By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Mixing a bowl of flour, water and sourdough bread starter by hand is a sticky experience but it’s the start of creating crusty, healthy sourdough bread at Red Hen Artisanale near Priceville.
Owner and baker, Lauren Hambleton, is a bread whiz having graduated from Humber College’s culinary program and creating the bread and pastry program at Peller Estates Winery. The sourdough starter she developed there has been growing strong for eight years and it's what her students use when signing up for bread making classes at her new baking studio, a gorgeous “she-shed” with everything one can need to bake bread, pies and whatever she chooses to teach.
“It’s about going back to our natural roots by fermenting the foods we fuel our system with,” says Hambleton. She has a love for “all things sourdough” and also believes in encouraging community with a small group setting and “ask-anything” approach.
As gut health, digestion and weight become increasingly entwined, sourdough bread is gaining popularity as a healthier choice because it can be easier to digest for some people. Some studies indicate that sourdough bread acts as a prebiotic, which means that the fibre in the bread helps feed the “good” bacteria in your intestines. These bacteria are important for maintaining a stable, healthy digestive system.
It’s why I chose to take The Sourdough Experience -- Level 1. I love bread but I’m tired of feeling bloated and guilty from eating it. I’ve been buying sourdough bread from the grocery store for months but as prices continue to soar and loaves are costing $6 or more, I wondered if I could make my own. I could watch a video online but hands-on learning is so much more fun. Plus, I needed a starter and all Red Hen students go home with Hambleton’s starter plus directions on how to keep it alive.
Armed with an apron and mixing bowl, I arrived to find my place at a butcher block countertop along with six other classmates in the modern studio. It’s a very organized space and after each stage, Hambleton busily wipes and tidies. She’s efficient, this lady, and generous (I was to learn) with her knowledge.
Sourdough bread revolves around the starter. “It’s a living thing,” says Hambleton. Requiring the right temperature and “food”, the starter needs flour and water on a regular basis to survive. Fortunately (for who has time to make bread every day!) the starter can hibernate in the fridge, ready to get active when taken out and fed once again.
While bread can be made in a day, Hambleton says it's really a three-day process involving mixing the starter the first day, making the bread the second day, and baking it the third. I wonder to myself if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew…this sounds very time-consuming.
Hambleton starts the teaching process, saying how important temperature is to the success of making bread. She leads us through creating a log sheet/formula/chart to understand how to achieve the ideal temperature. If the dough is too cool, the yeast will be sluggish. Too warm, and the yeast gets a little crazy. Hambleton also uses a log to write down mixing, folding and rising times. “It’s easy to get side-tracked and you wonder if you are the first, second or third fold. It’s easy to get mixed up,” she says.
Hambleton recommends using bread flour for the right amount of gluten. Cake or pastry flour is too starchy. The process involves a mix, 30-minute rest, another mix (to add in salt), a 30-minute rest, four “folds” with 30 minutes in between, then two shapings with another 20-30 minutes in between. Finally, there is a three to four hour rest after which time the dough can be baked or put in the fridge for up to 20 hours to bake at another time.
It’s quite a process, and a surprisingly enjoyable one. The dough rises, changes, becomes stretchy, airy and relaxed. You can see the yeast developing the flour and feel it take on structure and develop a “skin” as it gets shaped. Patting and rounding the bread into an oval or circle before placing it into a banneton (a wicker basket used to proof bread) is almost like putting your baby down for a nap.
During this final rest, we get to chat with Hambleton and learn she now teaches baking and pastry at Humber College. She likes to learn from other bread masters and in 2017, she stayed with Tara Jensen (author of A Baker’s Year) to “absorb every detail she was willing to share about bread, fire and the stars that make up the universe we call home.”
She teaches us about scoring the bread to allow it to open up in the oven. The marks create a pattern on the loaf that can be quite artistic and also have historical significance. Hambleton said back in the time when women shared a village oven, each household would have its own bread pattern so the bakers knew whose bread was whose.
The conversation continues as Hambleton leads us in the pie-making portion of this class, using sourdough pie crust. Again, the making of it is a lovely partnership between practical and pretty as we are encouraged to create a design on the top with the three ladies at the other counter -- Maryann Palmer of Staynor, Wendy Bannon of Melancthon and Susan Warris of Allenford -- creating three “bake-shop worthy” pie crusts.
Palmer has taken other bread-making classes so she knows the basics but says “there are so many ways to make sourdough” that she takes the top tips from each class to develop her own technique.
At my table, Rahil Kadiwala, Rahim Momin and Alim Prasla were also very engaged in the process. All three work at Centurion Coffee in Guelph, a popular coffee shop with students and they hope to offer sourdough baking in the future.
As our dough rises and the day winds down, Hambleton ends the session with a lesson on growing and grinding grains to create flour. We get to choose from einkorn, emmer and spelt grains and grind a handful into a paper bag to use for future bread making. Hambleton grows her own grain in the garden for use and aesthetics. While she doesn’t currently have the space to grow enough for her bread-making needs,that is a goal of hers.
Since the class, I’ve baked eight loaves, and LOVE the texture and taste. One batch was too moist and dense (I had measured ingredients in millilitres instead of grams) but the others have come out beautifully. Terrified I’d kill the starter, I froze some and keep two jars in the fridge. I plan to make most of my bread from now on but will do it by making multiple batches at once. Like most people, I don’t have time to mix, pull and fold bread all day.
However, when I do, there is a sense of creation with the process and the loaf design. Plus, I feel respect for my forebears whose survival would have required this skill. Moreover, making bread is both a practical and gift-like offering to my family which creates a wonderful sense of provision and satisfaction. As a non-baker I could not be more surprised that something “rose” in me that day and I’m joining the ranks of those who are “stoked for sourdough!” ◊