Gather: Sarah Owens
Bread, dare we say we love you. We said it! We love big beautiful hearty loaves of bread. They are perfect to share with your favorite people or to shape up a daytime meal. Sarah Owens of BK17 Bakery creates exceptionally stunning sourdough beauties that we had the pleasure of sampling this fall. When Sarah invited us over to her place for tea and to try a new a recipe from her sourdough baking book we were head over heels. Her adorable apartment is complete with a handmade spice drying rack, large butcher-block countertop and incredible botanical prints covering the wall above her fireplace. Talking with Sarah was such as pleasure, as she was the epitome of a wonderful host. Her web of collected experiences in botanical, gardening, baking and the arts is something to be coveted and we love that we get to share what we learned with you. Sarah has also some inspiring news coming up about her bakery. Prepare to be converted to the bread side.
Where does the magic (creating the most beautiful loaves of bread) happen?
I have a dual baking life as a cookbook author and as a micro-bakery. The recipes I have developed for the book called Sourdough (Roost Books, Autumn 2015) were all developed at home in my little kitchen on 17th Street in Brooklyn. I credit the open studio format with its large butcher-block countertop as a great influence to bake so much and so often. It also helps that there is an overabundance of fruit growing in my backyard as well as generous herbs and veg from my job as Rosarian at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
As a micro bakery, BK17 has floated from my home kitchen, to an incubator space, and now to a wood-fired pizza pub in my neighborhood called Toby’s where I bake in their off-hours. Every location and oven has its own influence over the breads I bake. It took a while to get used to the subtleties of working with wood heat but now I can’t imagine using anything else. Even when the wood is green and the air is unbelievably humid, I still get a deep satisfaction from the rhythms of working with an organic fuel source.
Tell us about your path to sourdough.
A few years ago, I was having some serious digestive issues. What I now call ‘flare ups’ were lasting for weeks and my weight would fluctuate wildly with side-effects that would put a damper on my work and social activities. After some elimination diets, I discovered that I had intolerances to most whole grains, nuts, soy, pasta, bread, etc. It was difficult to grasp since I couldn’t simply blame it on gluten, as is the trend. The doctor I was seeing was suggesting taking meds as opposed to understanding the root of the problem.
One day I was browsing through a used bookstore and came upon an old paperback volume of sourdough recipes from the 70’s. It even had a chapter on how to take your starter camping! It harkened to memories of my grandmother baking and the process of making bread with a living culture intrigued me. I began reading more about sourdough and discovered that lactic acid fermentation has a way of mitigating the effects of gluten intolerance as well as the negative effects of phytates that are naturally present in most whole grains, nuts, and legumes. Understanding phytates as a hindrance to digestion as well as nutrient absorption was a big ah-ha moment!
I tried several different methods of making a starter with little success before stumbling across a yeast water method from Sweden. After a few days of fermenting raisins with water, honey, and sugar, I used this to inoculate some flour and boom! I had a starter. The first loaves were bricks, as I was an avid baker but had little experience with leavening hearth breads. But my growing cookbook collection and bread baking obsession soon resulted in making lighter loaves with a chewy crumb and thick crust. The intolerances began fading with the fermentation of the flour, soaking and sprouting of the seeds, and simultaneously cutting out refined sugars and processed foods from my diet. As my gut began healing, my sensitivities to other foods began to wane as well.
After getting a better handle on the techniques of baking bread, people started requesting loaves when they were hosting meals and even large events. Soon, I was nurturing a fledgling business and approached the Greenwood Heights CSA about offering a bread share. They were open to taking me on and their members were overwhelmingly supportive. It wasn’t long thereafter that I was entertaining wholesale accounts for Bklyn Larder and doing pop-up events with Fox Fodder Farm. It has been incredibly rewarding and a wonderful way to connect with so many different people. But it is proving difficult to expand beyond where I am now with a full-time job, getting some sleep, and keeping a high quality of craftsmanship with limited resources
We love that you also work at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. How does your experience with botanicals and horticulture influence your time in the kitchen?
When you are a steward of thousands of plants, whether they are ornamental or edible, you cultivate personality characteristics as a gardener that are equally important to baking, especially with sourdough. Patience is an obvious virtue. From watching a tiny seed transform into a rambling tomato vine or a blob of flour and water morph into active dough, you must be willing to commit yourself to the whole process. One needs possession of long-term vision balanced with mindfulness of every present action. The way you prepare your beds in spring may have dramatic influence over your yield in late autumn. And even when you don’t feel like sweating profusely under summer’s oppressive sun and humidity, those plants need your cooperation. Equally so, the use of a live sourdough culture takes a commitment to nurturing it along regardless of your mood, the influence of the weather over a hot or cold kitchen, or whatever else is demanding your attention that day. It is a great celebration of reciprocity between man and the elements.
I have also become incredibly inspired by the handling of plants through all of their life cycles. When you spend so much quality time looking after them, their personalities become your companions and the opportunity to incorporate them into recipes is an irresistible way of reveling in the seasons. Incorporating a rosette of burdock stems into a recipe is the ultimate chance to praise the warmer temperatures, gentle rains, and longer days of spring. Perhaps this is why I’ve never been able to choose just one track of either growing or baking. They are both so influential over each other for me creatively.
We are so beyond thrilled you have a cookbook coming out! What is your favorite sourdough recipe that is not a delectable loaf of bread?
This definitely depends on the season and what’s looking good at the market or ripe in my garden. For a quick recipe with impressive presentation, I often defer to the Autumnal Upside-Down Cake. It is adaptable to most fruits but my favorite combination is persimmons, pears, and cranberries. I’m also a sucker for savory baked goods and love the kale scones or spring tartlets made with puff pastry, lemony ricotta, and topped with spring greens – another recipe that can be adapted to summer offerings using squash blossoms and shaved zucchini instead. But then there’s the Solstice Pie made with black currants in a buckwheat crust or the Gooseberry and Elderflower Trifle. It’s honestly very difficult to choose!