Friedman’s Food Lab class takes a trip to King Arthur Flour and learns the art of sourdough.
As a longtime baker, a visit to King Arthur Flour headquarters in Vermont was on my graduate school bucket list when I arrived in Boston. Luckily, Timothy Griffin’s “Food Lab” class last semester ended with an opportunity to learn about baking bread there over winter break. Food Lab Program Director Wendy Hebb and our TA, Allie Weiner, coordinated the details. Early on a Friday morning in January, seven Friedman students and five local Vermonters met on the campus in Norwich, Vermont. The group ranged from frequent bakers to first-time bread makers, led by our experienced instructor Sharon.
But first, the classroom. Picture a huge open room with five rows of stainless-steel worktables. Big, professional ovens lined one side of the room, and upfront, a video camera and screen let us see everything the instructor was doing from above. We were each assigned a workstation, equipped with a professional KitchenAid mixer, measuring cups, a small amount of sourdough starter, a scale, and other baking tools. The plan was to spend four hours learning how to make sourdough bread with freshly milled flour – which isn’t the same as white flour or whole wheat flour from a store. The sourdough starter is identical, but freshly milled flour absorbs more water than store-bought flour and might have other differences. Sharon acknowledged she doesn’t bake with freshly milled flour very often, so we’d all be learning together.
The class was designed so that we started near the end of the process – shaping the dough. Sharon took a shapeless blob of soft dough and, using her hands, some water, and friction from the table coaxed it into a ball that vaguely resembled a loaf of bread. Then we each took a turn. The dough was warm and soft, and challenging to get into the perfect shape that Sharon made so easily. Each of us carefully shaped a blob that went into a basket, called a banneton, to rise before baking. With the shaping complete, we turned our attention to making a separate batch of dough from the very beginning.
Sourdough bread uses just four ingredients – starter, water, flour, and salt. First, we mixed the flour, starter, and water, to hydrate the flour. Then we added salt and extra water and used the mixers for about fourteen minutes to combine everything. By now, most of us had flour on our aprons and our hands were covered with the sticky remnants of dough. Sharon demonstrated the “windowpane” test, which involves stretching the dough until it is almost thin enough to see through (like a windowpane) and shows if the dough has been mixed enough, and we weighed the dough to make sure it had adequate water. As she had predicted, the freshly milled flour needed more water and a bit more mixing than a traditional sourdough bread.
We left our dough to rise and visited a miller who hand-mills small batches of grains, ate lunch in the large café area, and wandered around the store. When we got back, there was a lot to do. The original loaves of bread had risen and were ready to be baked. We carefully flipped each one from its banneton and “slashed” the top with a double-sided razor blade tool, called a lame. The slashes, which give artisan bread a distinctive pattern, also help the bread rise during baking without splitting the crust. We used a bakers “peel,” a wooden board with a long handle that you might recognize from a pizza shop, to slide six loaves of bread at a time into the oven. The professional ovens have steam injectors because steam keeps the outside of the loaf pliable and allow it to “spring” in the heat of the oven. We looked through the windows in the huge professional ovens to watch the loaves bake, and the room began to fill with the smell of baking bread. It was exactly how I’d imagined a baking class at King Arthur Flour!
As class ended, we each received loaves of bread, a small batch of starter, and dough to take home. Driving back to Boston with memories from the class and a bag of fresh-baked bread was the perfect beginning to my last semester of graduate school.
Katrina Sarson is a second year FANPP student, who brought her sourdough starter along with her husband and two dogs when she moved to Boston for graduate school. She’s always happy to share fresh bread, baking tips and strategies for keeping a starter alive!