Sarah Owens is a sculptor, a trained horticulturist, formerly the steward of the Cranford Rose Collection at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the founder of an artisan microbakery called BK17 Bakery. Sourdough manages to unite her passions for art, horticulture and sourdough. The first half of the book is a careful, thorough introduction to the basic tools, techniques, ingredients, and chemistry of sourdough, by which we mean bread or other baked goods made with a fermented mixture of flour, water, sweetening and natural yeasts in the environment, instead of using, for instance, packaged prepared yeast as a leavening agent. Owens even covers the basic preparation of your “starter” or mother for your own sourdough, including not only the initial preparation but how to maintain and “feed” your starter.
Sourdough is copiously illustrated with photographs by Ngoc Minh Ngo (the photographs qualify as both art and food porn, they’re so beautiful), often showing step-by-step techniques, for instance, for mixing and turning dough. The chapter on tools is written with the home cook, and the home cook’s oven, in mind, and is both specific and practical. I was particularly delighted to see Owens recommend skipping a stand mixture in favor of hands and a simple tools like dough scrapers and bench knives. She generally uses scale-based measurements rather than volume (the exception to this is the reasonable use of volume measurements for tiny amounts of herbs and spices).
The second half of the book consists of 101 recipes for sourdough based breads and pastries, sorted into seasonal sections. What makes her recipes stand out in terms of sourdough is that first, she doesn’t restrict herself to conventional sourdough based breads, but includes a variety of pastries and cakes (even doughnuts and bundt cakes) and bread-like items, and secondly, that she incorporates readily obtainable ingredients from the garden (or produce market), and the seasonal division works beautifully for obtaining fresh, local ingredients. She has recipes, and clear instructions for innovative uses of sourdough starter like “Braised Oxtail Tacos in Flour Tortillas with Kohlrabi-Carrot Slaw,” and “Persimmon Spice Cake.” But there are copious recipes for a wide variety of sourdough breads like “Roasted Chestnut Bread” and “Beet Bread.”
There’s a useful Resources appendix to assist in obtaining tools and ingredients. I’m not sure a novice baker without prior bread-baking experience would fare well with this book right off the bat, but there’s a great deal of very clearly presented information, so if you’re prepared to have an occasional less-than-successful result, there’s a wealth of knowledge here and it’s a book you will find yourself reaching for, repeatedly, years after you first read it.
You can find Sarah Owens’ blog on her BK17 Bakery site.
(Roost Books, 2015)