Welcome to Breaking Bread, the interview series that highlights sourdough bakers! In today’s post, I talk with David Kaminer, owner and operator at Denver’s Raleigh Street Bakery. His past commercial bakery experience led him to open his own cottage food bakery in his backyard, and he sells bread to order, in CSA’s, and at farmer’s markets. He also hosts immensely popular sourdough baking workshops in his backyard bakery (which I took, and highly recommend!). Here, we discuss his humble beginnings in sourdough, teaching his son the importance of food, and he shares his advice for beginner bakers that we should all follow.
When did you realize you had a passion for sourdough?
It probably really didn’t start until I worked at Udi’s Bakery. I had some bread baking experience prior to that: I worked at a bakery south of Pittsburgh when I was in high school and culinary school, and I also made daily bread at a restaurant I worked at. We maintained a starter for a little bit but I had no idea what I was doing, and now I know that it was never healthy. But once I started working at Udi’s, a large percentage of the breads we made were sourdough, and I really enjoyed it. We were cultivating this life form, and the whole process was fun. Plus I felt that sourdough was better for people, and that’s what we should be eating, instead of the commercial yeasted breads. These days I find that sourdough is so reliable; why do I even need yeast anymore?
Did you always know about the health benefits of sourdough?
I’m not sure when that really struck a chord with me. I feel like I’ve always eaten good food overall. Growing up as a kid my mom always cooked a lot, so food is a positive memory for me. Once the gluten-free thing came on, I realized that something was wrong with a lot of the bread that people were eating. I had many conversations with a lot of bakers, and then all the information started coming out about gluten intolerance and celiac disease. Truthfully, it was a really good time to be a baker. So much was being discovered so quickly, and all these ingredients suddenly became much more accessible. What was interesting for me was the realization that it was never sourdough bread that was causing people problems.
How did you become the owner of a sourdough bakery?
It was kind of a gradual transition. I had been working in large operations for quite a long time and I knew I wasn’t quite ready to open up my own large operation. If I had opened a large bakery, I’d still be doing a lot of the same stuff I was doing at the other bakeries, and I just didn’t want to work so much anymore. I was over the 60-70 hour work weeks. I wanted more freedom in my life, so in 2013 when I discovered the Cottage Foods Act, I took that opportunity for a lifestyle change. I had the space in the workshop behind my house. I was talking with a friend about building an oven in my shop space, and he was really helpful in researching it and getting some plans together for me. I ended up building a pizza oven off the back of the shop space in the course of four months, just me and a bunch of friends, and I learned a lot about masonry in the process! I gave a six-month notice at the restaurant where I was working, and in that time, I was able to line up a CSA program and spot in a farmers market. I had experience in ordering ingredients, and I had a lot of contacts for my bulk ordering. I also took a small-business class, and that really helped me better understand how a business works, and helped me write my business plan. So I left that job, started this, and I’ve been doing it almost five years now.
You have a young son – how do you get him involved in cooking and baking with you?
Desmond is almost three, and whenever there’s stuff on the stove or I’m in the bakery, he says, “Can I help you?” He’ll push a chair over and stand on the chair at the counter. I love it because I think that’s such a great way to introduce new foods to kids. You show them the raw food and cook it in front of them, and they can watch it transform, taste it as it cooks, and I think they’re more willing to eat it when they’re involved in the process. He will play with dough for a long time, he’s definitely not scared of it. I think that’s what’s important, is to keep him interested. It’s important that I introduce it to him as much as I can. Sometimes during autolyse I let him touch the dough after he washes his hands, and that’s about all at this point that he’s helpful with! I found putting an apron on him is helpful, otherwise he wipes his doughy hands all over the place. At least this way he’s wiping it on the apron! We have him in Spanish classes once a week, and the teacher was holding a picture of green beans. Desmond yelled out “green beans!” and a lot of the kids in his class didn’t know what those were. I thought that was pretty awesome that my son knew what green beans were.
What are the typical challenges for someone who is new to baking sourdough?
Often times, beginners give up too soon because their bread doesn’t come out perfectly the first time. It definitely takes a lot of will to carry on the sourdough process. I think the dedication alone is probably the hardest part for newcomer. A lot of the time they’re also following a recipe, and there are so many variables. Say they’re following a specific timeline, and the temperature in their kitchen is too cold, that changes the outcome. Flexibility is key – beginners tend to be too concerned with the timeline, or have certain expectation of what it should be, and they give up on it before they really even give it a chance. I think it also takes a lot of desire to fail, and to learn from your mistakes. That’s art of the fun of it. Even someone like me who makes bread for people and sells it! I still feel like I’m crossing my fingers every single time. It’s a really awesome thing to have your bread look the way you wanted it to, but I don’t feel like I’m after perfection anymore. My oven itself is a challenge to work with. Nobody ever says anything negative about my bread, but I’m my own worst critic, and I think beginners struggle with that as well. It takes a lot, but remember that ultimately you’re feeding somebody, you’re creating food, and that’s pretty awesome. Plus, home bakers are baking maybe three loaves a week, and just being able to get that experience of touching and feeling and watching takes time. As long as you’re willing to commit to the process, you can make bread for the rest of your life and that’s a pretty cool thing.
Sourdough is notoriously tricky to learn. What’s the best way for beginner bakers to stay motivated and keep trying?
You have to like the challenge. You have to be curious and ask why. Why did this happen? You have to not really see it as a failure but have a curiosity as to how you can make it better each time. Learn from what you did last time and enjoy the process. Cooking should be fun, and bread in particular is the most fun because there are so many little steps and little ways to change the final outcome. It’s a fun medium to work with. It slows you down in a way, because you have to focus on the process and be dedicated to it. Baking a fresh loaf of bread in your home is pretty amazing. I often hear people say, “My grandmother used to make bread all the time.” I feel like that’s going to go away in America. In a couple generations, peoples’ grandmothers won’t know how to make bread anymore. I think it’s important for kids to grow up in homes with people cooking and enjoying good food, and I think that’s such a big part of us as people. We used to celebrate our food so much more, and it doesn’t seem like people care about it as much anymore. It all starts in the home, being able to create these delicious smells and make that impact on kids and family, and beginner bakers are helping to make that happen. Remember that what you’re doing is such a special thing.
What’s your favorite bread book and why?
Tartine Bread came out when I was working at Udi’s. At the time, I was really proud of the bread we were making. Tartine definitely changed our technique and the final appearance of our breads. It changed the bread world. The charred crust and the open crumb structure; that was a big book with a big impact. I also like Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman. He narrates stories behind his bread, I think he explains the history of bread very well. Being in this culinary career, there’s so much tradition in this world. He tries his best to honor that. Advanced Bread and Pastry is a good one, it’s very thorough and has so many great recipes. It also talks about storage and lots of other helpful stuff. You could run a bakery off that book! It’s kind of a manual. The Rye Baker is a new one that I got, and I’ve been playing with my rye breads because of that book.
Do you take notes in a journal when baking?
Here in Colorado, the variables are so drastic all the time, you’d need two years of solid data to figure out what to do each day. For example, it might be 30°F today, snowing and humid, whereas last week it may have been 80°F. I write stuff down occasionally but ultimately the process is so similar all the time: I get my production spreadsheet together, scale out all the ingredients, sometimes make tweaks, but if you scale out everything properly in the first step, then you can observe and control the fermentation for the rest of the process. I would say my spreadsheet is a working draft of what’s currently happening. I actually have every single production day I’ve ever done at Raleigh Street Bakery on an Excel spreadsheet!
As a professional baker, what source do you continue to lean on for learning and skill development?
These days, going to the Kneading Conference is so helpful for me. I go and meet all these people that I’ve either read about or seen on social media. Some of these bakers are very open with their process on social media, and they share techniques that you wouldn’t ever think to try. There’s also a big community of bakers who are constantly pushing and motivating each other. Running my workshops also makes me brush up, read the books, so I get the information right to present it well to people. I also like being active in the local grain movement and meeting my network. We talk a lot and they’ve all been very influential for sure. Ultimately, my customers really motivate me. One thing I love is when people buy my bread, I know they’re doing something special with it, and that’s a rewarding feeling: being part of people’s daily routines. A lot of these people have supported me for over four years now, and my bread has really changed so much.