sourdough bread instagram tiktok social media influencer chicago usa food photographer blogger Jess from @ThisJess.Cooks

Interview With Jess From @ThisJess.Cooks on Instagram

Welcome to another inspiring feature from The Sourdough People! Today, we’re excited to introduce you to Jess, a talented food photographer and blogger from Chicago. Jess has a passion for creating simple baking and sourdough discard recipes, along with providing valuable tips to help beginners start their sourdough journey. Her approachable recipes aim to break the myth that sourdough baking is only for advanced bakers, making it accessible to everyone. Join us as we delve into Jess’s sourdough journey and discover her tips and tricks for successful sourdough baking. Be sure to follow Jess on her social media platforms @thisjess.cooks for more delightful recipes and insights into the world of sourdough.

Please tell us where you are from and what you love about where you live?

I live in Chicago with my husband and our baby boy who was just born in January of this year. We moved to Chicago from NYC and while NYC was wonderful, Chicago really has my heart. Winters can be tough, but the other three seasons are truly the best here. The people are great, the food and creative scene is interesting, and geographically we’re in a great location for travelling (something that was really fun for us pre-baby and important for us visiting family!).

Jess, what initially sparked your interest in sourdough baking, and how did you begin your journey?

I made my first sourdough starter at the beginning of the covid shutdown! Like many, I was bored at home and doing a lot of cooking and baking at the time. I wanted a challenge and a sourdough starter sounded like a fun journey. I haven’t looked back since!

How has being based in Chicago added to your sourdough journey?

The environment greatly impacts your sourdough starter. The first time I made a starter was in the winter, and it was a really brutal Chicago winter. I gave it WEEKS and it didn’t work out, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I tried again a few months later when it was warmer and I had more confidence, and that’s when my sourdough starter was born! The learning: when your home is colder, it makes a huge difference. I now know how to work around that, but I didn’t at the time.

In the winter, I use a seed sprouting mat to help keep my dough slightly warmer while rising. Our house runs a bit cooler and the kitchen countertops are certainly cold. In the summer, my starter will be doubling or tripling so quickly that it feels like a completely different starter. Just a different season and temperature, and you need to know how to treat that starter differently!

I now share a lot of really easily digestible tips on my blog and TikTok about how to get your sourdough starter up and running. I don’t talk about hydration percentages, etc. I try to share this in a way that truly everyone can understand without feeling like they have to go look up 10 different terms they’ve never heard of. It can be really frustrating for beginner bakers, or even seasoned bakers to make a sourdough starter and small changes (like the temperature of your water, or your room) can make a huge difference.

How has your approach to sourdough baking evolved since you first started?

When I started, my main goal was to put the discard to use. It seemed like such a waste to spend so much time (potentially weeks) and so many ingredients making a starter only to have to throw away (or compost) so much of it. It seemed crucial to make recipes that used that discard, otherwise, in my eyes, this starter would’ve been a flop.

I still focus my recipes on using sourdough discard as I think that’s a big sticking point for people that are new to a sourdough journey. I typically also use yeast with my discard recipes, which might be surprising to some and I know really rubs some sourdough bakers the wrong way. It helps ensure a consistent rise, and it also reduces the needed rise time. It’s a great way to dabble in sourdough baking without having to commit to a 16+ hour bake, and I’ve found an audience that really appreciates that. I realize this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and there are other options to avoid using commercial yeast, but it works well for me!

Do you have a signature sourdough recipe or technique you’re particularly proud of? Can you share a bit about it?

My Sourdough Discard Pretzels and Sourdough Discard Bagels are probably my signature recipes. I’ll often show up to someone’s house with a bag of freshly baked pretzels or bagels to stash in their freezer for later (and since I have a few friends that have recently had babies, this is really perfect)! For a beginner home baker, pretzels and bagels might seem daunting at first – they’re things you buy – but they’re truly easy to make. The pretzels are a recipe that we bake with our family at the holidays – even with the young kids – as it’s very forgiving and fun for everyone to make and eat!

Who are some of the people, brands, or companies in the sourdough industry that have inspired you?

I have a few creator friends in the sourdough space that are always inspiring and doing great things – Amanda from Sourdough Sparrow (@sourdoughsparrow) and Hannah from Make It Dough (@makeitdough). Overall it’s a very welcoming space and everyone is just here to do fun, creative things and help support each other in our sourdough journeys and I hope to really contribute to that community!

What are your must-have tools or favorite equipment for sourdough baking, and why?

This is a small thing, but my absolute favorite kitchen tool that I use multiple times a day – for sourdough or otherwise – is a GIR Skinny Spoonula. It’s perfect for scooping around your sourdough starter jar, digging into small cans, really anything. They’re also heat proof, so you can use them in pans, etc. and they come in tons of patterns and colors (I have a bunch of them!).

I also recently started using a seed sprouting mat to keep my dough warm while rising in the winter, which has been a fun little hack. Our house runs cool, and this makes a big difference with rise times (and a seed sprouting mat is about $15USD, so a very easy buy!).

How do you source your ingredients, and do you have any specific preferences or tips regarding flour, water, or salt?

I really don’t get too precious about the ingredients. I try to make recipes that use ingredients you might have on hand, or at least that you’ll use again. No one wants to buy an ingredient, use it once, and then have the rest sit in the pantry for the next 5 years, so that’s a major focus for my recipes. I will say that I love Maldon Sea Salt and if there is flaky sea salt in the recipe (pretzels, dinner rolls, brownies, etc.) then you can bet that’s what I’m using. A pinch of sea salt is always fitting!

Can you share a particularly challenging experience you’ve had with sourdough baking and how you overcame it?

Certainly! One challenging experience I had with sourdough baking was when I tried to create a recipe for Sourdough Discard Brownies. I wanted to use a significant amount of sourdough discard in the recipe without adding any extra flour. It took me numerous attempts, more than 10 times, to get the recipe just right.

I experimented with different ratios of discard to other ingredients, varied baking times and temperatures, and adjusted the moisture content. It was a delicate balance because I wanted to maintain the rich, fudgy texture of a classic brownie while incorporating the unique tangy flavor of sourdough. After many trials and errors, I finally nailed the recipe, and the result was delicious brownies with a distinct sourdough twist.

This experience taught me the importance of perseverance and experimentation in sourdough baking. Sometimes you have to be willing to try new things, even if they don’t work out the first few times. It’s all part of the learning process and the fun of baking with sourdough!

What do you enjoy most about baking sourdough, and how does it impact your daily life?

I really like the ritual of it. Taking the starter out of the fridge in the morning so it can come to room temperature. Feeding the sourdough starter as often as I like (sometimes daily if I’m baking a lot, or sometimes once a week or less if there is a lot of other stuff going on). Cleaning the jar (yes, I clean the jar each time I feed). It’s cathartic. It might sound a bit crazy, but I’m a food person and I love those kinds of things!

I suppose it’s a bit like taking care of a plant. You’re taking care of a living thing, and it’s easy to see when it’s doing well or needs some extra attention. And it’s always fun to see a sourdough starter thriving.

What are some common misconceptions about sourdough baking that you’ve encountered, and how do you address them?

In general, I think people feel like sourdough is complicated. It doesn’t have to be. I can be, if you want it to be, and you can get into complex hydration percentages, specialty ingredients, and unusual techniques. But there is also a growing community of sourdough bakers who aren’t looking for complicated, and I like to think I’m part of that group. These are bakers who want to bake with sourdough without feeling like they have to revisit their high school chemistry notes.

I truly think that if you’re a home baker and you can follow a simple recipe (cookies, for example), then you can make a sourdough starter and you can be successful baking with sourdough.

In your opinion, what is the most underrated aspect of sourdough baking?

That anyone can do it. I’ve mentioned there is a misconception that making sourdough is really hard. Yes, there are things you can do to make it easier or better, but truly anyone can learn, and a lot of working with sourdough is knowing your particular starter and dough and how to adjust. I want people to think of this as a welcoming sourdough community that everyone can join. We want you to succeed on your sourdough journey!

What advice would you give to someone just starting out with sourdough baking?

If you’re making a sourdough starter for the first time, don’t get discouraged. Sometimes it doesn’t work on the first try, or sometimes it takes weeks to get your sourdough starter up and running. It’s ok and you can definitely do this! Don’t give up!

How do you engage with your followers and the sourdough community on social media? What’s your style?

I share sourdough discard recipes on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and Pinterest. On TikTok, I also share a lot of how-to content related to making a sourdough starter, or techniques needed for my recipes (how to shape a pretzel, for example). I spend a lot of time responding to comments and questions to help people get their sourdough starter up and running!

When giving tips, my style is really casual. I’ll be really honest and tell you like it is. My content is also really approachable and easy to digest. Even the most novice baker can get something from it, and even if you don’t have a sourdough starter, you might get something from it!

What’s your favorite sourdough recipe to bake for yourself, friends, or your loved ones?

Focaccia! Yes, it needs a good bit of rising time, but it is so easy to make, so delicious, and always looks impressive. I also love that it’s very easy to add inclusions either in the dough or on top (rosemary, blackberries, tomatoes – anything goes!).

Do you have any tips or suggestions on how to manage a healthy sourdough starter culture?

Don’t underestimate the power of changing the temperature. Change the temperature of your room, or where the starter is placed. Change the temperature of the water that you use to feed it. Change the lid / cover. Change the surface your starter is sitting on. It all matters and will all make a difference.

Do you have any upcoming projects or plans related to sourdough baking that you’re excited about?

Always! I’m just getting back into the swing after maternity leave, and have so many wonderful recipe ideas (and other ideas!) that have been percolating for the last few months. If you want to stay up to date on the latest, follow along on social.

Can you describe a moment when you felt particularly proud or fulfilled in your sourdough baking journey?

Just over 2 years ago I quit my corporate communications job to pursue food photography and blogging as my full-time career. Of course, there were lots of doubts (my own, and from others). My blog became primarily a sourdough discard recipe blog, which seemed like a small niche (that we weren’t sure would have legs after COVID), but it has been a wonderful space for me.

The past two years have been incredibly successful and fulfilling personally and creatively. I’m leaning in to the blog this year and hoping to make that even better. Honestly, any time I feel stuck, I just look back on the past two years and what I’ve been able to build and achieve, and I know there is a long runway still ahead of me.

If you could give one piece of advice to your past self when you started sourdough baking, what would it be?

I didn’t know it at the time, but that COVID hobby (making a sourdough starter) became my business’s bread and butter (terrible pun, had to do it!). I would tell myself to have fun, keep going, and never lose sight of that creative spark.

Is there anything else Jess that you would like the community to know about you or things you would like the readers to potentially purchase or subscribe to?

I’d love to ask readers to check out the recipes on my blog and connect with me on social media.

Closing thoughts

A big thank you to Jess for sharing her inspiring sourdough journey with us. We hope you found her tips and experiences helpful as you embark on your own sourdough adventures. For more sourdough stories, recipes, and tips, be sure to subscribe to The Sourdough People’s email newsletter. Have a sourdough story you’d like to share or a baking tip you swear by? Send us your ideas through our intake form. Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram for daily sourdough inspiration.

Until next time, happy baking!

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