t let any of it go to waste…yum!

  2. The bread in the picture at the top looks divine. I would rather sink my teeth into a bread like that than any kind of dessert. I make bread often, it is good, but not as good as those Italian bakeries and the San Francisco sourdough bakeries. I will certainly visit sour Flour’s website.

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