“Bread is a living thing,” muses Norman Jean Roy. “It’s this organism that you basically go into some sort of agreement with before you make it.”
Case in point, before Roy and his wife, Joanna, could even start producing bread at their new Hudson bakery, Breadfolks, they had to populate the bakery with a bacteria colony so the facility would have the ambient yeasts needed to support their sourdough starters — a fact of paramount importance since all of their breads and pastries are made using sourdough.
Naturally leavened bread has long been the trademark of artisanal bakeries, lauded for its more complex taste, variable crumb structure, and — to true artists — for its unpredictability. But the quarantine period of 2020 ushered in a widespread embrace of sourdough doctrine that left supermarket shelves looking like the chocolate aisle on February 13. Between April and November, King Arthur Baking Company sold almost double the amount of flour it sold in all of 2019. In its 2019 “Year in Search,” Google revealed “sourdough bread” as the most searched recipe in the United States.
Yet to lump in sourdough with fizzled fads like zoodles and charcoal ice cream undermines its primitive elegance in the eyes of Aaron Quint, owner of Kingston Bread + Bar. “Natural fermentation was the only way bread and baked goods were produced until about 100 years ago, and folks across the world have continuously kept up that tradition,” he says. “I think seeing it as just a trend is ahistorical.”
The origins of sourdough date back 4,500 years to the ancient Egyptians, when it is likely that the symbiotic relationship between flour and yeast was discovered through a fateful accident. Still, it is hard to deny the popularity that sourdough has acquired recently. Home bakers account for much of the latest growth, but sourdough has always held some level of cult celebrity in the food world, with fabled locales like San Francisco hosting mystical strains of yeast.
The reasons for sourdough reverence range from health preferences to texture. “When you use a bacteria to break down the starches in your grain, you make it digestible,” explains Roy. “That’s the real reason I do it — on top of the fact that I happen to love the taste. It’s more complex; it’s more interesting. It’s got a different structure, a more interesting crust, [and] better coloration.”
With such adulation heaped on sourdough, one has to ask: Why use commercial yeast at all?
As is often the case, the answer lies in the question. The 20th century saw the rise of commercial bakeries and with them, the need for more reliable methods of bread production. Cultivated yeast allowed these companies to produce a consistent product on a regular timeline and at massive scale. For much of the 1900s, this satisfied consumers’ needs and aligned with America’s reputation for cookie-cutter productivity. Not until decades later did some consumers begin to appreciate what was lost.
One of those consumers? Daniel Leader, who founded Bread Alone in fall of 1983.
Back then, “bread was Wonder Bread,” says Nels Leader, Daniel’s son and the CEO of Bread Alone. “When you went to the supermarket, you couldn’t buy a crusty French baguette. It wasn’t even in the vocabulary at the time. Part of the reason my father founded the business was because he knew of a different style of baking from spending time in Europe — Paris, in particular — and he didn’t see it here.”
Bread Alone, in the company of businesses like Tom Cat Bakery, Berkshire Mountain Bakery, Acme Bread, and La Brea Bakery, slowly reminded the country of the wonder of artisanal bread. This, in combination with the organic food revolution, which would not truly gain traction until the mid-’90s, sowed the seeds of what would become a return-to-roots movement.
Natural fermentation was the only way bread and baked goods were produced until about 100 years ago.
– Aaron Quint, Kingston Bread + Bar
In taking lessons from the past, Bread Alone was actually creating the future. Besides using artisanal techniques, the company also made organic agriculture a fixture of its business nearly a decade before the USDA developed the organic certification label and criteria. As the business grew, what began as a line of fine print on the packaging took on growing importance to consumers.
By the early 2000s, organic agriculture had become widely accepted and available, fueled by a shift away from extreme methods of preservation and production, such as additives, factory farming, and genetically modified organisms. Even beer drinkers began to demonstrate their desire for a better product, paving the way for the craft beer industry to thrive.
Once the process of baking bread had returned to its origins, it was only natural that the ingredients should follow. Recent years have seen demand for local sourcing and the introduction of ancient grains like einkorn, spelt, and emmer to the baker’s repertoire. Bread Alone now offers a line of Nordic-inspired loaves featuring rye, spelt, and einkorn.
The rejuvenated demand for local grains is of particular importance to our region since, up until the late 19th century, the Hudson Valley was one of the most fruitful grain producers in the United States. Records suggest that in the late 1700s, Columbia County alone was producing 190,000 bushels of wheat per year. However, industrialization brought changes to production and transportation that made growing grain in other parts of the country more affordable, and a scourge of agricultural troubles quashed the Hudson Valley’s grain economy. By the 1850s, Columbia County produced a mere 9,000 bushels.
Quint, of Kingston Bread + Bar, points to the work of Hudson Valley Farm Hub as foundational to helping rejuvenate the local grain economy.
“The region has lost so much of the knowledge and experience of working with grains that we need reliable research to gain an understanding of what grows well here, especially using organic methods,” says Sarah Brannen, programming director at Hudson Valley Farm Hub.
While the process is far from simple or easy, initial results suggest that wheat, barley, rye, and oats can thrive in this climate, including ancient varieties like spelt and einkorn.
Of course, the ability to bake bread with ancient grains does not always equate to consumer demand for them. Much like the crops themselves, interest is cultivated over time.
“We love and make whole wheat and ancient grain breads,” says Quint, “[but] we also are not opposed to using more classic white flour in places where we think it actually produces a better product, like baguettes and croissants.”
Ancient grains reflect the industry’s efforts to reconnect the dots between modern bread and its forebearers, but another crucial factor in a bread’s quality is the freshness of its ingredients.
Flour isn’t a product that many consumers consider to be perishable because — well, it basically isn’t. “At the typical grocery store, the mass-produced roller mill enriched flour could have been milled a very long time before the consumer actually purchases the flour,” says Anne Mayhew, owner of Katonah-based LMNOP Bakery. “They sift it to extract the bran and to extract the germ, stripping it of any nutritional value just to be shelf stable.”
We need reliable research to gain an understanding of what grows well here, especially using organic methods.
– Sarah Brannen, Hudson Valley Farm Hub
Mayhew, who works as a “baker-in-residence” at Mast Market in Mt. Kisco, quickly discovered the difference that freshly milled flour made to her products. “We’re only using flour, water, and salt,” she explains. “The flour is giving the bread everything. So, if we’re using better flour, that’s going to give it more flavor from start to finish.”
Mayhew sources LMNOP’s flour from Wild Hive Farm, an organic miller in Clinton Corners that also supplies New York royalty like Eataly and Gramercy Tavern. Wild Hive gives customers their choice of grain, grind, and — for those looking to jump right in — sourdough starter.
The increase in flour quality does not come without complications, however. For one, the flour hydrates differently; it requires more water than conventional flour. Also, because the freshly milled flour retains more of the germ and the bran — the parts of the grain with nutritional value — the interior of the bread may not be as light and airy as some other loaves.
Aside from taste, there is the added benefit of digestibility, touted by both Roy and Mayhew. “It’s much better for your body. A sourdough or naturally leavened bread with freshly milled flour is a lot easier for everyone to digest,” says Mayhew.
Although the evidence of this tends toward the anecdotal side of the spectrum, the proof is in the (bread) pudding. Excluding those with Celiac disease diagnoses, bakers often report that people who are gluten-intolerant or struggle with digestive issues discover they can consume naturally leavened bread without any consequences.
There are many theories explaining this peculiar fact, but the general consensus is that the sourdough fermentation process helps to break down phytates, lectins, and saponins — compounds that can inhibit the absorption of some minerals — eliminating barriers to digestion before you’ve taken your first bite.
Regardless of the reasons for its rise, artisanal bread is a welcome reminder that the simplest food often tastes the best and offers the most nutritional benefits. And while naturally leavened bread won’t magically rectify dietary allergies or intolerances, the ancient relationship between humans and grains is an evolutionary bond that Roy, Quint, Leader, and Mayhew all consider sacred.
Technically a seed, amaranth is high in protein with a distinctively nutty taste.
A common grain dating back to the Stone Age, barley has a subtle nutty flavor.
Another seed that is ground into flour, buckwheat has a strong, earthy flavor.
One of the first wheat varieties ever cultivated; the flavor is richer than that of traditional wheat.
Dating back 20,000 years, emmer fell out of favor until it was re-popularized as Italian farro; toothsome, nutty flavor.
Ancient grain with rich, buttery flavor.
An easy-to-grow grass plant whose seed is used for flour; mild, slightly sweet flavor.
Contains less gluten than typical flours; slightly sour, malty flavor.
Higher gluten content than traditional wheat; slightly sweet, mellow flavor.