by Ashley Lodato
“Mine is a family of food lovers,” says Carlton, Washington baker Sarah Brown. “We love to cook and enjoy meals together.” When Sarah visited her grandparents, she remembers several different types of sourdough breads, stinky cheeses, and homemade jams sitting on their counters. As her grandfather put her on the bus for the two-hour ride home, he pressed into her hand a warm sourdough roll stuffed with butter or peanut butter to tide her over.
Sarah followed in her bread-baking family’s footsteps in middle school, when she discovered how simple it was (“add yeast to some sweet dough, roll it up with cinnamon, and—voila!—sticky buns”). The skill served her well when she became a strict vegetarian and her parents handed her the responsibility of cooking for herself.
Sarah confesses that in retrospect, her first loaves of bread were probably not very good. “I started with tasteless flour and lots of yeast,” she says, “and I ate hundreds, maybe thousands of loaves of over risen over-yeasted bread while I refined my ability and learned about the ingredients and process.” Sarah’s grandmother (bless her!) was willing to sample any of Sarah’s loaves, however, and that gave Sarah the confidence to keep experimenting with ingredients and proportions. And eventually that goal that had seemed so elusive—“a crusty tangy loaf that aged well and begged to be eaten,” says Sarah—became something that she could replicate time and again in her own oven.
Now, says Sarah, “Food is the stable element in my family’s life. We break bread together every day.” As a wife and mother of two young children, Sarah is the most prolific baker in the family, but she shares her love of baking with her kids. “I love it when my kids are making pancakes on a Saturday morning they ask me which kind of flour they should use and why,” she says.
You can probably guess which kinds of flours are stocked in the Brown family pantry. Sarah feeds her sourdough starter with Methow Hard Red and Pasayten Hard White flours. “I enjoy the flavor of my sourdough fed with Bluebird flours,” she says, “It smells like sweet apple cider.” Sarah has been using Bluebird’s wheat flours long enough that she can tell the difference between the different years and the batches of grain as the season progresses. “I really like the nutty quality of the wheat flours,” she says. “I also think the grind on the hard white is ideal for all kinds of baking; it makes it really versatile and adds flavor without adding the weightiness of a whole wheat bread flour.”
For variety, Sarah finds herself reaching for Bluebird’s hard red flour because “it adds such a great punch of flavor to whatever I’m cooking.” She quite frequently uses a blend of hard red and hard white “to get the best of both worlds.” And she loves Bluebird’s Dark Northern Rye flour for cookies —“especially ones with cocoa, yum!” (Such as Dori Greenspan’s World Peace Cookies.)
It’s not just Bluebird’s flours, though, that Sarah is fond of. “We love everything that I make with Bluebird products,” she says. The family eats Bluebird’s Old World Cereal Blend, takes Bluebird’s pancake mix on canoe trips, and Sarah frequently cooks up whole grain emmer farro with chicken stock or herbs for various dishes. And if she has extra emmer that hasn’t been strongly flavored, Sarah says, “I’ll toss the leftovers in my next batch of bread.” She adds, in case it isn’t obvious, “Wheat and cereal grains are a central part of our diet.”
It’s also important to Sarah that “my kids can see Sam and Brooke and know that they are growing a staple food for our family.” Sarah knows food production from many angles, commenting that “When I was farming for a living there was a short time when everyone in my family was working in the food industry.” Sustainable farming and producing food with integrity are important to her. “The quality of the ingredients really does make a critical difference in how the food tastes,” she says.
Certainly the satisfaction of providing her family with delicious, nutritious meals is gratifying, but Sarah also finds the act of making bread to be therapeutic. “When we have had dark times in our family I did turn to baking and cooking as a balm for my heartache. I knew I was seeking out my kitchen, my center of warmth, for healing and to help my family gain perspective and the baked goods did help lift us up and push us through the hardest days,” she says.
Baking is also grounding for Sarah. Coming from generations of bakers, Sarah says that “Baking bread keeps me grounded to this place, it brings me back again and again.” Other bread is okay, says Sarah, who has favorite bakeries everywhere she visits, “but I love coming home and feeding my sourdough and watching the bread darken my oven.”
Another thing you might find in Sarah’s oven is a pie, a pizza, or a croissant, especially around the holidays. About a decade ago, Sarah embarked on a quest to bake the perfect pie crust, so she made a pie a day for a month. “I have never forgotten how to make a good pie crust,” she says, adding ruefully “and I will always remember how much spring hiking I did to manage the ‘other’ results of my newly perfected pie making skills.”
Sarah encourages new bakers to just throw themselves into it and get their hands in the dough. “Try something new!” she urges. “Try your favorite cookie recipe with a ¼ cup whole grain flour and see if you notice a difference. For most of us the worst-case scenario is a batch of mediocre bread or pastries- which at least in my house will still get eaten with great pleasure! The best case scenario is a discovery of a new flavor or combination that you love.”
In this age of cooking shows and internet recipe videos, Sarah reminds us that “My great great grandmother didn’t have food blogs or TV cooking shows. She just had to figure out how to make her food taste as great as she could in the time she had.” That’s Sarah—making her food as delicious as possible in the time she has with the best ingredients she can get.