Early Bread Baker’s Shift

I’m no longer what the patisserie world would consider an early morning baker, even though to the rest of the world, I qualify simply because I rise at an earlier hour to bake. But I have been meaning to share my experience as an early morning baker for a while, if only to reminisce on what I remember as some of the best mornings of my life.

I was working for RyeGoods back when they were slinging bread in a garage-turned-commercial-kitchen behind a blue house with an orange tree located at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac. We were a band of misfits in the most positive sense – dreamers creating magic. Headed by a pastry chef who disliked sugary treats and a carpenter who built out everything we worked on, the crew was made up of a business major who decided to quit paper to help his sister fulfill her dream, a surgeon’s son who fell in love with bread at a pizza restaurant, a chef who was interested in the mission of the bakery, two ladies who were also doing their own cottage food endeavors, and myself, a dentist who wanted “something more” in life. To be honest, I was probably the less fitted to the band of misfits – a straight-edge with neither tattoos nor insight into sports or pop-culture, and no formal training in the restaurant industry. I was there because I bake sourdough bread at home. But even misfits have families, and this place felt like home. We came together under that roof called upon by a shared love of what we do and a belief in the mission – make healthy, delicious REAL artisan bread using traditional methods while supporting local farmers preserving ancient heritage grain.

My shift began at 2 am in the morning, and I worked three days a week. My alarm was set at 1:40 am, in order to get the most out of my sleep. On weekends, it was around the time the bars outside my window would close. While others went home to sleep, I left home to start my day. Theo, my cat, would clamber into the warm spot that I’ve just vacated, as if to say, “I’ll guard this until you return.” By the time I’ve slipped on my baker outfit (an old pair of jeans, a New Zealand hat, and a Krochet Kids tee), he’s already drifted back to sleep. I’d hop into my car and drive the ten minutes to our bakery, avoiding indecisive rabbits and sleepy eyelids. I would park in front of the fenced yard where the orange tree sits, and walked down the long driveway surrounded by mist, past our delivery truck and into the beloved garage.

The shift consisted of myself and the surgeon’s son. Since I am always late, he’d have switched on all three ovens and loaded two of them with sixteen lodge pans. It won’t stay cold here for long.

We remove pre-shaped pastries from the fridge – sleeping babies awaiting us to give them life. All goods made with croissant dough are placed in the proofer to rise. The others await the pre-heating ovens on a baker’s rack. These first few moments are the slowest, giving our bodies time to wake. He usually checks the bread bake for the day as I pull out the banana bread loaf pans. Once loaded into the ovens, I return to mix vegan loaves. It takes about fifteen minutes. Divvied up into their pans, they join their bread counterparts in the ovens and are forgotten about for the next fifty minutes.

Next on my list of tasks is the assembling of pop tarts. Flour the surface, sandwich jam between dough sheets, and crimp with a fork. This repetitive movement was very calming to me, along with the background noise of clanging combo-cookers, a signal that the first batch sourdoughs were being scored and loaded.

The clock hands move slightly faster.

Occasionally, one of us will ask a question about bread, share some insight, or talk about a recent experience outside of the bread world. But most times, we worked in silent understanding of the roles that we’ve fallen into. We were both working 60-something hour weeks, having picked up midnight shifts like a pair of crazies, for the love of bread. For those four months, our thirty minute conversations qualified him as my only friend. We started work the same week, “the last of the OG’s” as the carpenter would say, and leaving the system we’ve made was the hardest part.

At around this time, we begin juggling roles. Whoever was free checked the state of the croissants. When they were ready, we shuffled around each other, egg washing, sugaring treats, loading pastries, all while eyeing timers. When a timer would go off, we just needed to look at each other to know which of us was leaving to check the ovens.

At 4 am, one of us feeds the starter and mixes the levain. The other holds the fort.

There’s still the cookies to be squashed, icing to be made, lavender sugar to be sprinkled on blueberry scones, and more loaves to be pulled out of the fridge. If we could sacrifice an oven for a larger bread production, we would, but often times, pastries were a priority as it neared delivery time. Our brains are calculating minutes as our muscles mechanically move in routine rhythms.

At this time, an occasional step outside may be necessary, as the tiny garage has turned into an oven itself. The pastries fill the space with that familiar scent of a grandmother’s kitchen. The outside air in February is the perfect contrast to the passion we had for dough. We stripped sweaters and wiped sweat from our brows. But we can’t stay away from the ovens for long.

Croissants that have cooled need to be twice-baked with almond filling, pop-tarts need to be iced, and cookies need sprinkling with maldon sea salt. Meanwhile, the banana and vegan loaves require slicing. I’ve honed in on the ability to slice them into equal portions using my two finger’s width to measure. We send the end pieces out for the baristas to enjoy. Whoever was free can bag the bread loaves and load them into the truck. We had worked out the system where pastries would be ready and the area clean so that once our delivery guy walks in, he would be able to box and prep efficiently. But on some days when the bakes were heavy, the arrival of the delivery guy will indicate our need to double our speed.

Throughout all this, we’ve tried to keep up with the piling dishes during whatever down time we had. We knew it was a good day when the dishes were low once the packaging and delivery crew arrived.

Sundays, though, were my favorite. Sundays were bagel days. We would rush to get everything done and out of the way to make time for bagel prep. Standing side by side shaping bagels in silence was something I think we both relished. It was the part where everything slowed down, and when I felt like I was really in my element. As much as I liked pastries, bread was really my calling, and that translated when I started my own bakery. Pastries were oh-kay, and I somehow landed the job of pastry prep along the way, but shaping bread was where everything lined up. After letting the dough rest, we would poke holes with our thumbs and spin them around thrice to enlarge the dough to the correct size. We set them on floured trays and once they were all prepped, we would take each tray into the back part of the house where a pot of boiling water sat on the stove. It was here, in the dim morning light, that the idea of Aero Bakery was born. As we were leisurely boiling bagels (six at a time because that was the biggest pot we had), we talked about how Rye Goods started, and I learned of cottage food operations. We were dreamers, after all, and my dream was born here. I remember everything about that back house. The way the darkness slowly faded away, the creak of the wooden floorboards, the direct view you had from the kitchen window into to bustling garage. I can still smell the mist and the bread, the morning fog and the stove top heat. Nothing made more sense in my life than those few moments of peace.

I left earlier than the other guys, committing to work only until 6 am. Before leaving, I loaded as much as I can into the trucks. We wanted the delivery guys to be out around this time, too.  I grabbed my sweater, waved goodbye to my fellows, and would slip into the morning dawn. Birds are chirping, the sun is rising over the palm trees, and there was bread in hand (when there were extra). My whole body is warm and humming, just like the ovens. My skin is crackling, just like bread cooling on a rack. My brain is light, like a bird’s feather, floating free.

I joined the “early birds” on the freeway heading to work before the traffic starts. I enter my home to a meowing cat, ready for food. Sometimes, my husband and roommate are already in their respective showers. I clamber into bed and wait for breakfast, when I turn on the kettle to make a cup of coffee.

When I quit, I told myself I will never put my body through a sleep schedule like that again. I also know that I will never feel that alive, unless I do.

Perhaps Gluten Isn’t to Blame

It seems that every new bakery, restaurant, and grocery store is touting new and improved gluten-free products, advertising them as a healthier option, and selling them at a higher price point. But is this really the case? When did gluten intolerance develop and why is it affecting us now? For years, grain has been the most basic food source across many different cultures, and yet all of a sudden, we can no longer process it. It makes one wonder, is gluten really to blame?

What is Gluten?

Despite this word being thrown around carelessly, (I hear people talk about gluten as if it was a celebrity idol), most people don’t really understand what this word means. After gluten-related-remarks of friends, colleagues, and family members, I ask the question, “What do you think gluten is?”. Doing so showed me that a majority of people do not actually know. At least, that’s what I gather from the stammering, the confused stares, and the compilation of random scientific terms that never quite cohesively explains what they believe gluten to be.

In short, gluten is created by two proteins that are found in grain. When combined, these proteins create a gluten network that allows the bread to retain its structure, once baked. Essentially, it’s what gives bread it’s beautiful form.

Why are people allergic to gluten?

As with other hypersensitivities that one develops, a common reason why we become intolerant to things is the fact that our body does not have the ability to process frequent exposures to said thing. Our bodies are very capable of processing many different types of food, but not in excess. Think of Diabetes, for example. At some point, the body will be at its highest capacity to tolerate an exposure to something external, and any additional exposure will cause a warning sign to be sent to you, in the form of inflammation. It’s your body’s way of saying, “That’s enough!” Interestingly, the body takes an adversity to the thing, in much the same way that a person becomes traumatized by a past experience and tries to avoid it at all costs.

The gluten-allergy that I speak of differs from a gluten-intolerance that one is born with, such as in the case of Celiac disease. Barring any congenital diseases, gluten-intolerance is more commonly developing in adults. But we’ve eaten bread for AGES! Why now? What is it, really, about gluten that’s got us all feeling queasy upon hearing the term, as well as ingesting the stuff?

The Post-Industrial Era Revolutionized Bread

Prior to the Industrial Era, there was no such thing as mass production. We had very slow methods of production, and because of this, we were producing way less. Bread was no exception. In the olden days, bread was made using left-over yeast from beer production. The yeast was mixed with flour, water, and salt, and we relied heavily on these rapidly replicating micro-beings to ferment the flour. By fermenting the flour, they were building up CO2 within the bread, thereby aerating it, and when it was baked off, the aeration causes the bread to rise. The yeast dies off in such high heat, but the evidence of their work lies in the beautiful air pockets, or “holes”, in the bread. As CO2 tries to escape, bubbles will form on the crust of the bread, particularly in sourdough. This entire process required one thing that our generation lacks, which is time.

After the Industrial Revolution, our focus suddenly shifted towards mass production. We valued consistency in results, to the point where we replaced humans making art with machines making, well, everything. We valued our time, and ironically, lost it all. We filled our lives with all the conveniences ever at our fingertips. We chose more, and more of the same, and more of the same at this very moment.

How Wheat Changed

When this happened, we changed a number of things with our bread production, one of which was the composition of wheat. People argue that wheat has not been genetically modified and the wheat composition cannot possibly be blamed. However, what people overlook is that we have hybridized our wheat. Hybridization means specifically choosing certain strains of wheat for certain character traits that are favorable (to the producer). What happens when we select in this way is that we reinforce those characteristics, skewing the grain towards a direction, and we get a wheat that is completely different than the one we had a hundred years ago. In fact, modern wheat is shorter, browner, and far higher-yielding, with dwarf wheat and semi-dwarf wheat crops having replaced their taller cousins. These wheat strains require less time and less fertilizer to produce a robust crop of wheat berries. In essence, these grains have less time to grow and thereby less time to gather nutrients from the soil. So we’ve selected for wheat that allowed us to make more of it, but selected for the varieties that will give us very little value in return.

Wheat is not the only one to undergo change. It is important to note that the way we store flour these days is dissimilar to the way it was stored before. Actually, before, we hardly stored flour long-term like we do now. Between milling the grain and using the flour, the flour loses the nutrients (what is actually beneficial about grain) but keeps the fiber. It becomes stale, thereby reducing further the good properties that it once contained.

How We Changed

Additionally, previous to the Industrial Era, bread did not have the ability to become a beautiful loaf without giving it time. If you mixed bread and threw it into the oven, what you’d get is a flat, dense pancake. In order to be able to mix bread and immediately bake it, we did a number of things, one of which was switch to commercial yeast.

Commercial yeast is active, but is not a live culture. You can buy commercial yeast from the store, and store it in the fridge or pantry without needing to do anything to it. A starter, which is what we use at Aero Bakery, is a live culture. It’s actually similar to one’s baby. I feed it twice a day and I can tell when it’s hungry and when it’s happily full (usually when yeast activity is high). After the Industrial Era, most bakers switched to using commercial yeast because it does the job much faster, whereas active yeast takes 12-24 hours to ferment bread effectively, sometimes more. Now, why is this change to commercial yeast in bread production important?

When yeast acts on flour, it converts natural grain sugars and starches into carbon dioxide, which creates air pockets that make the dough rise. Wild yeast cultures go even further, using healthy lactobacilli bacteria to convert proteins (like gluten) into lactic acid that gives sourdough its flavor. In short, waiting for the yeast to do its work leads to the breakdown of sugars, starches, and gluten. So while hybridization of wheat could play a role in increasing the frequency of Celiac disease and gluten-intolerance, our foregoing of this olden method of making bread using a live starter could also be much to blame.

Is a New Diet Really the Solution?

As I mentioned previously, our bodies are giving us warning signs that what we are doing to our food is not compatible with our body’s historical mechanisms of digestion. As a species, we are unable to adapt to the changes as quickly as we are making them. Evolutionarily speaking, it will take many generations for us to physically change. Yet, instead of recognizing the need to slow down, the food industry is claiming solutions in the form of new diets. And not just one single diet. We have people trying all sorts of diet that claim to supposedly cure our intolerance. People are trying paleo one week, vegan the next, keto a few months later, on top of trying to be gluten-free. Unfortunately, by trying these new diets, we are making it worse. We are putting our bodies under a lot of strain, and not giving it the time to even adapt. No wonder our bodies are starting to rebel.

My Work

In general, I write about giving up those modern conveniences … about slowing things down. I find the beauty in inconsistency, the living proof that something was made with human hands. It gives items character, making them more human themselves. I’ll give you a solution to this problem not by creating something new, but by giving you something of old. I’ll give you something you no longer have, but something you might find that you desperately need, which is time. I will work with local farmers who are trying to preserve ancient grains … grains that existed two hundred years ago, before any of this ever happened. I will mill grain into flour right before mixing, to retain as many of the nutrients as I possibly can. I will allow my yeast to do its magic, giving it the space it needs to break down sugar, starch, and gluten … to make this staple food more digestible. I hope you see the beauty in this work, and feel the importance of what we do.


No one ever told me this, but the hardest part about opening my own bakery was deciding on a name. The actual process of applying for a license was simple and streamlined. The logistics were made easier by being a cottage food operation. Even becoming a self-taught baker was straight-forward. The knowledge of baking came to me over time. Sure, there were some rough hours in there, some sweaty summer days, some frustrating failures, but none of these things were as hard as honing in on the name that would define my work.

I had an idea of what I wanted the name to represent. I didn’t want anything frilly, or silly, or funny. I am a serious person, after all. I wanted my bakery to focus on “REAL BREAD” rather than sugary treats, so a name like “Sammie’s Cupcakes” wouldn’t do. And anyway, I didn’t want it to be about me, so I strayed away from fiddling with my name. The name had to be simple, to encapsulate what this work is to me. It had to be practical and to the point. I wanted it to be short, but not sweet. In other words, I was being extremely high-maintenance.

When I landed on Aero Bakery, I knew I had found it.
Not right away, perhaps.
I rolled it over my tongue a few times.
I thought about what it represented.
I slept on it for a few days.
And I asked people I knew, day in and day out. “How does it sound?”
Eventually, it started to be the only name that felt right.

The reasoning behind Aero Bakery is three-fold.

Firstly, “Aero” is pronounced “Arrow”, and is a subtle tribute to my starter, the mother of all our bread. My starter is made up of 100% Arrowhead Mill’s Organic Rye flour. Because it is entirely fed with rye, my starter is akin to a wild child, boiling with activity, thirsting for adventure, ready to show the world what it can do. It took me a few tries to find a starter that I could work with, but once I discovered mine, there was no turning back. While friends around me are having babies and raising families, I am over here taking care of a starter. I feed it twice a day, and watch it grow. I laugh when it bubbles, and my heart drops when it deflates. In return, it helps me make beautiful bread. Without it, my life wouldn’t have this simple joy.

Secondly, Aero represents the gratitude I feel towards my husband’s never-ending support. My husband is an engineer, and his first five years out of undergrad was spent working in aeronautics and aerospace. It was during this time that I was going to dental school, and he was the only reason I made it through. Not only did he help support me financially, but he provided the moral support I needed. After dental school, I found that I was missing something. I spent the first 26 years of my life pursuing my dream of becoming a dentist, but there was a longing for something I didn’t yet know. My husband was the one who was excited for me to learn bread baking. He was there when I failed, and he was the first to tell me to try again. I remember him photographing me with my very first loaf. It was flat, I was in my pajamas, the lighting wasn’t right … but we were both smiling. And when Rye Goods offered me the position as the early morning bread baker, I was nervous to add on a midnight shift on top of everything I was already doing. I mean… I was nervous to add on a midnight shift, PERIOD. Starting work while the rest of the world sleeps is not exactly enticing. But… for the love of bread, am I right? He knew that it would give me joy when I, myself, wasn’t so sure. I remember him saying that if I didn’t take it now, I would probably kick myself for missing the opportunity. “You can make time for sleep later, if you really need to.” So aero is one way for me to dedicate the bakery to the person who has brought me this joy.

Lastly, it’s all about the bread. It has to be. Bread was the missing piece. It’s an expression of the part of me I always hid. It’s the part of me that enjoys utter silence, the part that feeds off focus, the part that needs to create, the part that was searching for s p a c e. Thus, the bakery had to be named after the bread. Aero bread is made the olden way, using three common ingredients (flour, water, and salt), and one rare ingredient (TIME). I respectfully allow my active starter the one ingredient it truly needs to ferment the other three ingredients. This process, the way we let bread AERATE, is what makes the bread unique. Ironically, before mass production … before mass convenience I should say … before the Industrial Era, what we had a lot of was time. But as we try to make our lives “easier” and “more convenient”, we are somehow losing our most valuable commodity, and the clock ticks ever faster. Baking bread is one way that I can gift what we’ve lost back to the community. It’s a symbol of the importance of regaining our space. It’s a statement against modern conveniences. Finally, it’s a choice; to value simplicity, and the things we hold most dear.

And so, when all’s said and done, Aero just … fit.

I can’t wait for it to hold meaning for you, too.