Ticket holders, who formed a long line as they entered Thirsty Bear Brewing Company, got to choose a topping for their bread samples, including butter, vegan butter spread, and olive oil. They voted on their favorite bread, while a panel of three judges also selected a favorite. (Judges included bread baking professionals and Tamara Palmer of SFoodie.) The event was co-sponsored by the prestigious San Francisco Baking Institute, and several of the contestants were students at the school who had dropped out of former careers to pursue dreams of becoming artisan bakers.
Many competitors describe themselves as "obsessed" with making bread. About half had gotten into it only two years ago or less, and found they had an almost instant attraction. One baker described drawing up detailed Excel spreadsheets to keep track of his recipe formulas, likening it to math. Another talked about the "voodoo" of baking, and about how she could hear the bread "talking" to her. Many made their own sourdough starters by capturing wild yeasts from the air and feeding them with new flour and water two times a day. "It's like my pet," said one entrant.
Not a single baker turned out a less than excellent bread, but here are the winners and other standouts:
• People’s Choice: Team #11, Fire in the Fornix!
The bread: The Hurricane
A fabulously umami multigrain bread laced with two kinds of seaweed and sesame seeds by Lori Oyamada, a baker at San Francisco's Tartine Bakery.
• People’s Choice Honorable Mention: Team #14, Dark Horse Breads
The bread: Pear Walnut Bread
Baker David Elkins accidentally dropped the bread he'd originally intended to bring to the competition, a fig and black pepper sourdough. The morning before the competition he put together this musky, complex, slightly sweet bread with buckwheat flour and dried pears soaked in white wine. My favorite!
• Photog’s Choice: Team #9, The Fancy Boyz
The bread: Pain a l’Ancienne
Chosen for the best visual presentation, bow-tie-sportin' Chris Dibble and Rich Rainbolt (all the way from Los Angeles!) also baked a kickass rustic baguette.
• 1st Place: Team #19, Jen Rosa
The bread: Rosemary Sourdough Bread
A well-balanced, herbal sourdough with a light, chewy texture.
• 2nd Place: Team #20, Rocket Baby
The bread: Cherry Poppin’ Walnut
Classic raisin walnut bread, but with dried cherries rather than raisins.
• 3rd Place: Team #16, Bread for Gold
The bread: Sour River Loaf
Jesse Schumann baked a nutty, moist, multigrain sourdough.
• Team Scarlette Poppy baked the only spicy (chipotle) and cheesy bread at the competition. Ironically, the San Francisco couple, Heather and Mike Jimenez, are both vegans. (The cheese was "Daiya" brand vegan cheese.)
• Linh Nguyen made an addictive ciabatta with toasted whole hazelnuts, hazelnut flour, and Italian chestnut flour.
• Danny Gabriner, of team Sour Flour, made beautiful, hearty, round sourdough loaves. His two-man San Francisco operation, by the same name, is dedicated to spreading free bread around San Francisco, like a yeasty Johnny Appleseed.
• Susan Tenney of team Wild Yeast (she also writes a food blog), made an earthy-tasting semolina sourdough loaf with fennel, currant, and pine nuts.
The next Food Wars event will be based around chocolate cookies, and will take place in March. Let's hope the competition isn't held inside a hot chocolate store.