Congratulations ORIGIN Breads for making the 100 Best Bakeries in America list from Food and Wine!
Kirk Smock became a baker out of necessity while living in Guyana in 2005 with his wife. In fact, his baking was inspired at her suggestion as a solution to the extreme lack of decent bread to be found anywhere. Since Kirk was working as a freelance writer at the time, spending countless hours at home in front of his laptop, baking bread proved to be a beneficial hobby on many levels. It allowed him to work with his hands and forced him to get up and walk away from his screen – plus it was “a great tool for procrastinating.” Kirk admits his first loaf probably wasn’t too good, but he was instantly hooked on the process. Kirk and his wife relocated to New York City, where his home baking hobby “got pretty serious.” Kirk began to experiment with various recipes, ingredients and types of breads, specifically sourdough. As he fine tuned his baking “obsession,” he toppled headfirst into “the sourdough hole,” playing around with more wild yeast breads, fermenting his loaves overnight in the refrigerator.
A crucial part of baking sourdough is the fermentation process. Refrigeration greatly improves this process by allowing bakers to slow it down, which enhances the flavor, nutritional value and texture of the final loaves.
It was during this time that he and his wife relocated again to Baltimore and then to Mozambique for the next four years, where he began to bake out of necessity again. “We just couldn’t get good bread there either, and there were many other expats looking for bread, as well. So I started baking more, while also working from home as a writer and tourism consultant,” tells Kirk. When they ultimately moved back to Madison, Wisconsin – which Kirk describes as a very “food friendly place” – to be closer to family, Kirk says it felt like his “now or never moment.”
So Kirk pulled the trigger and began baking bread out of a shared kitchen space in Madison. All of the breads at ORIGIN Breads are sourdough, which require long fermentation. All of the dough is made a day in advance, then the loaves go into the fridge overnight prior to baking in order to slow the fermentation process down, therefore producing better bread. The slower the fermentation of the dough, the better the “flavor, texture and nutrition of the bread,” and refrigeration becomes an important tool for that.
“When I opened the bakery, I found a local, organic farm here in Wisconsin to purchase our grains from,” Kirk tells us. While he focused on paying for and sourcing high quality ingredients, Kirk was hesitant to invest too much into his equipment at first. “I bought a small oven, an old stand up freezer that I rigged with an external thermometer (like most homebrewers do),” tells Kirk.
“So the first fridge I had was actually a freezer, but I quickly upgraded to a commercial two door refrigerator for the dough. It worked okay, but since the cooling unit was on top, the dough on the bottom wouldn’t cool as well as the dough on top did.” Even proofing of the dough is very important and the inconsistencies caused by Kirk’s commercial cooler just wasn’t cutting it.
“As business was growing and experiencing some success, I began to look at new spaces. Our current production became limited based on how much dough we could fit into the cooler overnight.” The limited capacity factor also included their small oven, which quickly became overwhelmed with loaves during daytime baking. So Kirk began to research new equipment for their next space. They’d outgrown their shared kitchen after about three years and ORIGIN Breads had earned a proper space of its own.
Once Kirk acquired a new space, he’d had contractors come in to give him advice about where and how to install his equipment, etc. The challenge was this: Because his unit was located on the end of the building, only one of its walls had proper built-in drainage. “This was important for plumbing and also for our steam-injected oven, which required a discharge line. We had one wall where the oven and sinks all had to go along, otherwise it would cost tens of thousands of dollars to install extra drainage. And then the walk-in cooler guy told me the cooler needed to be along this wall, as well. He started talking to me about the cost of hooking up a walk-in cooler with drainage and it was crazy expensive,” Kirk says. “It was around this time I remembered about the CoolBot and began to dig more into it.”
Kirk appreciated that fact that because the CoolBot runs off of an A/C unit, it could be hooked up on a different side of the kitchen. Plus, the cost was appealing. He also loves that the CoolBot doesn’t have a loud condenser, like a typical walk-in cooler. But it was the flexibility that CoolBot gave Kirk while designing his new kitchen that was priceless.
ORIGIN Breads’ CoolBot walk-in cooler is 10’ x 12’ and is mostly used to ferment their dough. It’s vital that the temperature be just right for the fermentation process, so their cooler needs to run at 50 degrees. “Some walk-in coolers are harder to set at a higher temperature (40+ degrees) because of some basic food regulations and standards,” says Kirk. “We ordered CoolBot’s full cooler package and it’s been great. We run it at 50 degrees, but also keep unbaked loaves in the cooler during the weekends for an even longer fermentation (three nights versus one night) and turn the temperature down a bit for that. It holds its temperature really well.”
Kirk’s turnkey cooler automatically came equipped with the CoolBot Pro wifi service, which helped inspire confidence during the initial installation. Kirk was optimistic but skeptical of his new and unusual walk-in cooler running off of an A/C unit, so it was crucial to be able to track potential temperature fluctuations. “Temperature tracking either way makes a big difference with our bread so it was great for me just trying to monitor how it’s running from home with the app,” Kirk tells us. “We’ve kept an additional thermometer in the cooler, just to be sure how accurate it is, because it’s so important to the bread and it has so far been spot on.”
“We used to proof dough in baskets overnight and stack them onto shelves in the cooler in a sort of pyramid formation. We’d stack as many as we could, and sometimes the dough would push up and touch the baskets, which wasn’t ideal. But now with CoolBot, we’re able to use a speed rack with twenty sheet pants. So we can load those up with baskets of dough so they each have their own tray. One speed rack can fit about fifty loaves without crowding them too much, which is a huge improvement,” says Kirk.
“Before we were able to fit maybe 120 loaves in the cooler to ferment at once and now we can potentially fit up to one thousand. With the ability to accommodate that big a capacity, we can continue to grow without worrying about cooler space. It’s a huge difference. And because CoolBot was more affordable across the board, it allowed me to get a bigger cooler than I would have otherwise, which is great. Cost savings with the overall unit allowed me to go bigger now to hopefully save money down the road,” concludes Kirk.
And even proofing has also been a nonissue with Kirk’s new CoolBot. “Top to bottom: they all proof the same,” he says.
“Now that we’ve got room to grow, ORIGIN Breads will be expanding our products and trying out new recipes. We’re just looking forward to growing and reaching more customers,” he says.