The Rise of Sourdough in the Hudson Valley

Sourdough has grown more popular in the region, with Pawling Bread Co. capitalizing on the tangy bread.

At its most basic, bread is made of nothing more than flour, yeast, water, and salt. Count ’em: that’s four ingredients. It’s this incarnation  — once a staple in the human diet, now deemed “artisan” — that’s been earning all-star status across the country, even amidst increasing concerns about gluten, stigma against carbohydrates, and the mass-produced loaves sold at supermarkets. The last few years in particular have shown that Valley-made bread is no exception, with the handful of traditional-style bakeries set up throughout our area flourishing.

Some, like Dottie Audrey’s Bakery Kitchen in Tuxedo Park or The Red Devon in Bangall, seek to highlight a skill passed through family or learned from professional culinary schooling. Others, like the local Bread Alone empire (with locations in Boiceville, Kingston, Woodstock, and Rhinebeck), focus on replicating the artisanal for large-scale sales. Regardless of aim, bakeries like these celebrate old-world technique to an almost cult-like following, and many value sourdough to be their most treasured offering.

Sourdough differs from other bread because it rises with the help of a pre-mixed amount of flour and water, referred to as a mother, starter, or culture. Rather than relying on cultivated yeast or chemical leaveners (like baking soda), the mother is “fed” supplemental amounts of flour and water daily to encourage the interaction of wild yeast from the environment and the lactic acid that’s developed as bacteria dine on, and subsequently ferment, the flour’s natural sugars. This lends a distinctive tangy flavor and buoyant crumb, and requires a persnickety level of detail from the baker.

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While the aforementioned outposts create quality iterations of this product, it’s the story of Cynthia Kinahan and Pawling Bread Co., the home business she runs with her husband Bill Foscato, that is perhaps the most incredible allegory of sourdough’s success both locally and beyond.

Kinahan was working in graphic design when she turned 40, felt an employer-imposed glass ceiling, and sought a way to reroute her anxiety. She began taking pottery lessons, and quickly discovered how therapeutic the practice could be.

One night, the pipes at the studio where she was studying froze, and her foray into flour began.

“My teacher had to cancel the class,” tells Kinahan. “Driving home, I remembered trying to make bread over a decade ago and thought ‘Hey, let’s try tonight.’ It turned out horribly! I couldn’t figure out why. I [became] determined not to stop until I baked a successful loaf. I would get back from work every night and set out to make bread. Each night, I failed.”

Fed up, Kinahan returned one evening and began baking without referring to the now well-practiced recipe. And she suddenly understood the alchemy: “I was really feeling it. I mean, I was always touching things, mixing by hand, but I think I was using my brain [more than] my senses…by not reading the formula, I was connected to what I was doing. The first successful loaf was baked.”

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Kinahan’s next challenge became mastering the art of sourdough. She mixed a starter, affectionately called it Bob, and brought “him” back and forth to work to be fed as needed. When Bob was strong enough, she mixed her first loaf. “Eventually, no one in my family wanted to eat store-bought bread anymore,” says Kinahan. “Sourdough was so much tastier, and the best thing was, my stepchildren [who are gluten-intolerant] did not have any adverse reactions to it.”

This is because the fermentation makes sourdough easier to digest than conventional yeasted bread. (According to The New Bread Basket, by Troy-based author, Amy Halloran, yeast feeds on the flour’s starches, dismantling them, and creating cultures — like probiotics — therefore making the grains less likely to cause intolerance.) A rash of late-night research led Kinahan to Gerard Rubaud, a Vermont-based, French baker with more than 60 years of sourdough experience, who took on apprentices as he deemed fit. On a whim, Kinahan inquired about, and then accepted, the rare opportunity to study with him for a few weeks.

This experience refined Kinahan’s home practice, where she began posting photos of loaves on social media. Someone from the local Rotary club suggested she set up a stand at the annual chocolate festival. “We sold out [of about 50 loaves] in around 20 minutes,” says Kinahan. Pawling Bread Co. was officially born. Selling at the farmers’ market came next, and a Saturday pop-up shop followed suit so they could sell year-round. They continued to sell out every week, some 120 or 140 loaves by noon.

That was two years ago. The business has since taken off further; relationships with patrons and area purveyors (such as Perch in Marlboro, McKinney & Doyle in Pawling, and Sprout Creek Farm in Poughkeepsie) developed organically — without artifice, advertising, or any added sugar, either. “Buying our bread has become habitual for some people,” remarks Kinahan. “It’s been very rewarding just sliding into people’s lives.” Foscato adds, “We’re very vocal in acknowledging that without [customers], this doesn’t work; without them we are nothing. Just like without Cynthia baking, we can’t exist. It’s a very symbiotic relationship with our community.”

For now, Kinahan can be found baking in a modest basement kitchen, but the two have bigger plans for the months ahead: they’ve purchased a building in the Village of Pawling, put business proposals in the works, and anticipate using a crowdfunding campaign to help install an oven. They’re hoping that growing awareness of whole foods and the desire for hyper-local will help them create a place people want to support. And just like sourdough pulling the town’s unique yeast strains out of the atmosphere, Pawling Bread Co. promises to be nothing short of thriving.

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