Sweet on sourdough: Self-taught Modesto baker finds success
“No technology is used in the making of this bread,” Bonnie Ohara says as she combines a blend of wheat, white and rye flours with spring water, pink salt and starter to make sourdough on a table in her 12th Street home.
The owner-operator of the Alchemy Bread Co. cottage bakery is referring to the 1940s gas oven that came with the 1920s home she and her husband, Aaron, bought 18 months ago. There definitely was a learning curve when she had to switch to her current oven, which offers “no bread-baking benefits whatsoever,” she says.
Not that she’s complaining. You quickly get the feel in talking with Ohara that old-school is just fine with her. As she kneads and pulls and folds dough, she notes that she doesn’t even have, or want, a mixer. She prefers to work the dough by hand.
Professional baking is new to Ohara, who put up her Alchemy website just in August.
“I feel like I’m really just starting,” she says. But she’s been at the craft for about five years.
The most important part of how I feel about baking is it still has to be warm when I give it to you. That’s why I have a short window of time for pickup.
Bonnie Ohara, who added that even her bread deliveries by bike usually are warm
Now the 30-year-old mother of three children – Sophie, 8, Gabe, 4, and Leo, 1 – Ohara was trying to save money about five years ago when she started cooking more from scratch. “How many things do I buy that I can make from scratch?” she asked herself. She started using dry beans, making her own hummus, things like that.
“I started baking, just trying to replicate a loaf of bread from a store,” she says. “Then I went down the rabbit hole and got completely obsessed.”
Soon, she found herself making bread better than she could find in a grocery store. As she experimented with breads, she began posting photos on Instagram. Friends began to ask how they could get some. She’d make four loaves a week for friends, then 12, then more and more.
“Pretty soon, people were handing me crumpled $5 bills,” she says. “So that’s when I made the website, to facilitate” those transactions.
All the business she can handle
Today, she says there are “about 350 people I know who have bought bread from me more than once” and bakes about 64 loaves a week. She sells through her website only, primarily through subscribers who get four sourdough loaves a month, for delivery or pickup on the day of their choice – Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.
Those deliveries, five or six each day, usually are on bicycle, by the way – depending on the weather and the kids’ moods.
On most Saturdays, Ohara offers a specialty bread. It’s not sold by subscription but she usually posts the sale on Wednesday mornings, and it sells out quickly.
“I determine the quantity,” she says. “I’ll say I’m making 16 Saturday loaves.”
Ohara is maxed out on subscribers and says any growth of her business would depend on getting a larger oven. But her house being as old as it is, “I don’t know if the wiring would support that,” she says.
I didn’t know how to cook when I was 21 or 22. When I got pregnant with my daughter, I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, I don’t know how to cook.’ So I binge-watched the Food Network and YouTube videos.
Bonnie Ohara, Alchemy Bread Co.
Her oven accommodates only two loaves, and at a bake time of about 45 minutes, there’s only so much the home-schooling mom can make each day. Also, she loves baking bread and doesn’t want to risk getting burned out on it.
Ohara says she enjoys using “local flavors” in her breads. A popular Saturday special is a lemon-rosemary loaf, in which she uses Meyer lemons from a friend’s tree and fresh rosemary from another friend’s plant.
Another recipe “near and dear to my heart” is the apple oatmeal bread she came up with. Using local apples kept in cold storage, she makes an applesauce and incorporates it into the dough with oatmeal and a little cinnamon. Her kids love it, too, Ohara says, but there’s nothing childlike about the bread.
How many varieties does she bake?
“For other people, officially, I have six to eight recipes that are my own, that I’m confident with,” she says. But she has many other recipes that only friends get because she’s “playing around” or too many expensive ingredients are required to make them commercially viable.
Often, Ohara will dream of a bread and then make it a reality, she says, noting a recipe she tried that used pecans, dried apricots and quinoa.
The Livermore native, who grew up in Ceres, says she’s glad she’s a self-taught baker rather than having had someone guide her. Sure, she’d have picked things up faster with a teacher, but through experimenting and making mistakes, she feels she’s learned so much more.
Art, science and magic
The Alchemy website refers to what Ohara does as “the art and science of Old World bread.”
“I went to (Modesto Junior College) for art and writing, and I still think of myself as a person trying to make art,” she says. “I’m a person making art through making bread.”
When she scores the surface of her sourdough rounds, she takes a bit of time to add an attractive pattern.
“It really only takes 15 to 20 seconds to do little decorative touches, and it’s a joy to the person who’s opening the wrapping. It’s worth it,” she says.
As for the science, Ohara keeps a notebook of her trials and errors and successes, recording things like percentages of ingredients, observations on crust thickness and even weather conditions and phases of the moon when certain batches of dough were made.
Alchemy Bread is made in the Old World style from a natural wild yeast starter (sourdough/levain culture). Before commercial yeast, bread was brought about in a much slower fashion. The leaven is built up over hours, then mixed into a dough that is slowly fermented all day for flavor and nutrition, and then cold proofed for another 12 hours before it is finally baked. The whole process takes about three days, according to Ohara’s website.
She comments that this winter, there was a day when her sourdough starter began to bubble and pop. She began to wonder what was going on, when pretty soon a thunderstorm developed. The starter had been reacting to the atmospheric pressure.
“Bread each day is a bit different because each day is different,” Ohara says. “Fermentation is shorter because it’s warmer outside, or longer because it’s colder.”
As she talks about baking, she uses phrases such as “the variation of the crumb state.”
“It’s a thing,” she says.
Ohara also uses the word “magic” a few times. One of the ingredient stickers for her bread even reads: “Organic wheat flour, spring water, Himalayan salt, magic!”
Wild yeast lives in the air and wants to make bread, she says. The more you bake, the more your house is full of the yeast.
“You can prove wild yeast exists,” Ohara says, “but it’s still somewhat magical.”
In a house such as hers, she says, leave a mix of flour and water sitting for three days or so and “it comes to life.”
Sourdough starter just needs to be fed with flour and water. “What it wants is stability, a regular, dependable schedule,” Ohara says. “Mine is very happy because I’m baking nearly every day.”
Ohara has a blog and more information on her bread at www.alchemybread.com.
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327
Meet your makers
The Modesto Bee has begun an ongoing series of occasional video reports and stories on “makers” in the community. We intend to cover a broad range of creative types, from visual artists to performing artists to artisans to culinary composers whose palettes are our palates. If you’d like to be profiled, please tell us a bit about what you do, including a link to a website if you have one. Feel free to attach images. Please email both Andy Alfaro at firstname.lastname@example.org and Deke Farrow at email@example.com.