Last weekend I attended a beginners sourdough workshop at The Baking Lab in Amsterdam Oost. The Baking Lab does double duty as both an eatery and a learning center where a bunch of brilliant and passionate bakers teach the public about baking with sustainability in mind i.e. a no waste baking culture with social impact high on its priority list.
The lab puts on a few different types of workshops (like basic bread and sourdough for beginners) as well as team building presentations for companies and schools. Highly recommended if you’re in the area and interested in baking. When we bought our tickets a few weeks ago we were just expecting to learn about the process of making sourdough, but in the end we left with much more than that.
Getting to The Baking Lab
From Amsterdam West my friend Nat and I got on tram 3 at Museumplein and then about 20 minutes later we disembarked at the corner of Oosterpark and Linnaeusstraat in Amsterdam Oost. After a short 10 minute walk up the road we found The Baking Lab, tucked into a beautiful turn of the last century split-level storefront.
We walked in and were greeted by a young man named Frederic, who moved from Germany to the Netherlands and was volunteering at The Baking Lab. Frederic offered us coffee or tea as more participants arrived and filled up the small landing of the storefront. As we waited I perused the shelves, taking note of small seeded loaves baked in ceramic flower pots, paper bags of flour with various notations scrawled on them in permanent marker, a few kinds of artisanal salt, and at least five different grains that to my untrained eye all looked like they could be wheat.
Eventually our hosts were ready to begin and we were shown down the stairs and introduced to our lead instructor Jechiam, who also happens to be the founder of The Baking Lab.
Jechiam has the kind of energy that only people driven by pure passion have. He darts around the kitchen talking fast and jumping from one implement to another. One second he picks up a thermometer to explain the role of temperature and the next a red marker to scrawl some notations in a notebook. Leaving both pen and thermometer aside, he bounds over to the other side of the kitchen where he rapidly mixes pieces of stale old bread and warm water in a large plastic tub, soliciting volunteers (of which I was one) to use our hands and squish the pieces into a smooth slurry ready to be added to new loaves.
Jechiam is ever-eager to share this or that anecdote about bread, baking, the circular bakery, and the symbolism underlying so much of what they do at The Baking Lab. He tells us there’s special connection at the bakery with the number 7, that the Maxwell-Boltzmann temperature distribution is at the heart of baking, and that there’s an important story behind the sprouting orange in The Baking Lab extended logo. If you’re curious you can read more about it in The Baking Lab story.
Although Jechiam is funny and light-hearted, its clear that he’s tirelessly driven by deep devotion and passion for learning, teaching, and improving our relationship with food.
The Elements of Making Sourdough
While I went into the Sourdough for beginners workshop expecting a systematic and linear introduction to the process of making and keeping sourdough, what we got instead was an introduction to the elemental aspects of sourdough bread baking.
The mechanics of the process of making, keeping and baking sourdough are easy enough to understand. Exact ratios and directions are available in countless places online. What you learn in this workshop is more than that. It’s not just the ‘how‘ of sourdough, but also the ever more critical ‘why‘.
Sourdough is so much more than the latest in a long line of food fads. Sourdough is bread that’s made working with nature, rather than against it. It’s a far cry from factory made loaves in terms of taste but also (and more importantly) in terms of healthful properties and sustainability. The fermentation process not only makes sourdough tastier than yeast leavened bread, but it also makes it much more digestible.
Insofar as sustainability is concerned, because sourdough is alive it needs hands-on attention. You get and you give. The process beautifully reflects not just the circular bakery, but also about the circular nature of food systems. We can’t take without giving. We can’t treat food as if it’s separate from us – a dead and inanimate thing only to be consumed and forgotten. In this way, learning about sourdough brings us closer to knowing the true value of sustenance.
Lessons & tips I picked up at The Baking Lab
Using stale bread to make new loaves
I love learning new ways to reduce food waste by repurposing leftovers into something new and delicious. It speaks to the cucina povera in my heart. Using stale bread for baking new loaves isn’t something I would have ever thought to do, but now that I know I’ll definitely try it. It’s not only better for the environment but also better for the food budget.
The role of temperature
Since I like to work quite intuitively in the kitchen, I tend to focus on using my own senses to understand the dough and how it should feel. Still, this workshop taught me that there’s a lot to be said for learning more about the role of temperature in baking. Learning to control temperature gives you more control over outcomes so you can better avoid over or under-proofing – which is definitely a problem I’ve dealt with in the past.
More than just the importance of temperature, I’ve learned that having some controls in place (like ratios and temperature) helps you learn more about the process of baking so that you have more knowledge when you do want to go off-roading.
Gluten up close and personal
If you’ve done any sort of baking you’ve likely heard of the magical properties of gluten for adding tensile strength and structure to baked goods. High gluten flour yields everything from beautiful bubbly pizza crusts to chewy bagels and fluffy fried doughnuts. I knew this going in, but I had never actually seen gluten isolated from its source before…that is until Jechiam pulled out a hunk of pure gluten and a can of compressed air from his magic box and showed us exactly what gluten can do.
Adding tension to dough when kneading
I’ve been baking bread for a few years now and I’ve developed a kneading style that’s part learned from my grandmother and part my own trial and error. This sourdough workshop showed me that there’s still plenty to learn when it comes to kneading techniques. During the workshop we were all given some dough in hand and our instructors went around teaching us different methods for kneading in a way that puts tension into the dough. Adding tension while kneading isn’t something I every thought about before and although my technique wasn’t very good on first try, I’ll definitely be adding this to my culinary repertoire in the future.
Baking equipment: the banneton
While I have a few essential bread baking items in my kitchen including a Dutch oven and a baguette pan, I haven’t yet caved and purchased a bread basket i.e. a banneton. I didn’t think it was necessary and always found ways to store and transfer resting dough…but after seeing how much the banneton simplified the process in the lab I’ve decided I’m going to pick one up very soon.
The role of steam
A lot of introductory advice on bread baking will tell you to use steam so that the bread doesn’t form a crust too quickly so it can continue rising. Oftentimes the suggested method for introducing steam is to put a large pan filled with water and a dish cloth on the lowers rack in the oven and then pop the bread in once the water is steaming. I’ve tried this steam method a few times before but I didn’t see much of a difference.
At The Baking Lab the steam method involved splashing water up onto the wall of the bread oven, which instantly released a huge amount of steam. It made me think that maybe not all steam is created equal, and that perhaps the intensity of the steam release and the method of delivery also plays a big role in the outcomes. This post on using steam in baking by Maurizio at The Perfect Loaf seems to confirm my suspicions. Next time I bake I’ll try to use more steam methods.
Making pitas puff & separate
I often use my go to dough recipe for making flatbread like this garlic butter naan. Naan is simple as far as flatbread goes because it doesn’t really need to have a pocket. When I’ve tried to make pitas in the past with a similar method (stovetop cooking over medium-high heat) but I could never get them to puff and make a pocket. Since we made bread dough, pizza and pitas during our sourdough workshop I got to see a totally different method for making pitas. The dough was rolled out into disks, cooked in the oven for a few minutes (which made them puff and create a pocket) and then they were finished on the stovetop over an open flame. Genius. Will definitely try this method in the future.
Scoring the loaves
Scoring sourdough has its origins in a time in human history when people relied on communal ovens and had to mark their loaves so they would be able to identify them after baking.
Good loaves sing
Finally, once the hard work of the workshop was done and we were getting ready to relax with some pizza and wine, the freshly baked loaves came out of the oven and we learned one final thing – the sound that fresh bread makes.
Final Thoughts on The Baking Lab
When all was said and done we had learned a lot and left with our bellies full and smiles on our faces. Each of us took home a loaf of freshly baked sourdough and Frederic was kind enough to give some of us a bit of his starter. I also picked up a sachet of very dark Danish smoked sea salt that has more umami flavour than I thought was possible in salt.
If you’re in the area and want to learn about baking or sourdough I recommend you check out the workshops at The Baking Lab. It’s a great way to spend an evening and you’ll walk away having learned about baking but more importantly having felt the energy of a place and people that run on passion and care about food.
Until next time,
Do you want to get a monthly roundup of all my kitchen experiments, recipes and cooking tips? Sign up for my once per month newsletter.