Sourdough Home

“Carefully managed starters can last indefinitely, but keeping up with one is a good bit of work. Kinda like having a pet that you raise and feed and take care of and then…bake and eat.”

— Alton Brown

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2018-06-03 So, you want to have a home bakery, Part 4

Some marketing drivel and then - Actual baking tips!

Yeah, this was going to be the final blog post dedicated to starting a home, or cottage, food business. But people asked questions and I had second or third thoughts, so there are more installments. Still, this time, we'll get into actual baking, believe it or not!

Before we get into that, here's a few bits of trivia I'd like to share. The nights get long in a bakery. When I'm not listening to the excellent audio adventures from ZBS media, I really like listening to podcasts. Baker, Canadian and all-around good guy Mark Dyck has a bread oriented podcast that has been quite good. The first few episodes had some audio issues, but he seems to be taking care of that. The pod cast name is "Rise Up" and it is available wherever you find finer podcasts.

In one of his recent podcasts, Mark shared stories about little baking nightmares, OK, mistakes, he went through. It'd be fun to hear how you messed up, and how you recovered (if you did). Please let me know if it's OK to share your story, and if it's OK to use your name. I'll think of a few great stories of my own to share.

But wait! There's more! Beth has been staging some excellent content and sharing it through our Bake With Mike Facebook page almost every day! If you are into Facebook, please check us out.

Before we talk about baking, a last shot at marketing – in the end, you will live and die by your marketing. I can’t tell you how many mediocre – or worse - bakeries are thriving because they market well. And how many good and great bakeries die on the vine because they didn’t market well.

Some things to do – anywhere you go, anyone you talk to, talk about bread and your bakery. Print business cards which have (date limited) coupons on the back. Hand them out freely.

If your community has online community bulletin boards, participate and mention your bakery. If your community has a Facebook page, get involved. Speaking of Facebook – your bakery has a Facebook page, doesn’t it? How about Twitter (mention where you’re selling today, when and what you’re offering.) I just haven’t gotten into Instagram yet, but you should.

See what sort of school, church, social and businesses associations you can join. When they have an event, provide bread. And business cards.

Web page – I think we’re past the “if you don’t have a web page in the next year, you won’t be in business a year later” phase of internet madness. However, I do think having a good web site is a good thing. There are lots of ways to get a web site online for not much money and have a good Internet presence. In classic Internet marketing, all the social media should be intended to drive traffic to your web site where you have your heaviest marketing message. Where you can do as much selling as the law allows. I recommend avoiding Wix, SquareSpace and other turnkey services – they make it hard to move your content to other services. Before you get in bed with them, look at how to get back out of bed! Still, if the package is affordable, you could do worse.

Make sure you’re listed on Yelp, and that your web page (you DO have a web page, don’t you?) is listed on the Yelp listing. Get friends and relatives to review you. Stay on top of Yelp and respond to negative reviews politely, encouraging a repeat encounter. “I regret we didn’t delight you, your experience is not what we are shooting for, I hope you’ll give us another try – and ask for me so I can make sure we delight you!” is a good template.

Despite encouraging a media presence and coupons, I am not a big fan of coupons or sales. If you get a reputation for offering sales, you’ll find many people will only buy when you’re having a sale. Get acquainted offers are one thing, discounts are another. Along those lines, I am NOT a fan of Groupon type deals. They want you to offer their customers a half price deal. And they want half of the money. So, if you offer four loaves for $10, you actually see $5 of that. And if I had a nickel for every online review that started, “We came here with a Groupon coupon and all I can say is thank goodness we didn’t pay full price for this!” People value too little what they acquire to cheaply. Your products should be worth the price you are charging, don’t give away your life’s blood!

If you can sell at farmers markets do so. People go to farmers markets to buy things. And when they get used to your bread, they’ll be hooked which provides the opening to the bread club.

Read the Guerrilla Marketing books. And then engage!

So, you want a home bakery, Part 4 -Let’s talk about baking! - WOW - a long blog post and we haven't even talked about baking yet! Whether you want to be a farmers market baker, a bread club baker, or just need to bake 10 loaves for a church function, you’ll probably find some information you can use here.

I’ve seen some interesting notions about scaling up. A friend who uses bread machines thought she could just get a bunch of bread machines to scale up. That’s a bit expensive, has low return on investment, and really clutters a kitchen. And most people don’t want to buy bread with a hole in the bottom where the mixing paddle was.

Someone else asked how professional bakers emulate what she sees when she bakes in a Dutch oven. Actually, the Dutch oven is used to emulate what the professional baker does. And getting 20 Dutch ovens really doesn’t scale any better than 20 bread machines would.

When you scale up, things change. The big change is that you hit bottlenecks! Every kitchen has bottlenecks. And any time you address a bottleneck, you just reveal another one. You get a bigger oven and discover your mixer can’t keep up. But, in the end you find ways to cope, and that’s what a lot of this section is all about.

Generally, in home kitchens the bottlenecks are time and space. Sadly you can’t get more time, though you can start earlier and you can work on your scheduling mojo. Scheduling is, quite likely, the greatest secret ingredient for bakers. A professional baker is never doing just one thing. Once the baker has weighed the ingredients for the next batch of bread, the baker is cleaning the bakery as one bread is baking, another is rising, and another is being mixed.

The best explanation I’ve seen of baker scheduling is in an appendix to “Secrets of a Jewish Baker” by George Greenstein. George gives several bake day schedules. The recipes in the book are classic Jewish Bakery recipes, and some of my best, and most popular, breads came from that book. By current standards, the breads are very dense and the doughs very dry. However, I feel recipes are a starting point, not holy writ carved in stone and brought down from Mt. Sinai. It isn’t your recipe until you change it. So, try George’s recipes and then make them yours. Sadly, his book is no longer in print, but it is still available. can tell you who has the book and at what price. Look at the bakers schedules, and then at some recipes, you’ll be glad you did.

The answer to space restrictions is often cleverness. But space… is the final frontier! Some of the places we run into space issues are in the oven capacity, in mixer capacity, in space to raise dough, and space to cool baked loaves. We can address these issues. Often, space and time constraints are related so we’ll talk about this as we go along.

As Stephen Covey said, “start with the end in mind”. Start by thinking about when you need the bread. Let’s imagine you’re getting ready for a farmers market which opens at 8:00. You need 15 minutes to set up, 30 minutes to get to the market, 15 minutes to load your car or truck, and the last bread has to be out of the oven an hour before you leave for the market. I haven’t included time to wrap the bread for two reasons. You may not have to wrap bread for your market, and you can wrap your bread as it cools - multitasking! So, the last bread needs to be out of the oven 3 hours before market time, or at 5:00 AM. Of course, your schedule may be very different. One of our markets was just around the corner from out bakery, another was an hour away.

Realistically, it will take a few bake days to get your schedule worked out. Farmers markets want you to be there on time. You’re better off getting there without one batch of bread, but on time, than an hour late with all your bread. (If you are in a state where you can have employees, one can finish off the last batch of bread and bring it to market when it’s ready. Don’t ask how I know this.) If you are wholesaling to commercial accounts, they REALLY want timely deliveries. Bread clubs are the most forgiving clients.

Since the oven is the bottleneck for most home bakers, we’ll start talking about oven space. Using more than one rack in an oven can double, or triple, your baking capacity depending on the size of your oven and loaves.

In order to get a better bake with a home oven, I put unglazed quarry tiles on two of the oven racks in my oven. Some people use steel plates, pizza stones or Fibrament brand stones. All of them do more or less the same thing. They retain heat and give it back to the bread, creating an oven environment more like a classic masonry wood fired oven.

Pizza stones tend to be the wrong shape and size to make good use of oven space – you want a rectangle of tile covering as much rack space as possible, most pizza stones are small, round, pricey and fragile.

Fibrament stones are pricey but excellent. They are also NSF certified, which will be important if you move into being a commercial bakery. You can get them in a wide variety of sizes and thicknesses. We used them in our commercial bakery, and I liked them a lot.

Many people rave about steel baking plates. They are said to heat up faster than ceramics and return heat to bread faster, but I’m not a believer. I put a steel plate on one rack and unglazed quarry tiles on other and put the same dough on both racks. I didn’t see any differences in oven spring, crust color, crust density or the crumb. I checked the unglazed quarry tiles and the steel plate with an infrared thermometer and they heated up at the same rate. There is nothing wrong with them, and I could be wrong, but from where I’m sitting they are over hyped.

Unglazed quarry tiles are the cheapest option and the best for most people. Usually available for around 50 cents to a buck or so each and available at most hardware and flooring shops. If you break one or two, it’s not the end of the world.

The cracks between tiles, and even the imperfections of the well used tiles to the right, don’t interfere with the baking characteristics of the tiles.

With all tiles, you want to leave about 1 ½ to 2 inches of open space on the left and right sides of the rack to allow heat to move through the oven. With any tiles, even the steel ones, you want to preheat the oven for about an hour before baking to make sure the tiles are thoroughly heated.

With two usable oven racks, I can put 6 round loaves (or boules) at a time, three on each rack. Because home ovens are notoriously uneven in heating, half way through the bake, I move the breads between racks, front to back and left to right. The breads are pretty evenly baked because of this little hack.

At 6 loaves per bake, we’re looking at around 64 loaves per 8 hours of baking time. At $5.00 per loaf (your pricing may vary), that’s $320 for your labors.

Where to from here?
A typical strapped bread pan
If you use strapped bread pans, you can put more bread in the oven. Strapped bread pans are bread pans that have been strapped together for ease of handling. The pans are separated by a carefully adjusted distance so all the loaves will cook at the same rate. Using a 4-up bread pan, similar to the one to the right, I can put 4 sets of pans in the oven, two on each rack, allowing me to bake 16 loaves at once, which takes us to about 170 loaves per night, which raises the day’s potential sales to $800.

Some people object to pan loaves, thinking they aren’t artisan. No bread is artisan. YOU, the baker, are the artisan. An artisan is a trained craftsman. The breads are artisanal, that is, created by an artisan. The artisan uses their skills and judgment to make a good product, in this case bread. Whether the loaf is round, a baguette, a batard, a fougasse, or a pan loaf it is an artisanal loaf because you, an artisan, created it. Many customers prefer a pan loaf as they feel it is easier to make sandwiches from pan loaves. As we said earlier, ya gotta know the territory.

Seriously, if the only difference between the loaves is their shape, why would one be artisanal and another not?

The next options on the oven front are to get a larger oven, or to get more ovens. If you can use any oven in your state, I’d suggest going for an electric deck oven with steam capacity. However, in many states you are limited to what is normally found in a home kitchen. So, if you are shopping for a home oven, I’d suggest an electric oven that is wide enough to accommodate a full sized sheet pan with a bit of room to spare. You can find used ovens on Craigslist. Look for a used double oven, put it on a cart and wheel it in and of your kitchen as needed. Pro-tip - make the cart tall enough that you don’t need to bend over to load or unload the oven, use locking wheels on the cart so it won’t move when you aren’t expecting it to, and put extra weight on the bottom of the cart to make sure it isn’t top heavy and thus easy to tip over.

If you are a true enthusiast, you can buy or build a wood fired masonry oven. Scott and Wing’s “The Bread Builders” is a treasure trove of information for people who want to use, or build, a wood fired masonry oven. If you are less interested in building an oven and more interested in using an oven, you might want to contact Antoine Cantarel at Bread Stone Ovens. Antoine is a very good person who loves good bread!

Sadly, there is only so far you can go down the “add an oven” route in your home. It would be nice if you could bake your entire bake in one fell swoop. However, an oven that size would be overkill. There are other considerations here, and they will ripple through your entire production schedule.

There is a limit to how long a fully risen loaf of dough can sit waiting to be baked without losing quality. Bakers call that characteristic “tolerance”. How much tolerance a dough has depends on many things. Wetter dough tends to have less tolerance than drier dough. Wheat dough has more tolerance than rye dough. Temperature is another variable. The warmer the dough, the faster it will “move”. The cooler the dough, the longer it will stay at a plateau. A sandwich style wheat dough with around 65% hydration will probably have about an hour of tolerance at room temperature. A similar dough with more than 30% rye flour could have as little as 6 minutes. In general bakers will work hard to make sure than when the rye dough is ready to bake, there is an oven waiting for it.

What does that mean to the baker? You can make enough wheat dough in one batch for two oven loads (dough temperature being a variable we’re ignoring for the moment). While half the dough is being baked, which usually takes around 50 minutes, the other half of the dough is patiently waiting for its turn in the oven. After the first half batch is done, the second half moves into the oven. Both bakes in the batch are done before the dough runs out of steam.

Many beginning commercial home bakers want to mix as much dough as they need as quickly as they can. As you can see from the above discussion, you’re better off pacing the dough production so that you don’t have too much dough to bake all at once. To complicate matters, some dough gets ready to bake faster than others. You may want to start the faster dough first so it can be baking while slower dough is still getting there. Or, you may want to start the slow dough first so it will have longer to get ready. Sometimes the second, or third, dough you prepare can be the first in the oven. Since I don’t know what recipes you are using, I can’t make iron clad suggestions, so I suggest taking notes and adjusting your mixing schedule to get batches of dough ready to bake to optimize oven usage. The bottom line is that you’ll need to play with your dough to find out how it performs.

And that brings us to mixing. If all you have is a KitchenAid mixer, or similar home grade mixer, that is your first bottleneck. Smaller KitchenAid’s can only do about 3 loaves at a time, two batches back to back, and then they need a 45 minute rest. This is not a real production workhorse. What kind of mixer you can get depends on where you are. In some states you may not use commercial gear in a cottage industry kitchen, so you aren't getting a 50 quart commercial mixer. A better option in many cases is to do stretch and fold. This is a great option for a new startup, whether a cottage food shop or a full fledged bakery because it allows you to defer the expense of purchasing a professional mixer until you really need it. With this technique we easily mixed about 225 loaves a day by hand. We could have done more, but that was about what we could reliably sell.

We have two web pages about Stretch And Fold. One is a general overview, the other is a more focused look at how we prepared breads for the farmers market. The web pages go into more detail than we will cover below.

As you can see in the second web page, we used virgin paint buckets to measure ingredients, and the used food grade bus tubs to mix and raise the dough. Pro-tip – spend a few extra bucks to get NSF listed bus trays. Not all trays are food safe. You really don’t want to poison anyone, and if your bakery moves from a cottage food producer to a full fledged professional bakery, you won’t have to replace the bus tubs with ones that are NSF listed.

We covered the dough with clingwrap, though anything that keeps moisture in, fingers out, and will fit where you are storing the tubs will work. Pro-tip – if you get cling wrap get a box with a sliding safety cutter. Cutting yourself is bad enough, having family or staff cut themselves takes awful to a whole 'nother level!

We put the covered bus tubs into bun sheet pan racks. This let us put 7 bus tubs into a single rack. If I were starting today, I’d defer the purchase of the sheet pan rack and start by putting the bus tubs on the wire racks we’ll discuss later.

A typical sheet pan rackAs production ramped up, I’d add another wire rack or sheet pan rack like the one to the left.

When we were making free form loaves, we let them rise on sheet pans on top of parchment paper. You can also get lots of bannetons or brotforms to hold the loafed and rising dough. And bread pans are also a good answer. A friend of ours loves Silpat and another loves siliconized baking paper. However, cost again becomes a factor. Baker’s parchment is very inexpensive and disposable, though we usually got 3 or 4 bakes out of each piece of baker's parchment. While I’d rather not throw things away, if you get the more expensive pan liners sooner or later someone will throw them away for you and - if you’re lucky – you’ll be digging through the dumpster to find the twenty or so $24 Silpats or the $7 siliconized baking sheets. And that doesn’t even cover startup costs – buying 20 or 30 of these sheets is a real expense.

As you loaf the dough, you can put the sheet pans on the same sheet pan racks that the bus tubs were on. Additional sheet pans can rest on the wire rack. The logistics depend in part on how much bread you’re making. In his book, “Small Breads”, Bernard Clayton talks about seeing how the bakers on S.S. France made enough croissants for many passengers in a smallish kitchen every day. Before the actual bake began, every horizontal surface in the bakery had sheet pans resting on it, filled with rising croissants. Creativity may be called for. As demand grows, you may need to get additional sheet pan or wire carts.

In the end, we tended to start another batch of bread about once an hour. And got a good flow in and out of the oven.

As the dough comes out of the oven, we put it to cool on wire racks. Hot bread is giving off steam so you need to get it out of pans and off sheet pans. It needs to breathe. If you trap the steam, it will make the bread soggy and more prone to mold. You can get racks like the ones we used at most hardware stores. We used a rack from Seville Classics, but many other brands are also good. Pro-tip – get wheels on anything you can buy with wheels! Wheels are your friend! No one cleans under things that can’t be easily moved. As you bake, you want the tools you are using close to you – you’ll walk a LOT in the course of a bake. Rolling a cart close to you helps cut footsteps a lot!

Of course, as more breads come out of the oven, the cooling rack will fill up. To be ready to free up the space on the cooling racks, back when we loafed our breads, we cleaned the bus tubs we mixed the dough in, so we could wrap the bread and put the baked bread in them to ready them for market. Staying on top of this insured a smooth work flow. The breads stacked in the bus tubs took less space than when they were loose on the cooling racks. The filled bus tubs could in turn be stored on the top of the wire racks, or in the sheet pan racks. Pro-tip – some bus tubs fit nicely in the sheet pan racks, some are too narrow. Try to get tubs that fit nicely in the racks. If push comes to shove, you can use a sheet pan to hold up the bus tub, but that ties up a sheet pan.

A question that remains is what to do when you reach the limit of how many breads you can prepare in a day. Some people wrap their breads and pop them into a freezer at once. They pull the breads out the next day and let them thaw and sell them as fresh. Fresh frozen bread can be very good, however I am not a fan of this approach. I tell people I am selling fresh bread, not freshly frozen bread. And selling frozen bread as fresh is lying, even if the customers don’t notice.

A better approach is to reexamine your work flow, look for bottlenecks and address them. And maybe, just maybe, it’s time to move out of your home and set up a commercial bakery.

An overview of our Farmers Market Prep – when we lived in Colorado, we sold at two farmers markets, one on Saturday, on on Sunday. It’s been over 10 years, but this is what I remember of our schedule for the Saturday market.

We’re trying to make 220 loaves of bread, or 10 batches of 22 loaves. It is worth noting we had two large convection ovens in one kitchen we rented, and two home sized ovens and a commercial convection oven in another kitchen. This let us bake around 30 loaves at a time. Your mileage may vary. Also, sometimes reality intruded and some breads were slow to rise and others were quick. So, we juggled the schedule.

Remember, once you bake the bread, it will rise no further so don't be in too much of a hurry to bake your bread! A final note – we didn’t have enough sheet pans to hold all 220 loaves, so once a batch was baked, we spread the hot sheet pans out so they could cool and we could reuse them for a later batch of dough.

The Sunday bake preparations were parallel to the Saturday preparations, but we started the final push hours earlier because the market was further away.

Wednesday – finalize the list of breads we’ll prepare and the quantities. See what ingredients we need and don’t have. Go shopping. We had spreadsheets that helped us with starter and other pre-ferment feed up. On Wednesday I’d start feeding up our sourdough starters.

Thursday – keep feeding our sourdough starters. If our breads used a biga, start the biga Thursday evening. Keep feeding the starters.

Friday morning – If our breads use poolish, start the poolish. Keep feeding the starters.

Quick side note – poolish and biga are yeasted pre-ferments which deliver a nice alternative flavor to sourdough. We talk about preferments in our book, “Mastering Flavorful Breads”.

Friday evening – about 5:00 PM, mix the first batch of dough. Beth helped me by doing measurements while I did mixing. However, the benefit of that was more a matter of us being together rather than being necessary for scheduling. We still like being together.

Every hour, we stretched and folded the previous doughs and started a new batch of dough.

About 9:00 PM things changed slightly. The oldest dough has at that point been stretched and folded 3 times and had 1 rest period. The dough is set aside while we stretch and fold the other doughs and start a new dough. The oldest dough is loafed and the loaves are placed on parchment paper covered sheet pans, and then covered with clingwrap.

This process continues until some of the loaves are rising, at which point the ovens are started and preheated. Once the loaves are risen and the ovens are at temperature, the baking begins.

We continue stretching, folding, starting new doughs and loafing doughs. Once the dough has been in the oven 25 minutes it is moved around the oven for even baking. Twenty minutes later, it is put on a cooling rack. Bread fresh from the oven is giving off, or out-gassing, steam. If the steam can not escape, it will condense inside the bread and make it soft and too moist. So, the bread has to be removed from bread pans or taken off of sheet pans as quickly as possible and put on wire racks to cool. The highest priority tasks at this point are getting baked bread out of the oven so it doesn’t burn, getting the baked bread onto cooling racks, rotating dough so it bakes evenly and getting more dough into the oven so we meet our deadlines.

Because we didn’t have enough sheet pans for all 220 loaves, the sheet pans are put on another rack to cool so we can reuse them for later batches of bread.

This becomes a carefully choreographed ballet – breads are going into the oven, being moved around, dough is being loafed, more dough is being made, dough is being stretched and folded. There are some “feel good” milestones in the night, like when all the dough has been made, when all the dough has been loafed, when all the dough has been baked, and when all the bread has been packaged. It’s a long night.

When a bus tub is emptied, it is cleaned and set aside to dry.

In among the other tasks, we check the baked loaves to see if they are cool yet. As loaves cool, we package them for the farmers market. We used clear plastic bags, despite not liking plastic bags. We also printed bread labels on an ink jet printer that we affixed to the bread bags which gave the needed information about the breads. We looked into custom printed bags but the minimum order levels were just too high for us. Printing the labels and applying them to the breads was a hassle, but better than paying for and storing a mountain of labels or pre-printed bags.

Printing labels as we needed them also let us change our bread line up, and change labels to meet emergencies, like when someone used green rather than black olives. That bread suddenly became, "Green Olive Over". We had used self-adhesive labels printed on an HP Inkjet. We chose the HP because the ink prices were low. You may want to shop around. As we start up a new cottage baking effort, we are printing labels on a Brother electrostatic label printer. We find it easier to use, but haven't run the numbers on the per label cost.

As bread kept coming out of the oven the cooling racks would fill up. When we packed and labeled the bread we’d put it into the cleaned bus tubs and put the bus tubs onto the sheet pan racks. Pro-tip – get bus tubs that will neatly fit on your sheet pan rack. If you can’t find them, you can always put the bus tubs on a sheet pan on the rack but that is less convenient than having a bus tub that fits.

Beth returned to the bakery around 7:30 in the morning. By that point the last breads were in the oven and most breads were baked, cooled, bagged, labeled and in bus tubs. She helped with the last breads. About 7:45 the last breads came out of the oven and were put on the cooling rack. Depending on the weather, we opened the doors to get cool air moving through the bakery to help cool the bread a little faster. Just before we went to market the last loaves cooled enough, were packed, labeled and also put in the bus tubs.

We loaded the car with the tables. chairs, the gear we used for sampling, and the popup tent, went to market and set that up. Then we rolled the sheet pan cart, loaded with bus trays filled with bread, around the corner to the market and completed the set up.

At that point, I went back to the bakery, fed sourdough starters and started any poolish that needed to be made, went home and got a few hours sleep. The whole thing started over again Saturday evening for the Sunday market.

If you have questions, or have horror stories to share, please write!

And now, may your dough always rise whether it's one loaf or a thousand!


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