Welcome to the first ever Breaking Bread! Today’s interview features Kristen, a home baker from Chicago who has made sourdough her full-time job. She is better known under the handle Full Proof Baking, and her beautiful photos and instructional posts on Instagram have garnered her over 100,000 followers (!!!) plus over 18,000 subscribers on YouTube. Here, she talks about how she got started, how she bakes with her young son, and the influence of social media on her baking.
How did you discover your love for sourdough?
The first bread I ever made was back in 2016 – an instant yeasted white Amish bread – and it was great! I can still remember that first bake, pulling it out of the oven and that smell! The smell was just incredible. Afterwards, I went on YouTube and I started looking up breadmaking. One of the things that kept popping up was sourdough, which I always went right by because it sounded terribly complicated and scary. But about a month later I was finally like, “Hmm, let’s watch some of these.” I got inspired, and I went on King Arthur’s website and bought some fresh starter. I’m a scientist, I have a PhD in Biology, so the idea of having a sourdough culture was really interesting to me. But I basically had no idea what I was doing, and I was trying to feed it and keep it alive – and I’ve never been able to keep plants alive. Finally, I made some bread, which was terrible! Terrible terrible terrible. It didn’t rise at all and it was like a piece of wood, but I loved it. I loved the process of it, getting your hands in there and doing the stretch and folds and shaping it, it was so fun. I was hooked, even with that first terrible bread. After a few months, things started improving a little bit, and I really got the hang of feeding the starter. Then a friend from grad school called me and said “I see you’re making bread and posting it on Facebook. You need to make your own sourdough starter – you’re a scientist for God’s sake!” So I made my own starter, and it took me like a month to get a good, strong starter. And at that point, I was in it – I’d spent a month creating this new thing! I was baking two breads a week at that point which was more than we could eat. I was giving some away. And right at that time my dad was diagnosed with celiac disease. That was frustrating because he ate bread every single day, and that’s when I realized I needed to stop making the instant yeasted breads and just focus on sourdough. So that’s what I did – I dove in, starting with pan loaves for sandwich breads, then started making the artisan breads – the boules, the bâtards – eventually blossoming into me making several loaves week.
When did your journey transition from a personal adventure to a public one?
When I was starting to bake often, I was also doing science editing. I needed to come up with a name for both my breadmaking and my editing. At the time, my science editing name was Full Proof Editing. So I thought, let’s just use the same name for baking – it works too! You know, you fully proof your bread. The original idea came from my father-in-law, so he gets the credit. Then I ventured into Instagram two years ago. I uploaded a few of my favorite breads that I had baked in the fall and a few days later my sister called me and said, “Kristen, you have to use hashtags.” And I was like, “What’s a hashtag?” [Laughs] After a lesson from her on the indexing terminology of hashtags, I started using them and sure enough, all of a sudden somebody liked one of my photos!
And now you have over 100,000 followers on Instagram! How did you get to this point?
Yes! Once I figured out hashtags, I started following people I was inspired by. I noticed that Instagram had a close-knit community of bakers that were sharing their methods as well as their beautiful breads, and that was really important to me and helped me become a better baker. I would see a bread that I liked, and I would really read the post, like really go through each post, and try to figure out what they were doing that was different. Those accounts I felt a magnetic attraction to. That’s how I discovered Trevor Wilson, for instance, and that winter I purchased his e-book and kept utilizing Instagram posts to improve my baking. Initially I would publish a very general post like, “I bulk fermented for five hours then baked at this temperature.” Something very simple. Even with that amount of information I started getting commenters saying, “That looks great, can you tell me more?” “What else did you do?” “What grains did you use?” So, I started being pushed toward this avenue. Soon my account became very educational, and it just grew like crazy and exploded into this ridiculousness. I’m learning, and my followers are learning – we are all getting in on this together. Plus, citing where you’re getting your ideas from, building friendships with all those people, it forms a really amazing network of bakers that I love being a part of.
You’re collaborating with Challenger Breadware and doing a workshop in November. Have you done a workshop in the past? Does the idea of teaching a small group make you excited or nervous – or both?
I got started doing workshops in January, and I’ve done four this year. The first one was 24 people which was insane! The second was 10 people, which still seemed like a little much, so I’ve capped the rest at eight people. It’s the perfect number. And yeah – this month I’m going to be collaborating with Jim Challenger. He and his wife Lisa just built a new house which was literally built around the kitchen, which is so amazing. They wanted to start hosting bread bakers and instructors from all over the world to come to their house to teach, and they wanted me to be the first. I’m so honored and really excited for it.
You have a young son – how old is he? Does he ever help you out in the kitchen?
His name is Tyler, and he just turned six over the summer. He is full of energy. He comes home from school and he just bounces – literally bounces – off the walls. I’ve never seen him get on the couch the proper way, where you walk up to it and sit down. He will crawl up the back, and then bounce onto it. He’s crazy. From time to time he does help me in the kitchen. I thought I had him hooked for a while. He was making dinners with me, and I was teaching him to sauté in fat, and add salt to the water to boil noodles, and he was really starting to get it and learn these basic concepts. But then he just fell out of the whole cooking thing and didn’t want to do it anymore. Once in a while he’ll want to make bread, but it’s always something weird, like a dough with squid ink, or a blue bread made with purple sweet potatoes or butterfly pea flower. He also doesn’t like to get his hands dirty, so he will make one that requires minimal handling of the dough, and I usually end up kneading it a bit for him. He does love to shape it, slash it, bake it, and eat it, of course!
Where do you get your ideas and inspiration for your crazier breads like the purple swirl sandwich bread?
All of the different pan loaves I make are for my son. He loves the colorful ones, and I’m always trying to think of new ideas. He’s definitely my inspiration. The swirl bread was hilarious, because on the outside it looked like a completely normal loaf of bread. I called Tyler over to look at the bread and he was unimpressed until I started slicing, and the swirly blue popped out, and his mouth just dropped open! It was so fun.
Let’s talk about discard: Personally, I hate throwing away the starter discard after feeding. Do you ever utilize yours in different ways?
I also always try to use the starter discard. We like to make sourdough pancakes or waffles together on the weekend. We’ll do little mini muffins, zucchini or banana nut, add in some discard, and those are great for school lunches. My son loves them because they’re sweet and he has no idea they’re full of zucchini! We also throw it into our pizza dough. There are a million things you can do with sourdough beyond bread.
What advice would you give to busy moms who want to start baking sourdough regularly for their families?
In the beginning of my journey, I had a three-year-old and I was taking him to mom-and-me classes every day, I cooked breakfast, lunch, dinner, plus all of the stay-at-home-mom chores, and on top of that I wanted to make bread. So one of the things that I loved early on was the flexibility and the different types of baking techniques out there. Sourdough is super ultra flexible! There is definitely a learning curve, and you have to know how to feed a starter, but you can play with the temperature. The time. The folds. You can make it fit your schedule. I have some people attend my workshop who work 60 hours a week and they are still producing bread every week because they’ve figured out ways make it work. The cold bulk, for example, is every baker’s best friend. You mix up the dough, throw it in the fridge for a day or two, then shape it, and pop it back in the fridge. There’s little handling involved in this type of technique. Or you could be someone like me: I micro-manage my dough, babying it all day long. I’m in the kitchen working on it from 6:00am to 7:00pm, but I’m still able to do everything I need to do. I go to the store, I drop off and pick up my son from school, still make dinner, still pack lunches, still do laundry and dishes and all that stuff, but I just work around those time points. It feels like I’m doing a normal day, and bread is fit into the background. When I can, I get in a coil fold. When I can, I can stick my dough in the fridge. Depending on your schedule, you make it work for you, which is so lovely about sourdough. But you’ve got to have that nugget of passion – you have to want to do it in the first place.
How should new bakers stay motivated to keep baking, even in the face of failure?
When I look back on my first bakes – and I’m talking the first year of baking – I was not putting out good bread. It was challenging for me, I felt disappointment often, but I also always had this feeling like, “Wow, I learned something new.” It’s a learning curve – you start off making bread like hockey pucks, and eventually you get a little more rise, and your bread gets better and better and better. I have people message me and just insult their bread. Like, “Look at this crappy bread.” So we troubleshoot it and they learn a bunch of new things for their next bake, and so I like to say, let’s look at this not-so-perfect bread in a positive way and think about all of the things you’ve learned because of that bread. Instead of looking at it like you struggled and it didn’t work out, try to learn from your mistakes. For me, that’s in the form of taking a lot of notes and being really mindful of what I’m doing. Temperature, timing, how the dough looks, how the dough feels, all of those things go in my notebook and I’ve been doing that from the very beginning. I still remember the first bread that ever puffed up properly during the bulk ferment and I was like, “Oh my gosh, what did I do?” I suddenly had a successful bake out of nowhere, but really it wasn’t out of nowhere because I had worked up to it. Because of my notes I could see the temperature was a full degree higher during the bulk and that was probably why. Then I could test it out during the next bake. I guess I am an actual scientist and very analytical, but for me that’s exciting – it doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s about the learning experience. I’ve been baking bread for a long time and I’m still learning. Eventually you’re going to get to a place where you’re more comfortable, but you’re never going to feel like you’ve made it. Try to switch your frame of thinking. This is a journey. It’s about the process to get there. Think about the people you’re meeting and communicating with on a regular basis – there’s so much more than the product coming out of your oven. Plus, those less-than-perfect bakes probably still taste pretty good. You’re the most critical person of your bread. And, if nothing else, you can always grind it down and make breadcrumbs!