A Stir The Pots Post

Sarah Owens – Gypsy Baker

by | Dec 3, 2019 | Bakers, Fermentation, Interviews

Author Photo 2

I first met baker Sara Owens through my blog. Since both of us live in New York City, she invited me over one afternoon to her apartment to join her in baking some sourdough loaves. I still remember that conversation. I also remember how it seemed her own micro-bakery, BK17, soon after quickly found success. And how she subsequently published three books, winning a James Beard Award for her first, Sourdough. Today, she travels the world teaching others to bake, and making more of a home on the West Coast than the East. Recently, she graciously took some time to answer some questions for Stir the Pots. 

How did you become a baker?

In 2009, I took a job as curator of roses for New York’s Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It proved to be a very demanding position physically, mentally, and emotionally. My coping mechanisms at the time were not as developed as they are now and I tended to internalize stress. This exacerbated some underlying digestive difficulties and I eventually became quite ill. 

I began fermenting bread dough to introduce more wholesome probiotics and baking with natural leavening as a way to ‘pre-digest’ prebiotics (fiber). At the time, whole grains were the most severe trigger food and sourdough breads proved to be a gateway to reincorporating most grains and pseudo-cereals back into my diet. The ritual of baking became a delightful way to slow my mind, find my center again, and provided an enormously gratifying, creative outlet. I became hooked on the process and soon was baking in every moment of my spare time, giving loaves away to anyone who would take one just to get better at the craft.

In 2010 it seemed time to take this newfound interest in sourdough baking a little more seriously. I played hooky from the garden on a rainy day and headed to NYC’s City Hall for my business license as an effort to bankroll my passion. I rented a shared kitchen and began baking for my local CSA in Brooklyn, wholesaling to BKLYN Larder, and set up a share system at work. This was at the height of the gluten-free movement and when people began hearing how I had been led to sourdough and improved my personal health, the word spread through online and print publications.

Eventually I was approached to write a cookbook. When my first book Sourdough was published, I left my job at the Botanic Garden. The goal of resigning wasn’t necessarily to become a baker but that’s what ended up happening, especially once I moved to Rockaway Beach in Queens, NYC. There I was able to set up an atelier that allowed me to do some small-scale production baking, more hands-on workshops, and develop a mail-order fermented wholegrain cookie business!

My brother suffers from digestive issues, how has fermentation helped you physically?

Everyone has a very different path and I think the first step is to understand the root of the problem. In Western medicine, our symptoms are treated before we are even diagnosed. For me, pharmaceuticals were only making my symptoms worse. What really turned my condition around was a combination of lifestyle changes (including reducing stressful demands) getting not only more but better quality sleep, and introducing mindful practices to help keep me centered and listening to my body.

Fermentation has been another tool in my kit that helped introduce a suite of live pro-biotics, although I had to incorporate them slowly; over the course of about two years, my gut lining eventually healed. I am no longer anemic and can absorb more nutrients from the food I ingest. Now I am much less sensitive but I still have to watch what I eat, especially when I travel. Processed foods are and probably always will be an absolute avoidance. When I do have a flare up, I have to remember to be patient and give my body what it needs to level out.

Who taught you to bake?

I am primarily a self-taught baker for better or worse! Baking books from Nancy Silverton and Peter Reinhart were where I began along with some repetitive usage of YouTube videos. Eventually I studied Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman which really helped me grasp the concepts of dough fermentation. At that time, the Instagram baking community was very small and there weren’t many online resources other than The Fresh Loaf. Most of the techniques I used were found on YouTube were still very much rooted in the French tradition. I gleaned what made sense but mostly developed skills based on intuition. As I began incorporating more and more local, stone ground flours, my techniques also drastically changed.

The beautiful thing is, there are so many different ways to make bread! The systems I’ve developed are based on what makes the most sense to me and my small-scale baking situations using locally grown and stone milled flours.

I watched you since you started in NY and now you’re all over the world. Describe that feeling of success?

Success can be measured in so many different ways. Explorative travel has always been a goal of mine and so being able to teach globally makes it seem like I’ve finally reached a level of success that feels palpable. Food really is the love language of culture and when I am teaching abroad, I try and incorporate as many local ingredients and traditions as I can into the workshops. Sourdough baking has an identity rooted in European tradition and so I feel it is a success when the concepts of natural leavening can be applied in the context of a completely different location such as Mexico, Lebanon, or Colombia.

Your feelings on micro-baking?

Micro-baking, especially in a cottage licensed setting, is a fantastic way to get started. You really don’t need to invest much in order to bake well for your community. But at this point, I need physical space between my personal and professional lives. Otherwise it becomes too consuming emotionally and it feels like my work is never done.  It’s also important to create boundaries and sacred space for the mind and body to rest. No matter what your vocation is, that is difficult to do when your business is run out of your home.

To make baking a primary and consistent source of income is all about scale and making sure your output maximizes your input in terms of time and resources. This is a bit tricky with the process of sourdough, as the more time you put into extending the fermentation, the more delicious and nutritious it becomes. I really maxed out the rental space in Rockaway and was spending 10-16 hours a day or more during the high season in a basement there trying to make my limited resources work. That along with the momentum and pace of NYC really pushed me to my personal edge. So after 10 years of micro-baking, I think I’ve earned a shift!

CVR Sourdough_ Roost Books

How do you write a book on bread?

Like making and baking a loaf, there are many different ways to write a book about bread. Over the course of three books, a lot of the information is consistent but sometimes explained in different ways or formats. I try and make the techniques accessible but I’m not interested in dumbing it down for the masses. In this way, I’ve taken a very conscious step toward investigating the hows and whys rather than just drilling home a dogmatic adherence to my ‘recipe’. I try and write to encourage bakers to learn the steps but then open themselves up to intuition.

Is the market saturated with bread books, or is it something that has kindled a spark or yearning for slower times?

There are so many different ways to bake so many different types of bread. I’m not sure the market will ever be saturated! In general, I think we may be yearning for foods that reflect the time it takes to nurture quality ingredients into something delicious. When you taste a loaf of properly fermented bread made with stone ground flour, it becomes something cravable. It’s also an incredibly rewarding outcome that engages all of your senses to the fullest. I think people really respond to that level of engagement in a way that we don’t get staring at a recipe on a screen. Books are a way to pull people into the poetry of the process through different voices and textured visuals.

You’ve relocated to the west coast during a high fire season. How does that make you more aware of climate and its relationship to food?

Most of us are aware of the environmental and social implications of climate change. But I had not felt the effects so dramatically until I was literally caught between the fires of LA and Sonoma County and unable to fully relocate from NYC because of being evacuated. In California, drought is affecting farmers directly not only because of a scarcity of resources like water but because the seasons of ripening are shifting and the ability to harvest at the right time is being threatened. I must admit, it makes me wonder whether I will be able to run a business based on local agriculture in an area of such expensive real estate successfully but I’m willing to take a risk and become more involved in the conversation around how to adapt and adjust to these new, and increasingly ‘normal’ circumstances.

How has baking world-wide make you aware of localized flours, heritage grains, etc.?

The US is a very large country and there are certainly many different ways of eating depending on the culture and economics of our different regions. As in many industrialized nations, Americans are realizing that the increase in modern diseases like diabetes and immune disorders are increasingly associated with diets based on processed, nutrient-stripped foods. Because of this, we are returning to using traditional methods and ingredients for not only their digestibility but also their nutritional value, often detected by intense and unique flavors.

It is a complicated topic because many of these better ingredients are grown in smaller communities here with lower yields that require additional processing equipment are much more expensive than their counterparts grown with industrial agricultural practices. In this way, eating better has unfortunately become a somewhat elitist luxury here but even more so in more marginalized countries. But I have faith and am seeing in countries like Colombia that as more people commit to using better ingredients, the more affordable and available better food will become.

Heirloom Breads.jpeg

What is your favorite grain or flour at the moment?

Einkorn, einkorn, einkorn! I hear a lot of professional bakers say they don’t bake with whole grains because their customers find them too coarse or heavy. But every time I provide bread or pastries made with 100% einkorn to a market, an event, or catering project, it’s always the first thing to be gobbled up.

It has a nutty, sweet aroma that is very easy on the palate and can be paired with so many different foods or flavors. In bread form, it’s also amazing with just a smear of cultured butter and a sprinkling of sea salt. It is a little tricky to work with however and requires a very different approach to hydration and fermentation. Sharon Burns-Leader helped me break through that understanding a bit better earlier this year and I’ve been focusing on it ever since.



How would you describe yourself? As a baker, a fermentation fetishist, how?

All of the above. I’m fascinated by different fermentation methods and am always tempted to take on new projects but don’t always have the literal space or bandwidth to maintain them. Regardless, I just adopted a jun scoby from a friend in Portland, Oregona and am excited to invite a new community of microbes into my repertoire. It allows alternate ways to connect to my environment as well, using more localized botanical ingredients in secondary fermentation’s.

Who inspires you?

Dolly Parton! She does what she wants with no apologies. She’s bold, an incredibly talented song writer, and an amazing performer. We grew up in the same area of East Tennessee and listening to her music has a kind of nostalgia that is both sweet and an honest representation of the culture there. She has been at it for such a long time and still has a charm and grace about her that is timeless and unfailing. She is also able to connect with and create a safe space for so many different people from various backgrounds and political leanings. I feel that bread has a similar way of creating community even amongst people of dramatic differences and strive to be like her in that respect. 

What are you seeking?

As a baker, I’m seeking a lifestyle that I can age into but one that keeps me stimulated, curious, and connected to my environment and this beautiful, diverse world of other cooks and bakers. As a writer, I hope that my words and recipes can have an impact on the way people consider their food choices but also how we treat one another.

 Will you open a shop, or you’re a traveler with sourdough?

I’ve never wanted to own a retail bakery and probably never will. I love maintaining flexibility, working with apprentices, teaching, and traveling. But I’m also very drawn toward community supported and market baking. I would like to continue with that on a larger scale in California in conjunction with the Cook the Farm Workshop I’m contributing to in Sonoma County.

In spring 2020, the farm that I’m partnering with and living on in Sebastopol will break ground on a space that will host instructional classes using farm-fresh ingredients. When that is ready in the autumn, I will be able to settle down a bit, offer some longer format workshops with housing, and can also resume production baking.

Until then, I am leading culinary experiences in far away places like The Republic of Georgia and Sicily but also writing negotiating some collaborative writing projects. Until that is ready in late 2020, I am absolutely a gypsy baker. 



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