Pique L’appétit (French for appetite) is a Q&A series that empowers readers to dabble in the art, science, and culture of food and beverage crafts.
It was a sunny afternoon when I met up with Sarah Thompson and Carlos Marcano of Qué Será, Sarah Bakery, where everything from savory breads to sweet pastries is made from sourdough. They were dropping off their latest loaves of bread at the Health Food Shoppe on North Anthony Boulevard.
Prior to this gathering, I knew Sarah from her delicate, yet functional hand-thrown porcelain that I’d seen over the years at art festivals and farmers markets. I felt eager to talk to her about her delicious, new endeavor.
For one, the whole idea of sourdough having its own ecosystem within itself — chock-full of bacteria that develop its uniquely tangy flavor — really piques my inner geek. And on top of sourdough’s lively debonair, it all happens organically. The dough collects the bacteria it needs from its surroundings. So whatever is in the air, on the counter tops, on the baker’s skin, provides the essential beginnings for what turns into this sharp and aromatic loaf. Sourdoughs seemed so innately effortless to me. That was, until I learned more about the process.
I was equally enthused to reconnect with Sarah. In our brief, but pleasant past encounters, she had this brightness to her. She was always warm-mannered and would speak about her creations with enough passion to excite Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. Upon getting to know her and her boyfriend, Carlos, better, I somehow found them even sweeter and more inspiring than I had realized.
They are true artisans through and through. As we all swapped stories about artistry, failures and triumphs, we spoke about their latest adventure at Two EEs Winery, where they were asked to fill in an opening for a food truck. Sarah and Carlos agreed to it, excited by the idea of a totally new experience. The only issue was it was one week away, and they didn’t even own a food truck. So, within a week, Carlos made an entire food cart, equipped with running water and everything else they needed for their swiftly composed brunch menu, which featured a variety of sourdough tartines. Neither of them had experience working on a food truck, but they didn’t let that deter them.
I felt the remnants of their panicked rush, followed by the sweet, all-consuming flood of victory they were still coming down from as they recalled their story. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and it turned what could have been a 30-minute interview into hours of exuberant conversation.
Sarah and I settled in as one of the Health Food Shoppe employees took photos of her bread. She carried a few loaves, one as a gift for me, and one for the photographer, adorned with the Qué Será, Sarah logo, which of course, she designed herself. And after reintroducing ourselves over coffee and soup, we got into my questions.
Q & A
Molly: I want to delve into the subject of wild yeasts and bacteria because I am totally fascinated by the whole process of fermentation. From what I know, lactobacilli — bacteria similar to those that curdle milk into yogurts and cheeses — go to work, giving the dough its acidity and contributing the carbon dioxide needed for the dough to rise. It converts sugars in the flour into lactic and acetic acids, which are what gives sourdough its tang. This drops the dough’s pH levels considerably, making it hard for other harmful microorganisms to survive. These new conditions allow the yeasts that can handle the change in habitat to start the fermentation process.
When I read all of this, I thought about how wild and uncontainable the operation must be. It seems like you’d just have to surrender your control, get the flour, water, and wild yeast together and let each component work itself out. Am I right about all of this? And tell me, what are some challenges you’ve experienced working with such an unruly process?
Sarah: Yes, you’re totally right. It definitely does what it wants and when it wants to do it. And you cannot rush it. So, that can be hard. Sometimes it’s growing, and it’s fermenting, and it’s doing its thing quicker than you’re ready for. I think a big challenge for me (that other bakers may not have) is that I’m usually working on my bread while I’m also working at my shop. So it’s easy to get tied up helping a customer when I know that the dough is ready for me. Timing is really important. Sometimes, I’ve been preoccupied, and the dough will just spill right out of its container because it’s always active and working. It’s not waiting for me.
There’s also a very specific time that I personally like to pull from its mother-starter. And if I wait too long to collect the starter, the dough will have a different flavor in the end result. So, I feel like I’m always battling time. That it’s ready for me when I’m not quite ready for it. So that’s something I have to be sure to pay attention to, and make it a priority so that I don’t start something days prior that prevent it from being the best loaf that it could be.
M: The challenge that you’re speaking of with the flavor, is that something to do with that special tang that you get from a sourdough?
S: Exactly, and to me, you really can’t have it too sour. I love it, and I don’t really shy away from it. When people buy my breads, I want them to expect sour. I don’t ever want them to take it home and experience a mild loaf. I really want them to taste the sour. So I’m always trying to pull when I can get that intense sour flavor, and for me, that’s when the mother-starter has just started to fall. So if I pull too soon or too late, just because that’s a more convenient time for me, it won’t result in the flavor I’m looking for.
M: You’ve talked a lot about what you call your mother-starter, which is the live culture you’re pulling from to start each batch of your sourdoughs. I’ve heard this referred to as “micro-farming,” where the baker takes that original culture from their very first batch, and they continue to keep it alive by feeding it flour daily. They can repeat this process over and over, so that all future batches are created using the same culture. I’ve read that a well-fed culture can last for years. You practice micro-farming at Qué Será, Sarah, correct?
S: Oh yeah, and the mother can last forever to my knowledge. I know some bakeries have had theirs for over one hundred years. I mean, as long as you take care of it. It can’t get too hot or too cold. And you can’t skip feedings.
M: What’s the longest you’ve kept a strain alive for?
S: My starter that I started with in May is the same one that I’m using now. So, the original is still alive and used for every batch I make.
M: Do you feel particularly attached to it? I feel like, for me, it would be really similar to nurturing a houseplant and feeling that sense of pride when you get to watch it thrive.
S: Yes! It’s so true. It’s like a pet (laughter). We always talk about it like it’s our pet. A lot of sourdough bakers actually name their starter. I just haven’t really thought of a good name for it yet. So I just call it the mother.
M: I read an interview with a French microbiologist named Bernard Onno about his studies on the biodiversity of sourdough. In the interview, he said that 50% of taste comes from the culture, but the other 50% comes from the baker’s craft. Can you tell me something special about your particular practice? What makes Qué Será, Sarah’s sourdoughs distinctive in your mind?
S: That’s a good quote. It’s so true. I’d say blood, sweat, and tears (laughter). No, I’m kidding. I’ve talked about when I pull from the mother to make my leaven. I’ve found that particular time to pull which gives me the flavor that I prefer. That’s a major factor, for sure. Also, the amount of time that I let it ferment. I let it ferment at room temperature for a while and that builds flavor, but it also lets the wild yeast do its thing. I mean, it’s doing its thing all the time because it’s alive. But it’s important to give it extra time to go to work. You can actually see the bubbles because it’s actively fermenting in there.
Then, I do one more important step: I cold proof my dough overnight. So, after it’s fermented, you could technically shape and then bake right from there. But I take it and give it one more day to let it cold ferment at about 40 degrees overnight. That slows down the proofing, but it lets the flavor continue to develop. Then, I bake the next day. So, I think those three things: (1) When I build my leaven and pull from the mother starter; (2) The fermentation at room temperature (I think the technical term for it is ambient fermenting); and (3) The cold proofing. Those are the three big factors for me that I really pay attention to.
M: It seems like it needs a lot of your attention. The process sounds really involved and time intensive. Your personal schedule must revolve heavily around the schedule of your sourdoughs. How long does a batch generally take from start to end?
S: So, I’ll build my leaven on Monday night, and that won’t be ready until Wednesday. The first night, I’m building and then letting the active ingredients work throughout the night. Then, Tuesday I’m mixing and shaping. Tuesday night is when I cold proof. Then Wednesday morning is when I bake. So, it typically takes me from Monday evening to Wednesday morning.
M: What I’m beginning to take away from this interview is that time is of the essence. Outside of allotting a decent amount of time, what advice would you give someone attempting to make their first sourdough loaf?
S: I would tell them to get a scale that measures in grams because everything needs to be really precise. The flour-to-water ratio is very important. I’d also recommend a thermometer because the temperature at which you incorporate your ingredients, even your flour and water, is going to play into how long the rest of the process takes.
As a general rule, warmer temperatures are going to make things happen faster, but if it’s too warm, it will kill your yeast. So you can’t just think that you can put hot water in the dough and be done in a day. And then of course, the colder the temperature, the slower things will move. Those are just some tools and general guidelines I’d suggest.
Maybe more importantly, as an emotional suggestion, I’d say to let the sourdough do its thing; be patient, and if it doesn’t turn out, it’s fine. You don’t have to eat it. It’s not a big deal. It can be an experiment.
My first couple of sourdoughs were flat and horrible. They had a lot of good tang to them, but I could not get a good oven spring out of them. That was mostly due to the proofing time and then the condition of my oven. I’ll be honest, in a home oven, it can be more difficult. But that’s how I started. The first four markets I did, the batches were done in a home oven in my commercial shop. I have a nicer oven now. It is totally possibly to do sourdough in a home oven, but it’s more of a challenge. Sourdoughs need steam, and it’s just harder to create that steam in a home oven.
There are just so many different components that go into it. So, you really need to appreciate the complexity of the creation and also enjoy problem solving. There will be a lot of different issues to arise and part of the fun is getting to work through them. It’s also good to remember that it will never be perfect. There will always be something to learn from. So just have fun with it.
Sarah’s white Sourdough recipe 101
Low in hydration, so it’s easier to handle for beginners. Don’t forget to make it sour, dough!
50g water to incorporate after autolyse
788g all-purpose flour
163g bread flour
Mix flours and 550 grams of water. Let it rest for one hour. Then incorporate for leaven (a substance (such as yeast) used to produce fermentation in dough or a liquid), 50 grams water, and salt. Mix until you have some good gluten development. Next, do a series of stretch and folds. One every half hour, until enough gluten has developed (about 3-4 stretch and folds). Then, let it ferment at room temperature until it has doubled in size. Shape and cold proof (let it rise in a cool area) overnight. Bake at 550 degrees for the first 10-15 minutes. Then, lower to 500 degrees until the loaves reach an internal temperature of 209 degrees. Wait until loaves are room temperature before slicing.
Want to catch Sarah and Carlos’s food cart in action?
They’ll be serving brunch at Two EE’s Winery on September 10th and October 22nd. You can also find their baked goods at the Barr Street Market. And you’ll want to keep an eye out for Qué Será, Sarah at other pop-up events around town. They plan on experimenting with new and exciting menu features (not so subtle hint: sourdough pizza!).
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