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Basecampers Nathan Anderson and Joan Stewart talk about their love of baking bread and how to get started if you’re a newbie. As Joan says, you just have to believe.

The Full Transcript:

Nathan: [00:00:00] Sourdough was this crazy, mysterious bread that I’m like, what? I would have to make something to make the bread? Wait, you don’t add yeast? What is this? I mean, everyone knows you add yeast in bread.

[00:00:11] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:00:13] Hello and welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Shaun Hildner.

Wailin: [00:00:18] And I’m Wailin Wong. You may have noticed that a lot of people have gotten super into baking bread while sheltering in place. I see articles about it, I have friends posting pictures of their bread on social media, and I haven’t been able to find bread flour at my grocery store for like a month now.

Shaun: [00:00:35] Oh, you’re making bread as well?

Wailin: [00:00:37] No, I have this other project going where I’m trying different chocolate chip cookie recipes, and there’s a famous New York Times recipe from Jacques Torres that uses bread flour.

Shaun: [00:00:46] Well, we’ll save that for another episode. Today’s show goes out to all of you home bread bakers who are tackling sourdough for the first time. We have two bread enthusiasts at Basecamp who are here to talk about their process and what baking bread means to them.

Wailin: [00:00:59] We’re going to start with Nathan Anderson who is a systems administrator on Basecamp’s Ops team and lives near Louisville, Kentucky.

[00:01:07] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Nathan: [00:01:12] My kids, being kids, they love bread. They love sandwiches. They love peanut butter and Nutella and we, despite having a Costco membership, would run out of bread quite frequently. My mother in law, she loves garage saleing so she was like, well, do you want me to get you a breadmaker? And maybe the gadget person I am said yes. Dump the ingredients in, hit the buttons and out came a passable loaf of bread. So I just kind of started messing with it a little bit more. I’m like, well, what if I wanted to use my own pan.

[00:01:48] And so then I started looking into well, when do I need to interrupt the bread machine so that I can take the dough out and put it in its own pan and have something that doesn’t look like a bread machine loaf.

Wailin: [00:01:58] Then Nathan took a five-day artisan breadmaking class in Louisville.

Nathan: [00:02:02] We learned all about sourdough and whole grains and rye and, I mean, it was a blast.

Joan: [00:02:09] Pretty sure I got started the way, it seems like a lot of people are getting started nowadays, from the Bon Appetit YouTube channel.

Wailin: [00:02:16] Joan Stewart works in Basecamp customer support and lives in Portland, Oregon. I’ve eaten her bread and it’s amazing. Joan is also the one who introduced me to the Bon Appetit Expanded Universe.

Joan: [00:02:28] This was a couple years ago. This was when they first started getting a little bit popular. They had a video of “It’s Alive” with Brad Leone and they had one of their Test Kitchen guests, Claire Saffitz on, and they made sourdough bread together. It was a very fun, funny video, look it up, it’s a little bit of delight from a simpler time. Didn’t seem that complicated, the ingredients were really simple, and so I looked up online, how to start your own sourdough starter. My first and go-to recipe was from Bread magazine. From there, it’s just been pretty steady for the past two years.

Wailin: [00:03:04] To get going you need a sourdough starter. Now that so many folks are making bread, I feel like you might have a friend or neighbor who can give you some. Local restaurants and bakeries in my town are also selling and giving away starter. But if that’s not an option for you right now, or you just want to make your own, here’s how you do it.

Nathan: [00:03:21] So it takes about a week before you have a functioning sourdough starter. You need a jar or some Tupperware. If it’s got clearish or translucent sides so that you can kind of see inside, that’s best but not required. You need flour. You need water. And you need a spoon or a spatula.

[00:03:39] So day one, really easy, you start with a one to one mixture of flour and water. It really, honestly doesn’t matter which type of flour you use, they will all work. So one to one flour mixture by weight if you have a scale. If you don’t have a scale, one gram of water is one milliliter so you can do the conversions.

[00:04:01] Mix it until it’s smooth, cover it, and you set it aside in a warmish place. Everyone’s like, it has to be 80 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s going to be the most optimal, where you get the most bacterial and yeast growth. But if you don’t have a temperature-controlled spot in your house, like, I don’t. I don’t have a spot that’s consistently 80 degrees, so if you tuck it under a cabinet near a dishwasher, sometimes that is nice and warm. A cabinet next to a stove can also retain a bunch of heat.

[00:04:32] The next day, we start by throwing away half of it and then we add the one to one flour mixture. So, again, mix it until it’s smooth, set it aside.

[00:04:43] Days three through seven are, again, the exact same thing. You throw away half and then you re-add. You’re slowly growing the amount of starter that you have so you want to make sure that your container’s big enough.

Joan: [00:04:54] You have to get rid of some of it so sharing it with others helps, but you can also find ways to use it. There’s a lot of great recipes online of using your sourdough discard. And if worse comes to worse you can just toss it in the garbage, I guess. Which is sad, but you know, sometimes you don’t have everything you need to use every part of the sourdough starter buffalo.

Nathan: [00:05:19] You should have this nice, bubbly, kind of… I don’t want to say frothy, but a very kind of creamy flour mixture. And that is your starter. And you’re going to feed that every day if you keep it out of the refrigerator. If you put it in the refrigerator for long-term storage, you only need to feed it once a week.

Joan: [00:05:36] Once a week, I take it out of the fridge and put it out on the counter for a couple hours to let it kind of come to room temperature and then I take about, maybe 50 grams of it, put it in a new container. I actually bought those sort of, I think they’re quart take out containers from a restaurant supply store, and 100 grams of warm water, filtered and 100 grams of flour and then I’ll add a little bit of rye, now, which makes it a little bit more active. Gives it a different flavor, which I like.

[00:06:12] I think professional people have a very much more scientific way of doing it, and I’m more like, I’ll just kind of do what I feel as long as the numbers kind of match up, it’s okay.

Nathan: [00:06:25] It is alive and it is something you need to continually feed. I happened to forget to feed mine a couple days, but it’s okay. It’ll still be alive. You can recover with a couple regular feedings. So it’s very, very forgiving. There’s nothing to be scared of. It’s really hard to mess up.

Wailin: [00:06:42] Joan’s been maintaining her starter for two years now. It stayed alive even through trips out of town and other small interruptions.

Joan: [00:06:49] I find a week is a good cycle for me so I don’t lose track of it. But it can go up to, for me, up to two weeks. You just have to, I don’t know. You just have to believe. It develops this kind of liquid on top, and that’s basically spent fuel for the starter so you just kind of pour that off and feed it again. And it comes back to life. You’d be really surprised how long it can go without feeding in the fridge. In the fridge.

Wailin: [00:07:19] The only thing I’d really heard about sourdough starter was that some people name theirs.

Nathan: [00:07:24] I named mine Edna Mode because we’re going to make Incredible bread. A lot of people you’ll hear talking about, I have a heritage sourdough starter from San Francisco, or this one’s been alive for 3o0 years, you know? And that’s really cool that you kind of know where it came from, but local wild yeast will take over whatever sourdough starter you have. The local yeast takes over because there’s a lot more of it and it’s all around. So Edna Mode lives in the now.

Wailin: [00:07:52] Joan’s starter does not have a name.

Joan: [00:07:54] I don’t really give inanimate objects names. Which I guess like, in terms of the hierarchy of things that exist in my home, it’s more animate than any other thing that I have. Like my computer. I have my cat, that has a name.

Wailin: [00:08:14] Okay, so where were we. Oh, that’s right. Making the starter and seeing if it’s ready to bake with.

Joan: [00:08:18] When it’s at its ripest, you can take just a little bit, like a pinch, like the tiniest teaspoon. Maybe like a quarter teaspoon. Put it in a bowl of water and it should float. That’s usually how I tell that it’s ready to be used for bread.

Wailin: [00:08:34] Also, does it float because it’s a witch? Sorry.

Joan: [00:08:38] And then I have to kill it, yeah.

Wailin: [00:08:41] We are ready to make bread now. Nathan and Joan use slightly different methods but they end up at the same place. And that place? Is Flavortown. We’ll start with Nathan.

Nathan: [00:08:50] I’m going to pretend I’m doing the basic sourdough recipe that you find variations of everywhere. So you want to take about 30 grams or about an ounce of your starter and then you want to say, okay, the total I’m going to need is roughly 200 grams of starter. So I need to add the same amount of flour and water to that starter mixture so that I can make my leaven. We want to have a little bit left over so that we can actually add that back to our sourdough starter.

[00:09:24] Let’s go with a 240 gram total so we need 105 grams each of flour and water. We add that to our starter and we let that sit for ten hours. And then you’re ready to make bread.

[00:09:36] So you take 200 grams of the leaven that you just made. You put that in a bowl with roughly 700 grams of water. Mix it with your hands so that the leaven is kind of broken up and mixed in with the water, and then you add your 1,000 grams of flour to that. And you just kind of mix it with your hands until it’s this big shaggy mess.

[00:09:56] So, once we get everything mixed up and there’s no dry ingredients left. We scraped down the sides of the bowl with a spatula or something and we let it sit for ten minutes. After ten minutes, we want to put some salt on it, once you have that kind of scraped down and you’ve gone all the way around, you have to kind of just reach in with your hands again. And you grab one edge of it, and you tuck it to the middle, and the rotate the bowl a little bit, and you grab an edge and tuck it to the middle, and you do that 30 times.

Joan: [00:10:22] Give it a good mix so that the salt is very evenly distributed. One time I didn’t quite do that and that was interesting. There was just like a little pocket of salt there.

Nathan: [00:10:32] After you do the 30 times, you set it aside again for another 10 minutes and it relaxes. After it relaxes, you grab it again and you do the exact same thing. You do that three times. Knead, and then rest for 10 minutes, knead and then rest for 10 minutes. On the last one you don’t let it rest for 10 minutes, you let it sit for basically half an hour. At this point, your dough is nice and kneaded, the gluten chains should be forming in there and now it’s starting to do a little bit of a rise.

[00:10:59] So after half an hour we do a fold. You reach in and you lift the whole thing out and then you fold it over, and then you do that three times. And then you let it sit for another half an hour again. After you do those folds, then you’re ready to form the loaves. Basically, we’ll dump it out onto a lightly floured counter and chop it in half because you’ve been making two loaves worth of dough.

[00:11:21] You fold it, you get it formed into a nice tight bun if you’re doing a boule, which is the round loaf. If you’re doing a loaf pan, you’ll actually use a slightly different process to get it more into the loaf shape, and then you put it in either a banneton, which is really just a reed bowl, or bamboo bowl that you’ve floured and it just rests in there overnight.

Joan: [00:11:43] I don’t have fancy bread baskets, I actually use colanders that I got from the Vietnamese grocery store, which give a great result. If you just use a nice clean kitchen towel in a plastic colander from an Asian grocery store, you’ll get a great result.

[00:12:04] So after I’ve shaped them, I’ll flour the towel and put the loaves in there and then stick in the fridge for one to two days. The longer you wait, the more flavor there is.

Wailin: [00:12:15] You’ll notice that while Nathan has his dough sit overnight, Joan leaves hers alone for a couple days. Again, there’s a lot of variations on the basic recipe. Let’s get this bread in the oven.

Nathan: [00:12:24] A Dutch oven is going to give you the easiest results by far. It’s so stupid easy. If you happen to have a cast iron Dutch oven, pull the lid off, preheat your oven to 400 degrees and put the Dutch oven in there for about 30 minutes so it’s hot. It’s really hot, so be very, very careful.

Joan: [00:12:42] I usually use a Dutch oven or I have a really hard bottom, really thick-walled sort of stock pot sort of thing. It’s not a stock pot, just very, very thick pot. I pre-heat that for maybe half an hour to an hour. I take the loaf out of the fridge, pop it on a plate. Make sure I cut it with the, I think it’s called the lame, or knife. It’s like a little razor blade you use to cut shapes in. And that’s to help the loaf rise kind of in the shape that you want it. Because otherwise, it’s just kind of going to explode in any direction it wants to. Not explode, but it’s going to kind of like poof up and it’ll break where it breaks. The cuts give you a nice shape and let you control where that’s going to go.

[00:13:29] Pop it in the Dutch oven, cover it. Bake it at 500 for about 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, I’ll uncover it and bake it for another 20 minutes.

Wailin: [00:13:39] Nathan does 45 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. They both end up with beautiful bread. Sometimes they don’t, and that’s okay, too.

Joan: [00:13:46] Be patient, especially when you’re first starting. Keep going. Don’t be discouraged if the loaf looks weird. It just takes time for you to get comfortable with the whole process. Have fun. Enjoy the process and it’s just a good time. Even if it doesn’t turn out to be a beautiful, wonderful loaf, if you just slice it and toast it, it’s still fine. It’s great. You’ve got toast.

Nathan: [00:14:09] Yes, a sandwich is good. I’m not knocking a sandwich, but especially this sourdough that I’ve been making these days. It’s a very springy, wet loaf, and when you toast it, the outside gets wonderfully crunchy but the inside keeps that chewiness and it just holds butter so well. It’s just, by far, my favorite.

Wailin: [00:14:30] What kind of butter do you like?

Nathan: [00:14:31] Almost any butter is fine. Like I said, we’re a Costco family so our routine butter that we get, it’s the Kirkland salted butter in the little blue boxes. Shout out to Colin here, my coworker from Ireland. He and I both share a deep, abiding love for Kerrygold butter.

Wailin: [00:14:47] Which they also have at Costco.

Nathan: [00:14:49] Which they also have at Costco, yes. And I also have some upstairs. It’s amazing butter. I notice that it’s distributed from some place in Illinois, though.

Wailin: [00:14:57] Oh, no kidding.

Nathan: [00:14:57] Yeah, so I’m a little… I have questions.

Wailin: [00:15:00] Well, after they lift the shelter in place in my town, then I will drive out, try to drive by the factory. See what’s going on.

Nathan: [00:15:07] Just some investigative reporting.

Wailin: [00:15:09] What do you think learning how to make bread, and making bread, and making it part of your routine does for your brain, and your mental and emotional health?

Nathan: [00:15:19] Being a software engineer, I sit at a desk all day, every day. I work with things that aren’t here. I work with, actually, things that don’t exist. Servers in the cloud. I spin up a computer. That computer doesn’t really exist. It’s really just a piece of a different computer that I’m telling it to do something. So, coming out of that world into doing physical things with my hands. I take these raw materials, these raw ingredients and I work a process, which, I am still an engineer, so I love process. I work a process that, if I do this, I’m going to get bread and sure enough, I get bread. And it’s just great.

Joan: [00:15:59] It is so very satisfying to make something with your hands and a little bit of your brain and have it turn out to be something that feels so sustaining and wonderful for the next couple days. I love giving loaves of bread as gifts or just bringing it to a gathering. I just made a loaf for a friend who’s sick. It’s waiting in the fridge now and I’m going to give it to her tonight.

Nathan: [00:16:26] My day was made the other day by my 14-year-old, because I’d told him previously. I’m like, look, my goal is to get so good at making bread that you prefer my bread over store-bought bread. And that happened the other day. He’s like, Dad, do you have any more of your bread? I’m like, you finished it all. He’s like, oh, it’s so good. And that, to me, I mean, that’s love.

Joan: [00:16:48] I do get a lot of satisfaction knowing that I’m getting better. Sometimes it’s a surprise when I open the lid of the bread mid-baking and then it’s like, the oven spring is really good and it’s really puffed up. And I was like, oh, I didn’t even know it was going to be that good. I was just thinking it would be okay. And then it’s really good.

[00:17:08] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:17:14] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Music for the show is by Clip Art.

Wailin: [00:17:18] If you’ve been baking bread at home and you want to share your photos with us, or any stories you have, please send them to us at @reworkpodcast on Twitter or

[00:17:30] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:17:38] Okay, you want to tell me about your dream?

Wailin: [00:17:40] Ugh. Okay, so the week that we are releasing this episode is, I believe, the week we were supposed to have our spring meetup at Basecamp, right? Did I get the date right?

Shaun: [00:17:50] Mm-hmm, yep.

Wailin: [00:17:51] And I have not had a work dream in a really long time, but last night I dreamt that it was the meetup and we were still having it but Jason and David said that we had to put protocols in place where it would be safer and more socially distanced, but we were still going to have it. And so the new protocol was the meetup was at my house.

Shaun: [00:18:12] Yep, that checks out. This makes total sense.

Wailin: [00:18:15] So I had everyone from Basecamp at my house, sitting around my extremely too-small dining room table. Spilling into the living room, milling around the kitchen. And the other thing was that for some reason, I kept driving co-workers to Whole Foods, one at a time. Maybe because that was the most socially distanced way. And so, I drove Joan, who’s in this episode. In my dream I drove Joan to Whole Foods and I also drove Lexi to Whole Foods. Lexi is another coworker of ours who’s been on the podcast before.

Shaun: [00:18:48] Well, I can’t thank you enough for both hosting and taxiing people around town. I love it.

Wailin: [00:18:53] That was my dream. I got to go stress eat some chocolate chip cookies, now.