Sourdough Baking with Sarah Owens
With winter weather in full effect, it's the perfect time to heat up the oven and get baking. We recently chatted with Sarah Owens, owner of Brooklyn micro-bakery BK17 and author of Sourdough, a collection of rustic recipes for breads and baked goods featuring fermented sourdough starter. While adding a fresh, zesty flavor to baking, sourdough also boasts excellent health benefits; like many fermented foods, it offers beneficial bacteria for healthy digestion. An avid gardener and former curator at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Sarah's recipes are influenced by the seasons and the garden's best offerings. She's sharing her story and some favorites for winter baking, below.
terrain: To start, can you tell us a bit about your garden?
Sarah: I split my time between Kentucky and Brooklyn, where I was formerly a curator at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden specializing in roses. Wherever I am, I always have personal garden to experiment and grow unusual or exotic ingredients. This year, I tried out new herbs, specifically those indigenous to South America. I'm very inspired by spices and flavors from around the world; when I'm in New York, I go into spice shops and wander the aisles until something catches my eye. One of my recent finds is a South American herb called papalo. It's a beautiful plant that grows really well and is able to withstand hot weather. It tastes just like cilantro, but has a much longer growing season as well as beautiful blooms and seed pods. I love to grow edible plants that also have ornamental value, like statuesque herbs and beets with lush foliage.
terrain: How does your background as a botanist inspire you as a baker?
Sarah: Sourdough is a wild culture that's formed from a combination of different yeasts and bacteria, which live symbiotically with fermentation cultures. To nurture a sourdough starter and keep it alive, you have to be really sensitive to the nuances of time, temperature, and humidity that influence its behavior. As a gardener, you're also very much living with those variables, so working with sourdough fell very naturally into my life. Being inspired by the seasons, weather, and what I'm cultivating in the garden led to a curiosity about adding new ingredients in the kitchen, for example incorporating scented geranium into a jam loaf.
terrain: How does working with sourdough culture influence the flavor or other qualities of baked goods?
Sarah: Sourdough is traditionally a leavening agent for breads, and is less commonly used in things like cookies or cakes. To maintain the starter, you have to discard a bit now and then. With roots in Depression-era baking, a lot of nontraditional sourdough recipes are developed to use the excess starter and avoid any waste. Used in combination with the right ingredients, the acidic flavor of the sourdough can help to heighten or brighten other flavors in baking. For example, certain fruits with a sweet-tart flavor really benefit from a sourdough pairing, as does chocolate.
terrain: How do you go about creating a new recipe?
Sarah: It depends on the time of year and the ingredients that I can access. I often start with a strong craving or a bounty of produce, as in zucchini season when you have too much and need recipes to use it up! I'm also inspired by ingredients sent from friends and readers in places far away-- persimmons from California, guavas, loquats. Seasonality is very important to me, too. I want to get the best nutritional benefits out of my ingredients, so it's key that they're fresh and at their peak.
terrain: What are some of your favorite items for winter baking?
Sarah: Winter is the most challenging time of year to cook, but it's a beautiful time to bake! Summer can be very inspiring thanks to all the produce, but you can use a lot of delicious winter ingredients in baking-- squashes, pears, beets, root vegetables, dried fruits, and more. In winter, some of my favorite recipes from the book are cakes-- the Pear and Buckwheat Cake and an upside-down cake with pears and cranberries. They're beautiful for serving at breakfast, since they're full of whole grains and fruit, but not too sweet. I also love the Bleu Cheese and Walnut Crackers and Vegetable Breadsticks for snacking or entertaining.
Photos via Sourdough by Sarah Owens. Photographs by Ngoc Minh Ngo. 2015, Roost Books.