Baker Brett Boyer on bringing a new kind of sourdough to town
“I meet so many people who tell me they can’t eat bread,” Brett Boyer tells me while setting out two enormous loaves on his counter. “And I’m like, have you tried naturally fermented sourdough?”
We’re sitting in Boyer’s sunny kitchen, which doubles as the headquarters of Desert Bread, his cottage food operation. This is where he produces dozens of honey wheat, oat porridge, and sesame boules to sell at the Fresh52 farmers market in Henderson (fresh52.com). Over the next hour, I will consume my weight in bread, talk smack about California housing prices, and learn a lot about sourdough.
But first we talk starters, because that’s where it all begins. The vast majority of bread consumed in America is baked with conventional yeast — those little packets of powder you get at the grocery store. Yeasts are single-celled members of the fungus kingdom that eat up sugars and release gas for their (very) short lifetimes: It’s essentially their happy, well-fed flatulence that helps our loaves rise. But for most of bread’s history, humans cultivated wild yeast from the air and kept their yeast (plus bacteria) communities alive in goopy, bubbly mixes that required feeding and care like any pet or houseplant. You know, like Amish friendship bread. In the States, we typically call this starter-based bread “sourdough.”
A sourdough starter is teeming with natural yeasts and bacteria, which come from the flour, the air, and even the baker’s hands. The important category of microbe to remember here is the lactic acid bacteria, or “LAB” to fermentation fanatics. Some LAB give you more tart flavors, others give you milkier ones. Every starter has a different cocktail of microbes, giving them unique personalities.
Boyer’s starter is a small one, just a few quiet tablespoonfuls of a beige flour and water mixture in a glass container. But don’t let her demure appearance fool you — she’s powerful. A small dollop is enough to multiply her microbial population and get fermentation going in a full batch of dough. Boyer, who brought his starter from the Bay Area, was worried about how our arid conditions and high elevation would affect her. “It took my starter six months to adjust,” he says, but once he’d worked out the right feeding regimen, they were off. “There’s so much more life in the desert than you’d expect,” Boyer says, referring to the valley’s microbial universe, and maybe also to something more.
Boyer and his husband, both veterans of the Bay Area fine-dining scene (Boyer interned at Chez Panisse), were regular visitors to Las Vegas. In 2016, they decided on a whim to look at homes off the Strip and fell in love with the open, light-filled, ’70s-era houses of the southeast valley. “The kitchens here are so large,” Boyer says, gesturing to his light-filled, expansive workspace. “And eventually, I’m going to expand it.”
Here, Boyer finally has the space and time to launch his own passion project: Desert Bread (desertbreadlv.com), his line of sourdough loaves, croissants, and pastries, mostly leavened with his natural starter, made with organic, stone-ground wheat and slow-fermented.
Boyer is part of a new school of thought within the sourdough movement, whose most prominent names include Chad Robertson of Tartine fame; Richard Hart of Copenhagen’s newest hit bakery, Hart Bageri; and Vanessa Kimbell, whose book The Sourdough School hit shelves in September (Boyer was one of her proofers and recipe testers). These bakers and their followers are obsessed with the world of microbes — Hart says that sourdough bakers are “yeast farmers.” They’ve learned through scientific studies, historical research, and trial and error that sourdough bread is fundamentally better for your body. The microbes break down the flour, making it more digestible and nutritious.
Kimbell notes in her book that slow-fermented sourdough breads actually break down residual gluten, making it more digestible for those with gluten sensitivities or digestive issues. And Boyer, though hesitant to make any medically related claims, does share anecdotes of customers with gluten sensitivity who’ve tried his bread and come back for more.
Before we go in for round two of bread-tasting, Boyer wants to show me something. He goes into a pantry and hauls out an enormous container of flour — but not just any flour. “This is the real deal; this is stone-ground wheat,” he says. “And what that does is, you’re preserving as much of that grain as you can.” He reaches in and shows me how the flour clumps more readily, reflecting its freshness.
For bakers like Boyer who care about the microscopic worlds within their bread, using stone-ground flour is a must, because most flour is made using roller-milled wheat, which heats up the grain and kills off a significant proportion of the wild yeasts and LAB in the flour. The industrialization of bread required that loaves come out quickly and consistently within a controlled, replicable system. That meant using very specific strains of wheat and factory-grown yeast — meaning that farmers stopped growing smaller, heritage varietals of wheat.
With bakers like Boyer, this is starting to change. He sources his flour from growers in all of the states bordering Nevada (we don’t have our own source of organic wheat yet, he notes), and has it stone-ground. This is why you might actually notice that his sourdough isn’t very sour: “I want you to taste the grain because the grain is so delicious. Why would I want to cover up the grain?” he asks. “If I brought the sour flavor, all those notes that the grain have are going to go to the background.”
Boyer brings out yet another loaf, this time an oat porridge, and rips it open to show me the ripples of oat that run through it like striations in a rock face. He toasts a few more pieces and we slather them with generous scoops of butter that melt into the bubbles, nooks, and crannies. With each tender, chewy bite, you start to feel like bread is something wholesome again. Forget the diets and the bun-less burgers and carb-haters. Bread is one of our earliest inventions, and eating it brings us back to something essentially human. Especially bread like this.