Rising through Baking
Updated: Aug 3, 2019
How a small town girl from Guntersville, Alabama began her career with an EasyBake oven and rose to the ranks at Birmingham Breadworks
Getting her start decorating gingerbread cookies with her sister when she was just three years old, Sarah Webster is a passionate and dedicated breadmaster, baker, and chef. She also went through two EasyBake ovens as a child, in which she used real flour and other ingredients.
When Sarah Webster talks about baking, she talks about it with the sense of calmness of someone who has found their calling. “I always felt like it was just a thing I liked to do,” she said.
I met Sarah last summer at a farmer’s market in Guntersville, AL where I had taken a job managing the table of a friend’s family farm. Sarah would bring her breads, cookies, rolls, granolas, and other goodies up from Birmingham to sell. We instantly became friends when she decided to give me the leftover gluten-free cookies in which skeptical Southerners refuse to indulge.
I was curious to learn more about her, and I wasn’t disappointed. Instead of following the traditional route of dating, getting married, or even pursuing a degree or job, Sarah had decided to pursue her professional passion: become a baker. I have to say, as a college student pursuing a degree, she made the baking life look tempting. To have something to show for the work you do on a daily basis is a beautiful and rare thing. While writing papers and going to lectures is stimulating, there’s something to be said for the magic of carefully putting ingredients together, throwing them in the oven, and coming out with a full-bodied sourdough loaf or pan of cinnamon rolls. There just isn’t enough appreciation for this kind of (literally) home-baked handiwork.
And indeed, there’s many reasons why one would be cautious about embarking on a baking dream. Like most everything fun and worthwhile, “It’s generally a low-paying, grueling process.” Many people who aspire to be bakers start off working in restaurants as cooks or bussing dishes and eventually work their way up to head chef or owning their own businesses. Others who do not wish to go this route can do what is called “staging” (pronounced stah-jing), which is like shadowing a chef or baker in a restaurant to gain experience and connections.
And even though Sarah is still in the process of making a name for herself in the baking world, she has a very strong established community of customers and supporters in her hometown of Guntersville, Alabama. Between members of her church, her family, and anyone who knows the exemplary quality of Sarah’s baking makes regular orders for loaves, rolls, and other baked goods. “Right now, I have an order for six sourdough loaves.”
There’s a science to it, but there’s also a mystery to it. You add flour and water, and the microflora in the air gives it bubbles. That could be my life – I could just be the microflora in the air.
When it comes to sourdough, Sarah is certainly the expert. At the start of the interview, we conversed with Sarah in her softly lit, homey kitchen whose walls were peppered with paintings and nature prints. On the wall beside the kitchen, there hung a small needlepoint with the words “Uteruses before Duderuses” lovingly stitched in amidst small flower designs, which gave attitude to the soft and safe space.
Before long, the sourdough loaves she had been eyeing in the oven were ready for showtime. Rounded, with little designs on the top, they were a dark golden brown and while dense, crunched under the weight of a knife or hand. You aren’t supposed to cut the loaves when they are fresh out of the oven, as the bread is technically still baking in a process called “carryover cooking.” If you listen closely, you can hear the bread fortify and bake when it comes out of the oven – Sarah says that they’re “singing.” When Sarah cut open the loaves , you could see and smell the fresh steam rising. While they may have been cut a little too early for photographic purposes, the slightly sour taste and chewiness was not lost when we had a slice covered in butter.
Sourdough baking requires an extreme amount of care and precision. All things have to be accounted for - the temperature of the dough, water, and even the room in which you are preparing it.
“There’s a science to it, but there’s also a mystery to it. You add flour and water, and the microflora in the air gives it bubbles. That could be my life – I could just be the microflora in the air.”
Sourdough is also an amazingly probiotic-rich food, and supports good gut health. Because of this, Sarah has been known to use sourdough starters for all kinds of goods other than just loaves, such as cinnamon rolls. To Sarah, food isn’t solely about aesthetic, it’s about nurturing your body.
Even though her baking passion and expertise make up a big part of Sarah’s identity, the things which cultivate and inspire that passion are much larger than mixing ingredients and tending to sourdough starters. Food is the way Sarah shows love. She connects with the people in her community through food in the form of dinners, loaves, and advice.“If I’m trying to make friends, I’ll give you food. If I really like you, I’ll continue to give you food.” Sarah says that people in her life are always texting or calling her asking for advice on recipes and baking, and it shows that her passions and talents are appreciated and loved in her community.
As far as her future goes, Sarah sees herself in a role much like the one she already occupies – tending to and loving a community with bread. She loves to garden, and hopes to have a hobby farm with goats and chickens. She feels that the Southern identity is something that is exemplified in herself (and her accent!), and she doesn’t see herself living anywhere but north Alabama, even if she is in Birmingham for a time. “I want to grow something there.”
I want to grow something there.
“All of my friends are married, have kids, have bought a house, or know where they want to be in their careers. I’m single, moved away, and doing something that’s not gonna make me a millionaire. And if I continue to do it, it’s gonna be a hard thing to do. You can’t let people’s opinions take root in your mind.”
Sarah is young, and has a lot of time ahead of herself to grow and reach her goals. Sarah has chosen to pursue her passions regardless of expectation, and she is learning lessons that go beyond the classroom.
Or, at the very least, I have definitely learned from her. Apart from all of the scientific processes behind sourdough fermentation and cooking, the art of baking perhaps has even more to teach us about life - “It’s mystery and routine. It’s a balance.”