Expert baker Sarah Owens shares breadmaking tips
Welcoming a visitor to her new home in the hills west of Sebastopol, Sarah Owens - a sourdough expert in demand as a bread baker and workshop instructor all over the world - seems pleased that her three careers have led her to this small cottage at the end of a quiet country lane.
The one-time ceramic artist and rose specialist, Owens, 41, has most recently sunk her hands into food, specifically the naturally fermented sourdough breads she writes about in her three cookbooks published by Roost Books: “Sourdough” (2015), “Toast & Jam” (2017) and “Heirloom” (2019).
At first glance, her trio of careers appear quite disparate - from art studio to garden to kitchen - but they are intertwined.
“I like to see physical results from my efforts,” she said. “And there’s an element of time and patience, and also of things I can’t control, which is a beautiful reminder.”
With a wide smile and a natural sense of hospitality, Owens offers the visitor an impressive array of homemade baked goods and spreads laid out artfully on her kitchen table, including a 100% whole grain sourdough bread made with California-grown and milled Summit and Patwin flours, served with a homemade cultured butter, both recipes from her “Heirloom” cookbook.
“Not all flour is created equal,” she explained of her early experiment with California flour. “When you start working with locally-grown flour, you get some differences that can make a difference in your baked goods.”
She also served 100% whole grain fruit, nut and seed crackers made with oat porridge (also fermented) and paired with a homemade strained kefir topped with California date syrup and pomegranate arils grown on the farm where she lives.
Yes, all these products take time to produce - we are talking slow, slower and slowest food here. But that’s what makes them so delicious and also healthy for your gut. If you also bake with whole heirloom grains, grown organically and freshly milled, the flavor will be intensified, adding to the pleasure. But the process takes patience.
“I fell in love with the process of baking,” Owens said. “It was delicious and something I could eat.”
Over the years, Owens has turned bread baking into a political manifesto. Her initial foray into fermentation naturally led her to care about how all of her ingredients are grown and processed. That, in turn, led her to promote sustainable relationships between grain farmers, millers and customers.
“We can’t eat anymore without being political,” she said. “Our food choices have a huge impact. … I educate people about the whole process, and when they understand that things taste good because of X, Y and Z, that’s how you grow a movement and create sustainable change.”
Corporations used to drive consumer interest, she said. Now social media has handed the consumer more power.
“If the consumer wants einkorn flour (an ancient grain), a big mill will work with the small farmers to grow it,” she said. “You vote with your fork.”
But Owens doesn’t want to just bring back the old, traditional foods. She also hopes to bring about real change. Often that means making compromises.
“I like to work with stone ground flour, but I’ve worked with all kinds of flour because you can’t shut people out,” she said. “I like the flavor and digestibility of ancient grains, but I’m not a purist.”
Pottery to kitchen pots
Owens grew up in the Appalachian Mountains, in the hollers of east Tennessee, foraging and cooking with her grandmothers. She studied pottery in college, working as a ceramic artist in the South for six years. Then she pulled up roots and moved to New York to study horticulture, which led to a high-pressure job as steward of the 5,000-rose Cranford Rose Collection at the renowned Brooklyn Botanical Garden.
While trying to determine what ailed the historic roses - it turned out to be a virus - Owens fell sick with debilitating intestinal issues exacerbated by stress. Seeking a holistic approach to healing, she started eating a more natural diet of fermented foods to nurture the good bacteria in her belly and boost her immune system.
“I started fermenting as a way to bring back probiotics to help mitigate the phytic acid in all seeds,” she said. “So I started soaking and fermenting and making sourdough bread.”
This radical change in diet ended up launching her third career, as a freelance cookbook author, teacher and artisan baker. In 2010, she founded BK17 Bakery to bring real bread - baked with natural fermentation from organic heritage grains and seasonal ingredients - to her Brooklyn community.