Friday, December 20, 2013

Baking with natural starters: a bread workshop in Victoria, BC

I may not be a wiz at math but I know a winning formula when I see one! Take two experienced and passionate bakers, mix in two eager helpers, sprinkle with six enthusiastic baking students. Add two very active homegrown natural starters (one white, one rye), four completely different doughs, a copious dose of elbow oil (the students mixed everything by hand), a dash of late fall weather and a lovely Victoria farmhouse. Let the whole thing ferment, dusted with bread love and lore, and what you get is a fantastic introduction to baking with natural starters.

breadsong with the 80%-rye bread and Diane with the Norwich Sourdough
The workshop was the brainchild of two of my baker friends, Diane Andiel and breadsong. Diane is a full-time community programmer for the district of Saanich in Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia; she is also a farmer (she raises cows, goats and chickens) and a baker. She knows all the slow-foodies there are to know on the island and they all know her. Many of them buy her bread every weekend. A British Columbian as well (albeit a mainlander), breadsong is a marathon baker and born instructor who loves nothing more than sharing both what she makes and what she knows. She is also a full-time certified general accountant and a member of the team of volunteers which standardizes formulas for the Bread Bakers Guild of America.
Taken separately neither of them might have been bold enough to take on teaching a bread class but put the two of them together and all bets are off. Emails pingponged for weeks across the skies of British Columbia, from misty shores to mellow valleys, from pregnant fields to pounding surf. Formulas fluttered back and forth; some were forcefully driven to the ground; others blew slowly away, never to be seen again; four made the final cut: Diane's version of the Norwich Sourdough, Jeffrey Hamelman's 80% rye (a honey-walnut-spice variation), his whole wheat multigrain and Ken Forkish's 75% whole wheat.
On the actual eve of the workshop, as dusk darkened the windows, four women could be seen sitting around the kitchen table: Diane and breadsong, Melanie (a baker from Northeastern Washington who had come to help) and myself, the designated blogger. A giant platter of homemade cookies was brought in from the cold; mucho munching ensued, fueled by steaming tea and riotous retelling of bread (mis)adventures. Then we all got down to business: breadsong made final adjustments to the class handouts; Diane mixed a batch of Norwich sourdough, then shaped the one that had fermented all day and set it to proof. Melanie and I started scaling the ingredients for the doughs which were to be mixed in the morning.
A variety of grains was set to soak...
...spices were roasted and ground for the rye bread...

...and the various levains got fed.

Then, save for the silent squish of slowly rising dough, the house hushed for the night.

Things picked up fast in the wee hours of the morning: doughs needed to be mixed and set to ferment for the students to later shape, proof and score, proofed loaves had to be baked and everything step and ingredient checked and re-checked and checked again.

At 9 the students filed in. Although they were all there for the same reason (to learn how to make naturally leavened bread), their motivations varied: some had mastered yeasted breads and wanted to "graduate" to levain; others had never baked bread but loved the idea of making everything from scratch; one had just gotten a stone-mill grinder and wanted to switch to whole grains; another had a gluten-sensitive wife and was hoping that naturally leavened breads would be easier for her to digest, etc. But one thing was clear: they were all determined to make the most of the workshop.
By way of an introduction, Diane explained that the class was an experiment as neither she nor breadsong had ever taught bread making before. She stressed that since sourdough baking couldn't possibly be a one-day project, the students would see all the steps of the process but not necessarily in chronological order. Two doughs were ready to shape and the students would start with that; then they would mix four doughs from scratch. The most urgent task was to shape the Norwich sourdough which had bulk-fermented (a technical term for what the students might already know as the first rise) 


Two things to remember when shaping:
  • Keep your hands dry and floured
  • Don't use too much flour on the bench (the table or countertop) or you will compromise the crumb (since the gluten in the added flour isn't given a chance to develop)

Desired dough Temperature


Dough development

Fermentation & temperature

By the time the various morning tasks were done and over with, everybody was both famished and excited. Lunch was vegetable soup and Norwich bread, followed by tea and cookies made with homemade butter. Talk about keeping the troops happy!

Norwich bread

Two student-shaped loaves

breadsong's rye bread
Each and everyone of the students took home two containers of starter (one wheat, one rye), some rye flour, two fully baked loaves (one Norwich and one 80% rye) and two doughs to finish fermenting, then shape, proof and bake at home (the 75% whole wheat and the whole wheat multigrain), all wondrous presents for a bread lover and would-be sourdough baker. But as exciting as all these goodies were, the most precious thing the students left with was surely this advice from Diane and breadsong. Reflecting on their experience, they said that what had helped them the most over the years was:
  • Properly maintaining and caring for their sourdough starter (wheat, rye)
  • Using a scale (weighing ingredients) and a thermometer (to monitor dough temperature)
  • Allowing flour time to fully hydrate (as an aid to mixing)
  • Calculating water temperature prior to mixing
  • Controlling fermentation: maintaining appropriate temperatures when fermenting the starter and the dough 
(a Brød and Taylor proofer is a useful tool); 
  • Properly developing the dough when mixing
  • Watching the dough, not the clock, to determine whether it has fermented (risen) enough
  • Baking with steam.
I couldn't agree more.


  1. What a wonderful post. I foresee a significant amount of time following links and reading your earlier posts. Cindy (cyalexa)

    1. Thank you, Cindy! See you around then. I know what you mean: I myself can read about bread almost forever...

  2. What a great post. Thanks for sharing this event with us and your beautiful photography. The bread looks pretty amazing too! Do you know how much starter Breadsong actually maintains?

  3. Thanks, Ian! I don't think she maintains a huge amount because she was herself surprised at the change in the aroma when she opened the big container prior to mixing. We had always heard about the mass effect but never experienced it so vividly. I will ask her how much she maintains on a daily basis and get back to you.

  4. What a great experience - for students, instructors and, I bet, the helpers! Thanks, MC.

    Is this experiment going to be replicated?

    Best regards,


    1. Hi, David, so glad you came for a virtual visit. Yes, it was a unique experience. But I wouldn't be surprised if it were replicated, maybe slightly differently...

  5. Hi NC,
    What a delightful posting of how just knowing a few bread enthusiasts can spark off such a wonderful day. Also worth noting is the amount of preparation before hand to make something a good learning experience for all involved. I love the fact that the teachers were not professional bakers and their students knew that.
    Two words sum this up for me and they are 'heart warming.'
    Thanks for sharing a peek into your neck of the woods and your baking friends with us here.

  6. Hi MC
    How does one sign up for future workshops from this dynamic duo?

    1. At this point in time, I don't think there are any more workshops planned. I will post a comment to this post to let everybody know if things change... Do you live in BC?

    2. Yes on Vancouver Island, I think pretty close to where Diane Andiel lives!

  7. Yes, please, I also live in Victoria (okay, Metchosin) and have a cob oven just begging for sourdough bread to be baked in it! Please add me to your mailing list, if you have one, as I am most interested in attending a workshop.

    Also, to keep me calm in the meantime, do you know where I might find a reliable starter so I can practice?

  8. Hello, Anonymous from Metchosin. Sorry, there is no mailing list and I don't know if the workshop will be repeated. King Arthur Flour does sell starter if you'd like to go that route or you could try making your own. You could either google the method or look it up in a good bread book. Good luck!

  9. Hello, Anonymous from Metchosin. Sorry, there is no mailing list and I don't know if the workshop will be repeated. King Arthur Flour does sell starter if you'd like to go that route or you could try making your own. You could either google the method or look it up in a good bread book. Good luck!



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