Wood-fired Bread

by Sarah Owens


In the last month, BK17 has had a few growing pains in the effort to expand production.  After finding a new space and hiring an electrician and architect, I decided it wasn't the proper move...for many very good reasons. Investment capital was lost but what I gained in experience was well worth the risk.

BK17 is now using the wood oven of Toby's Public House!

BK17 is now using the wood oven of Toby's Public House!

The day the bakery project folded, I marched myself up to a delicious pub in my neighborhood called Toby's Public House that makes wood-fired pizza.  Members of my CSB had encouraged me to contact them, as they have also helped other bread bakers over the years.  I am not very adept at dealing with uncertainty and the thought of subscriptions starting in a month with wholesale accounts to satisfy as well, made me quite nervous.

What a blessing in disguise!  The manager of Toby's couldn't be more accommodating and their master pizza chef loves to talk ovens.  We chatted about the rhythms of heat, coals, steam, and dough.  My inner bread nerd was thrilled to find others interested in the nuances of baking! After a few visits and some phone calls, the keys were in my hands.  I couldn't believe how trusting and open they were to taking me into the fold.  

This is not my first foray into using wood as a fuel source.  I grew up heating my grandmother's house with wood and coal.  As a ceramic artist, I helped to build and manage several wood-fired noborigama-type kilns in KY and IN that required a team of dedicated potters and days of stoking in rural forest.  I lived in a cottage in the hills of East Tennessee for a year that I heated exclusively with wood and an electric heater.  But it has been over a decade since some of these events have taken place.  It seems ironic that as my life is unfolding in ways I could never have imagined just a year ago, that this element enters once again.  

Fire.  The great catalyst of change.  The transformer that brings both death and spawns life.  My asbestos hands are ready for this new and unanticipated challenge in baking.  But really, it has been so very long since I have wielded it other than around a campfire.  I began questioning whether the comforts of urban living would have dulled my sense of how to manage this beast of an oven.  

So I rose early on a Sunday morning around 5am, when I thought the oven might have cooled from its normal 800-900 Farenheit range down to around 500 degrees, my ideal temperature for loading dough.  I brought some loaves of a few different formulas: a higher hydration Spelt (90%), some medium hydration Sprouted Kamut & Oat (80%), and a Seeded Multigrain (70%).  I pushed the coals to the side of the chamber and loaded the first two Spelt Levain and waited patiently.  Eventually, they sprang to life but were a little slow on the uptake.  So I tossed one measly kiln-dried piece of kindling on the coals and waited for it to catch before loading more.  It worked beautifully.  The next round came to life in a few minutes.  With a few spins around the chamber, they colored to a golden brown after a 45 minute bake.  My concern that the bottom heat would be too intense was quelled as I tasted my first loaf of wood-fired BK17 sourdough.  I wondered why I had waited so long...

A loaf of Tartine 3-inspired Sprouted Kamut and Oat, the first from the wood-fired oven.

A loaf of Tartine 3-inspired Sprouted Kamut and Oat, the first from the wood-fired oven.

Overall I am pleased and so very thankful to not only have a larger oven, but the ability to explore this new experience.  There are a few trade-offs but ones that I think are well worth the end result.  The lack of ability to introduce steam means the crust isn't nearly so glossy...but the smoky crust of the bread pairs perfectly with the texture and flavor of whole grains.  I'll be working on ways to try and encourage a little more steam but in the end, I think this is more of a superficial pursuit than technically necessary in a wood oven.

The CSB begins again July 5, just a few days after the manuscript for the cookbook is due.  It's going to be a whirlwind few weeks pushing to the finish of this writing endeavor as well as beginning a new phase of baking.  My eyes are reflecting a golden flame with the thought of what is to come next.

Wood-fired Spelt 

Wood-fired Spelt 


Traveling with mi Madre in Ecuador

by Sarah Owens


2013 took me by surprise.  Subscribers responded with enthusiasm and support for BK17's first official year in business and the sourdough experience just keeps getting richer.  Maintaining a full-time career with two part-time businesses on the side was no fair feat and a six week break in Ecuador sounded like just the reprieve a tired baker/gardener needed.  Little did my starter know, it would be taking the journey as well!

A typical panaderia in Cuenca, Ecuador

A typical panaderia in Cuenca, Ecuador

The book project that is in the works was receiving positive feedback from publishers by the time my bags were packed and I knew it wasn't wise to take time off without baking.  In addition to the cathartic pleasure that comes with leavening bread, the temptation of a year-round local growing season with exotic fruits and vegetables was an engagement I couldn't resist.  So I plotted to pack my starter...

Mercado 9 de Decembre in Cuenca, Ecuador features an endless selection of potatoes, beans, peas, and exotic fruits like babaco, maracuya, and naranjillo.

Mercado 9 de Decembre in Cuenca, Ecuador features an endless selection of potatoes, beans, peas, and exotic fruits like babaco, maracuya, and naranjillo.

True, I could have cultured a new one once I was in the country but the challenge of traveling with mi Madre was one I welcomed.  I developed a strategy to get it through the 12 hours of travel time to Quito and crossed my fingers.  After a few back-to-back feedings, I divided it into two portions and tucked them in the freezer.  Ten minutes before I left for the airport, I put one in my carryon and one in my bag to be checked.  This turned out to be a smart option since my checked bag was lost in Mexico for almost a week.  I had doubts my bag would show up at all, let alone with my valuables.  But it did!  With a dead starter of course.

Mi Madre bubbling away happily in Quito after a 12 hour journey.

Mi Madre bubbling away happily in Quito after a 12 hour journey.

Unfortunately, the bread revolution hasn't seemed to reach Ecuador.  There is a vast selection of panaderias scattered throughout each modest sized town but they all seem to serve up the same uninspired rotation of soft white rolls and sweets.  At $0.15 per bun, I suppose I shouldn't complain but quitting good bread cold turkey has been a bit torturous!

Thankfully, the portion in my carryon thawed and awoke with joyous salutation to its new environment.  It was more difficult than I expected to find unbleached bread flour at the local Super Maxi in Quito so I offered mi Madre some barley flour and whole oats.  This seemed to keep her happy until I arrived in Banos where I was to find a whole array of baking supplies, including plantain and blue corn flour.   With a little research and some basic Spanish, I have high hopes that my starter will be put to good use!