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.

“To get better at baking, you have to do it a lot. It’s a craft, and that takes repetition,” she said. “I was giving bread away, and then I thought, why don’t I turn this into a small business?”

Owens eventually moved to a little bungalow in Rockaway Beach, a peninsula between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean in Queens, where she continued to bake and teach.

“Three years into that, I had grown quite a following,” she said. “People could fly in and spend the weekend and take a workshop.”

Looking for another source of revenue, she started a mail-order company called Ritual Fine Foods, baking naturally-fermented cookies made from whole grains, with an emphasis on unrefined sugar.

“It grew really fast,” she said. “I was working 10- to 18-hour days in the basement.”

‘Cook the Farm’

While taking a much-needed sabbatical in Oaxaca in January 2019, Owens learned a pipe had burst in her Rockaway home, ruining everything she owned.

As a result, she was invited to live on a small, diversified farm in Sebastopol - Rare Breed Farm - owned by Jack May and Hilary Austen.

“Hilary and Jack wanted to become a licensed creamery and build a production kitchen,” she said. “They asked if I would consider being a part of that.”

The couple hopes to open their production kitchen by the spring of 2021. The kitchen is expected to help stock a farm CSA (community supported agriculture program) and also serve as a cooking school, Cook the Farm Workshop.

“Sarah is a wonderful, inspiring teacher who first introduced me to the mysteries of sourdough baking,” Austen said. “She has a wealth of knowledge to share about bread, fermenting and making delicious, healthy food. I can’t think of anyone better to be here to cook, bake and help us share the amazing production of our farm.”

Owens drove across the country in October 2019 and arrived in the West Coast as fires burned up and down California. After getting evacuated from Los Angeles and trapped in Big Sur, she deposited her things at the farm in Sebastopol and went to the Pacific Northwest, where she taught in Oregon and toured while waiting for the evacuation orders in Sebastopol to lift.

Now that she’s finally settled into Sonoma County, the renowned baker has started teaching workshops at Miracle Plum in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square. (see box for upcoming class details).

“For the next year, I will support myself without any bread production,” she said. “I’ll be focused on writing, touring and workshops.”

Meanwhile, she’s excited to have a yard again, where she can reconnect with nature and grow things while continuing her exploration of fermentation.


The following recipe is from “Heirloom” by Owens, reprinted with permission from Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boulder, Colorado.

“This basic, everyday bread harnesses the microbial power of sourdough as natural leavening. It is a gateway recipe with modest hydration that’s perfect for learning to make sourdough using locally sourced stone-ground flours,” Owens wrote. “Although commercial flours will work in this recipe, they contain fewer flavor and nutritional benefits. As you make your loaf, it is important to engage all of your senses to discover and master the subtle cues of sourdough fermentation. I suggest you practice this recipe until you feel comfortable with each step, the flours you have sourced and the outcome before moving on to more advanced recipes.

“This formula contains only about 20% whole grain with the remainder of the recipe using high-extraction stone-ground hard wheat bread flour, which you can mail-order from specialty millers. You will often see these flours referred to by percentages, with the standard for high-extraction 85% or above. These extractions include all the precious germ and a maximum of 15% of the bran sifted out. This leads to a lighter crumb with almost all the flavor and nutritional benefits of whole grain. But feel free to tweak the flour and fermentation to your personal preferences of flavor, texture, nutrition and aesthetics (see notes below). If using commercial flour, you may need to decrease the water content by 5% to 10% (40 to 80 grams).”

Table Loaf

Makes 2 loaves

For the leaven:

25 grams / 1 heaping tablespoon 100% hydration active starter, refreshed (fed)

55 grams / about 1/4 cup tepid water (70 to 75 degrees)

55 grams / 1/2 cup whole-grain flour (rye, spelt or whole wheat work well)

For the dough:

135 grams / 2/3 cup leaven (see above)

610 grams / 2 1/2 cups + 3 tablespoons tepid water (75 degrees)

620 grams / 4 1/4 cups + 2 tablespoons high-extraction bread flour

120 grams / 1 cup + 1 tablespoon whole wheat bread flour

40 grams / 2 1/2 tablespoons whole rye flour

16 grams / 1 tablespoon fine sea salt

- Cornmeal, for sprinkling

Prepare the leaven

Place the starter and tepid water in a large bowl and stir to form a slurry. Add the flour and mix with a spoon until no dry lumps remain. Cover with an inverted bowl or plastic wrap and ferment at room temperature for about 8 hours, until the leaven has swelled considerably in size and bubbles break the surface.

Mix the dough

When the leaven shows bubbles breaking the surface and has swelled considerably in size, add the water and stir to combine. Add the flours and, using your hands, mix and squeeze the dough in a circular motion until no dry lumps remain. Cover and autolyze (rest) the dough for about 20 minutes, until the flour is fully hydrated. Sprinkle the salt evenly over the surface of the dough and squeeze to combine.

This is an excellent time to feel how the flour is performing in the recipe. The dough should feel sticky and be easy to mix with your hands. If the dough resists or feels too stiff, add more water in 20- to 25-gram increments, thoroughly mixing it in until the dough is no longer slick or shiny on the surface.

At this point, you may slap and fold the dough on a clean work surface to encourage further gluten development. (Note: this technique doesn’t work with the 100% whole-grain version below, as the increased bran content will encourage more tearing than is desired at this point.) To slap and fold, remove the dough from the bowl using a bowl scraper and slap it against a clean surface, dragging the dough to stretch, then fold it over itself. Repeat this step in a rhythmic fashion until the dough transforms from a shaggy mass into a more cohesive, smooth form, about 5 minutes. If the dough begins to tear, cover with an inverted bowl or plastic wrap and allow to rest for a few minutes before starting again.

Bulk fermentation

Return the dough to the bowl and cover once more. Set the bowl aside in a warm location (ideally 75 degrees) to bulk ferment for 3½ to 4 hours, possibly a bit longer in winter or a tad shorter on a hot summer day. As it ferments, stretch and fold the dough in the bowl every 30 to 45 minutes to help develop the gluten network essential for trapping fermentation gases. To do this, wet your hands to prevent the dough from sticking and gently slide the fingers of both hands under the dough mass. Release the dough from the side of the bowl and gently fold it to the center. Rotate the bowl and repeat 3 or 4 times, until you have worked your way around the dough mass. Toward the end of bulk fermentation, take care not to overhandle or deflate the dough.

The dough will start as a shaggy mass and, as it ferments, become cohesive and smooth. It’s ready to be shaped when the dough has increased by at least one third and you see fermentation bubbles breaking the surface.

Shape the dough

Shaping the dough is done in two stages: a pre-shape with a short bench resting period, followed by a tighter final shaping. Using a bowl scraper, swiftly remove the dough from the bowl and place it on a lightly floured surface. Use a bench scraper to divide the dough in half. Using your hands, bring the top of the dough to the center, followed by the bottom and two sides in a north, south, east, west motion. Tuck the resulting four corners to the middle to make a slightly rounded form. Using your bench scraper, release the dough from the work surface and flip it over so it’s seam-side down. Cover with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap if the air is dry and allow to rest for 10 to 30 minutes until it has visibly relaxed.

To finally shape moderate-to high-hydration doughs, use a “stitching” method: Use the bench scraper to flip the dough over onto a lightly floured surface so it’s seam-side up. Starting from the top, tuck the right side to the center, holding it in place while you bring the left side to the center, overlapping with the first. Repeat this side-to-side stitching until you reach the bottom of the dough. Roll the bottom to the center, then all the way over so the seam is facing down, tucking as you go to create tension. Flour the top of the loaf generously. Use your bench scraper to pick up the dough and flip it over into one hand so it’s seam-side up. Cradle it into an 8- to 8½-inch proofing basket, then cover with a cloth. Cover that with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to retard for at least 8 hours or up to 24 hours before baking.

Bake the loaf

Remove your loaf from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature for about 1 hour. When it is ready to bake, it should feel like an inflated water balloon when gently poked with a finger. The impression should linger in the dough rather than immediately bounce back, signaling that the bacteria and yeast have done their work.

Place a 5- to 7-quart Dutch oven in the middle rack of the oven and preheat the oven to ?480 degrees for 20 minutes.

Sprinkle a touch of cornmeal on a piece of parchment paper cut to fit the Dutch oven and carefully flip your loaf onto it seam-side down, gently releasing it from the liner if it sticks. Sprinkle a little flour onto the surface of the loaf before scoring for a more graphic contrast (but be sure to dust off any excess, as a mouthful of raw flour is rather unappetizing!). Score the top of the loaf with a sharp, thin razor blade about 1/3 inch deep (this allows the loaf to fully expand in a controlled manner as it bakes).

For the characteristic “ear” that also sports a delicious crunch, cut about two thirds across the loaf lengthwise at a 45-degree angle. For more complicated designs with multiple cuts, cut at a 90-degree angle with more shallow pressure. Regardless of your approach, swift confidence will give you the cleanest lines. With time and practice, you’ll know how much pressure to apply to achieve the designs you want. If you add decorative scoring flourishes to the first score, be aware this will cause the loaf to spread and flatten before going into the oven. Carefully lower the loaf into the preheated Dutch oven, cover and return it to the oven. Bake with the lid on for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and decrease the oven temperature by 10 degrees to 15 degrees (more for doughs with higher hydration). Bake for another 15 to 20 minutes, until the crust is a deep, rusty brown or the color of your liking. Remove using a spatula and cool on a wire rack for at least 2 hours before slicing to allow the crumb to fully set.

Kitchen notes: Home ovens vary widely in their heat source and distribution. I suggest using an oven thermometer to gauge the proper temperature, making minor adjustments to the oven temperature and baking time if necessary. If your oven is equipped with a fan assist, turn it off as your loaf bakes, if possible, to prevent the crust from setting before the loaf has fully expanded.

If you are using a cast-iron pan, you may need to remove the loaf from the Dutch oven after about 25 minutes of total baking time to keep the bottom from burning before the crumb is set. Do this carefully to avoid burning yourself. Finish baking on the middle rack for an additional 12 to 20 minutes.

Table Loaf variations

When making adjustments, ingredients are calculated in percentages measured against the total flour weight of the dough.

Using whole-grain flour

If you are fortunate enough to have access to low-temperature, slowly and finely milled whole wheat bread flour, you may use this instead of high-extraction bread flour with an additional 8% to 15% (60 to 115 grams) water in the final dough. Also, you can hold back the leaven from the initial mix of flour and water and add it along with the salt at least an hour (or up to 3 hours) after the dough has been mixed. This will allow the flour to become fully hydrated and gain gluten strength necessary for proper leavening before fermentation begins.

Once the leaven and salt have been added, continue with bulk fermentation at room temperature for 3 1/2 to 4 hours before moving on to shaping, retarding and baking. Be aware that using a higher percentage of freshly milled whole-grain flour will yield a faster fermentation from greater enzyme activity in the flour, increased microbial populations on the flour and more bio-available food for those microbes. Shorter bulk and refrigerated fermentation times will likely be necessary. If you find overproofing to be an issue, decrease the leaven to about 10% to 12% (78 to 94 grams).

Using flour alternatives

If you cannot source high-extraction flour or you have a home mill, you can use a screen or sieve to sift out bran particles of stone-milled whole wheat bread flour to achieve a high-extraction flour. If, however, you wish to make this bread 100% whole grain using coarsely ground flour but want a lighter result, simply use this sifted bran to help feed your starters. This will soften its sharp nature by soaking and fermenting it for an extended period before incorporating it into the dough. This mitigates the potential of the bran cutting through the gluten network that captures the carbon dioxide gases responsible for leavening your bread, with less dense results. Toast the bran before fermenting for a robust flavor boost.

Climate fluctuations

When Owens teaches basic sourdough classes, this is the recipe she suggests bakers new to using natural leavening follow throughout the seasons. Along with keeping a detailed journal of notes, using one formula time and again will allow you to compare differences in variables, including fluctuating seasonal temperatures and humidity. If your summers are hot and you find the dough is overproofing, try using less leaven, taking the percentage of this formula (17% or about 135 grams) down to 12% to 15% of the total flour weight (94 to 117 grams) to slow the fermentation process while maintaining the same timing for each step.

In the winter, when dough moves considerably slower, you may wish to increase the leaven by another 2% to 7% of the total flour weight (156 to 195 grams leaven). Whether you are following this recipe to the letter or any of its suggested variations, remember that using regional flours may require more or less water in the final dough. There will be some trial and error depending on your familiarity with the flour. If you live in or are using flours sourced from a humid climate, you will need anywhere from 5% to 10% less water to achieve a workable dough. Conversely, if you live in or are using flour grown and milled in an arid environment, you may need 10% to 15% more water to properly hydrate your flours.

The goal is to find a happy medium that you are comfortable handling and that yields a pleasing loaf. There is no right or wrong in how this is done, but if you understand the methods and reasoning behind each step, you can make the necessary adjustments.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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