Welcome to Breaking Bread, the interview series that highlights sourdough bakers! In today’s post, I talk with Jim Challenger, owner of Challenger Breadware. Jim’s love for sourdough baking and hatred for existing baking vessels lead him to design his own. His custom-built Challenger Bread Pan has been well-received by pro- and home-bakers alike, and his positive energy and love for sharing bread has made him a staple in his community. Here, we discuss how he discovered sourdough baking, the challenges of designing a bread pan from scratch, and where he finds his greatest support in breadmaking.
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1. Thanks so much for joining me, Jim! Let’s get started. How did you discover your love for sourdough?
I’ve sort of always loved to cook. I love to feed family and friends, and our kids’ friends were always around our house, so we were always cooking for people. I started my bread journey by making pizza, and then one day I looked at my wife Lisa and I said, “You know what, I’m going to learn how to bake bread!” I told myself I would give it three solid years, and said I’m not going to allow myself to quit. I’m one of those all-in kind of guys. So I bought the book Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast and I wasn’t even thinking about sourdough at the time. I had tried sourdough once with Nancy Silverton’s method of making a starter and it was a total bust. I had no idea what I was doing! But this time I started with yeast and made some bread, and then I discovered the Instagram bread community and somehow started talking to Trevor J Wilson. I was asking him questions about yeasted bread, and I figured I’d start with yeast because it’s supposed to be easier. And Trevor’s view was, if you want to eventually make sourdough, you might as well just start now. He said there’s enough differences that you’re not going to see much transfer of skills. So I just jumped into sourdough. Trevor helped me, and the whole Instagram baking community helped me. For sure, I would not be baking right now if I hadn’t gotten on Instagram. I’ve never met people like the Instagram bread community! They have to be the nicest, kindest, most giving people I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve never met a bad person. Everybody’s willing to share. So yeah, I just kept at it. I would offer it to my friends so that I could bake as often as I could, so I’ve always given bread away. In August it’ll be year four, and it’s been really, really fun! Definitely the best hobby I’ve ever picked up.
2. How did you take your new-found passion for sourdough and turn that into designing the Challenger Bread Pan?
That project just kind of grew organically. I was frustrated because I felt like everything around baking bread at home was just a hack. I started out like most people probably start out, and that was with the cast iron combo cooker that Chad Robertson recommends in Tartine, but it can only bake small round loaves. It felt so limiting to me. Then I tried my Dutch oven because I figured I could bake bigger loaves, but then I was always trying to be so careful not to burn myself. I was making parchment paper slings, and I hated it. So then I moved on to a pizza steel, but once again, it was kind of like another hack because now I had to get steam in my home oven and home ovens are designed to vent steam. I broke my oven twice doing that! The third time I broke my oven, the guy said, “Look Jim, if you keep doing this, we’re going to have to replace the entire inside of your oven. It’s not going to be under warranty, and it’s going to cost you a crap load of money.” I was a little lost at that point, until I met a woman on Instagram named Sara Dahmen (@housecopper) and she makes old-fashioned copper cookware out of her garage. I bought one of her pans, and then one day I checked her website and she had a new cast iron skillet for sale. I messaged her and said, bread bakers need a bigger vessel that’s designed for baking bread, and there’s nothing out there. She connected me with her product designer and the foundry that she used to make her skillet, and I was off to the races! At first I made ten pans, and gave six away. Suddenly these six bakers who had my pan started posting about it, and the emails and Instagram messages started trickling in. It started with about 25, then 100, then 300, then 500… I mean, it was unbelievable. At first my wife and I were going to pack and ship them out of our kitchen, but when it got to 500 messages, I said “Lisa, we’ve got to figure out how to make a business!” There was just no way we could ship 500 pans out of our kitchen. So we started making a business. A baker and pizza maker named Chris Lem (@chris.lem.w) came up with the name Challenger Breadware, and we loved it. I talked to the foundry to see if they could make more. I started working with the designer. The pan that you see now is so different from the first prototype. The shape changed, the handles changed. Trevor helped with those initial designs and prototypes. After the design process, we finally launched in August 2019. It hasn’t even been a year yet! But in true start-up fashion, we ran out of pans in two months. We had to find a second foundry, so while we were looking, we were out of pans between October and February. We finally found a foundry in Wisconsin, and they’ve been fantastic. These new Challenger Bread Pans are higher quality, and they could crank out a thousand a week if we wanted them to!
3. I’m sure you use your pans during your home workshops, too. How did the idea of doing the bread workshops in your home come into fruition?
Right around the time we were working on the bread pans, my wife and I found a two-acre lot of land in our town that was reasonably priced. My wife always wanted horses, so we decided to design and build a home. We designed the kitchen as basically one huge room, with the idea for a huge island where we could give workshops. I wanted to teach before the bread pan thing started, but then the pans took off and there was just no way! I had no time in my life to teach courses. So we decided to host workshops by other teachers, and Kristen from Full Proof Baking was our very first. She and I met at the Chicago Bread Club. We knew each other from Instagram, and she’s like the best person. I knew she’d done a couple workshops at Whole Foods, so I called her up and asked if she wanted to teach at my house. She loved the idea, and she’s taught two classes so far.
4. Do your kids ever participate or bake sourdough with you?
My one son who’s in college always watched me cook and make bread, but he never wanted to cook or make bread himself. Recently though he has started baking sourdough. He never really did it with me, but we were always together, so in some sense he did do it with me. His hands weren’t ever in the dough and he didn’t really chop things with me, but now he’s got a love of cooking and baking, so I love it. His friend just started making sourdough, so we sent him a pan. He’s a rock climber, and I guess bread baking is also a popular side hobby in the rock climbing culture. Who knew?
5. You touched on the Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast cookbook earlier. What’s your favorite bread book and what makes it your favorite?
I have a bunch of bread baking books. I always read the intro, I read about the baker and I like to read the stories about how they found their way to bread. People find their way to bread in so many different ways, so that part’s always fun for me. But those books are mostly recipes. I’ve learned like it’s not really about the recipe, it’s about the technique. So I think my favorite one is the e-book that Trevor J Wilson wrote, because he really talks about the process. If you’ve not read it, you should definitely download it. It’s unbelievable how cheap it is, but it’s just so full of information. I read it yearly and I should actually skim it again, it’s just so full of information.
6. Who else inspires you in the bread baking community?
I’d say Kristen from Full Proof Baking is number one. I just respect everything about her as a person, a baker, a mom, a human being. Just following her on Instagram and watching what she can do with dough is truly amazing. She’s somebody I aspire to, for sure. Another person is Lane from Ash & Ember Woodfired Co. He’s a great baker, a great dad, and he’s just really nice. We message all the time. He’s also a farmer. He’s got turkeys, and he grows lots of food, and that seems like a dream life to me! Definitely an inspiration. Someone else who inspires me is Mike from The Sourdough Podcast because he took his bread baking to a whole new level and jumped into podcasting. He interviewed me once. His podcast is just really fun to listen to, like all the stories that you hear from other bakers. And then he became a cottage baker! That’s an aspirational thing for me. I just really respect him and he’s another one of those all around great guys.
7. This next question is my favorite because it’s so important. How should a new baker stay motivated to keep baking, even in the face of failure?
For me, it was about finding a way to love the little steps. People shouldn’t be intimidated by bread, they should just jump in and do it. Their first loaves are not going to turn out perfect, but they always taste really good. So as long as they look at those results and think, I’m making a sandwich with this bread I made, if they can love that and then start loving the process, then they’ll realize it just takes time. People sometimes ask me, how come it didn’t turn out? I say, have you ever picked up a guitar for the first time and played a song? Of course not. Look at how long it takes to learn to play a song. When I started, I feel like it was months of just pure frustration with my bread not being the way I wanted it, but it still tasted so good for breakfast every morning. So I learned that passion, practice, patience and perseverance are key. The four P’s! I’m about four years in, and I always think I’ll improve faster, but the improvement is slow. But I love all the different steps, and I love pulling bread out of the oven and eating it. You’ve just got to keep at it.
8. How has COVID-19 and the current state of the world changed your business and your baking?
Two things have come out of this COVID situation. The first happened 28 days ago now. My wife sent me a picture from the grocery store and said, there’s no bread! When she came home, we started talking. We were already baking 12 loaves twice a week and giving them away, so we decided to bake 12 loaves every day. 28 days later, 12 loaves are still being picked up each and every day. I bake the bread, and my wife slices them, puts them in bags, and puts little stickers on them. Then she puts them in the cooler outside. I think it’s the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done in my life. It gives me goosebumps actually telling this story, because the appreciation and the love that we’ve felt in return has just been incredible. Now people have started leaving us stuff! We don’t expect or ask for anything, but every once in a while there’ll be a banana bread or some cookies or a bottle of wine. People are giving back, and it’s bringing our community together. There’s definitely a silver lining in all of this. The second thing that’s happened is also wonderful: I suddenly realized I’m learning to be a cottage baker! I’m learning faster now than I’ve ever learned in my life, because I’m literally baking 12 loaves every single day. I think about what I could do better, and the very next day I’m able to practice it and make changes. It’s kind of like practice for if I opened up a cottage food bakery!