Biera's Christine Sandford shares the secrets of her sourdough bread

It can be hard to make, but the flavour justifies the effort for this Edmonton chef

Beer isn’t the only thing fermenting at Biera, a south Edmonton brewpub.

In a kitchen tucked behind a half-dozen gleaming stainless steel tanks of ale and lager, head chef Christine Sandford (Culinary Arts ’07) has set up a serious sourdough bread baking operation. Like the making of a perfect pint, it’s a product of patience, persistence and passion. That is, it’s just as much work, but she’s motivated by flavour and quality she feels can’t be achieved in any other way.

Sourdough results from a combination of yeast and bacteria that gives it that distinctive and pleasing sour taste. Sandford has been enamoured of the process ever since being exposed to it in top restaurants in Belgium, where she honed her skills postgraduation.

sourdough bread

“I really got inspired. I realized how much labour was involved in making true sourdough.”

What worked in Europe, however, wasn’t reliable in Edmonton.

Soon after returning to Canada about four years ago, Sandford began her own starter: flour, water, and a combination of yeast and bacteria that settle into the mix from the air.

She used the same stuff to get a dough made of spelt, organic whole wheat and white flour fermenting at Biera, where she signed on as head chef before it opened in summer 2017.

What worked in Europe wasn't reliable in Edmonton.

But the starter surprised her by acting differently in the brewpub than it would have in Belgium (or even in her own kitchen).

“That’s kind of the beauty and pain of using wild yeast,” says Sandford. “We probably had a week where none of the loaves worked out,” she adds, recalling challenges that included the dry Edmonton air.

“It was good for us to go through that because now we can fix things.”

Today, Sandford actually checks the weather before starting her batches, often adding extra water to compensate for low humidity. She’s worked out a routine of stretching and folding to make the dough “billowy” and had custom proofing baskets made to shape rising loaves. There’s a schedule for feeding the starter every 12 hours – filtered water and organic flour only – even on days off.

“It’s so picky,” Sandford says of her sourdough. She knows it’s ready for baking by feel.

Sandford has also taken advantage of her unique working environment, developing a process to use spent grains from the brewery. They contribute hints of nut and coffee but can deflate the dough if added at the wrong time and can also add unwanted moisture. The ingredient has increased her interest in the brewing process, and Biera’s brewing crew has been happy to accommodate Sandford’s self-confessed “nerdy” nature.

Back in Belgium, a country renowned for brewing, “I became a total beer snob,” she says. No prizes for guessing Sandford’s favourite style: “I’m a real sucker for the sour beers.”

This article appears in the spring 2018 issue of techlife magazine.

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