The best sourdough in the Calgary area: CBC’s food critic talks about the perfect crunch and flavour

If there is one food item that defines the pandemic, it just might be sourdough bread.

With many people stuck at home over the last year, new bakers emerged like never before, and sourdough became their bread of choice. Now that many of us know what a good — and probably a bad — sourdough tastes like, it’s time for us to find out who makes the best one in the city.

This week, restaurant reviewer Elizabeth Carson joined the Calgary Eyeopener to give her take on the best of them.

First, the process

Sourdough is an ancient recipe.

“People have been eating sourdough bread forever. It started in the Middle East over 5,000 years ago,” Carson said.

“Bread is just part of our being, I think it goes down to our DNA.”

Sourdough begins with a starter or sponge, Carson says. It’s a mixture of water and flour that has fermented, and then needs to be fed to keep it “alive.”

“You add flour, rye, seeds to create the bread. It’s a slow rise over days, you need to knead… and proof and bake — lots of ways to go wrong,” Carson said. 

The judges

The panel to judge the sourdough submissions included local chef and CBC food columnist Julie Van Rosendaal and Said M’dahoma, a Ph.D. neuroscientist who kept dreaming about baking in the lab and is now a full-time pastry maker.

Among the set of criteria the breads would be judged on was the crust, but also the flavour and colour.

“If a sourdough bread is too sour, most likely it is an artificial taste in there … does it have a good chew but doesn’t chew you back? What was the crumb like? The texture? Is it dense?”

The judges also had to decide whether it was too stringy and, of course, how far a person would drive for the bread.

“That was a big one,” Carson said.

Sidewalk Citizen Bakery based in Calgary won second place for its Sprouted Red Fife sourdough. (Submitted by Elizabeth Carson)

The verdict

It was up to the judges how much of the bread they ate.

“But it was just a gluten extravaganza. We had 12 loaves of bread from eight different bakeries,” said Carson.

Two of the bakeries were from Canmore, one from Okotoks and five from Calgary.

The contestants were: COBS Bread Bakery, French 50 Bakery, Le Fournil Bakery, Mari Bakeshop, Rustic Sourdough Bakery & Deli, Sidewalk Citizen, Sunterra Market and The Uprising Craft Bakery.

As for who came out on top, Carson says that was somewhat expected — an artisanal bakery.

The top 5

In fifth, was The Uprising Craft Bakery of Canmore.

“It was their Yukon loaf — the crust was not too thick,” said Carson. “The bread had a good crumb, nice flavour. All the parts were there, but we gave it the Miss Congeniality award. The nice personality.”

In fourth was was a tie between French 50 from Okotoks and Le Fournil in Canmore.

“French 50 was the beauty queen … Julie said [it was] the Instagram of bread, for sure. But there wasn’t quite enough flavour in their bread,” Carson said.

“Le Fournil was … fabulous but almost too sour. We thought a mash up of the two would be absolutely perfect.”

The Uprising Craft Bakery based in Canmore won fifth place for their Yukon loaf. (Submitted by Elizabeth Carson)

In third place was Uprising Craft Bakery (again) for its French sourdough.

“It had the thin crispy crust, great texture. Good crumb. Really pleasant. Not too challenging of a bread, but … perfect for sandwiches and French toast.”

Number two was Sidewalk Citizen’s Sprouted Red Fife sourdough.

“Chewy, somewhat dense, well proofed that kept it from being too heavy, terrific sour, nutty flavour. It’s worth a drive through, I figure, about 10 stoplights to get there,” Carson said.

First place for  the judges went to Mari Bakeshop, which had two breads that were tied for the top spot. Carson says it “hands down” won the “manna from the gods” category.

“Their seeded loaf has five types of seeds: pumpkin, sesame, poppy and two types of flax. It definitely creates a perfect balance of flavours. The crust is thin, crispy and light. Nutty and sour. It was a fabulous bread,” Carson said.

But best of all is their pan rustic, she says.

“This bread was absolutely perfection. It was impossible to stop eating. It’s kind of crazy — it’s a trick to the eye. It’s a massive loaf,” she says, adding it’s much lighter than it looks.

“The crust crackles but still soft on the gums. The bread is stringy, it has huge holes. The flavour is multi sour and complex. It is worth every calorie. I would drive through snowstorms to get that bread.”

Carson adds the owners have great credentials, both were head bakers at Michelin-starred restaurants around the world.

“I think Calgary is fortunate to have them putting out bread for us. It’s amazing.”

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