Platforms like City Food Studio empower our community to make a living out of doing what they love with little risk or initial investment beyond a belly full of creative thinking. We set off for our second visit to the shared commercial cooking space to spend a Sunday with owner and full time baker Molly Miller of Sift Gluten Free Bakery. Who also happens to be a one hundred percent delightful human being.
Molly has been baking treats using her own unique blend of gluten free flours that you won’t find anyplace else. It’s this unique blend that make her baked goods a serious competitor for the conventional; whether you are gluten free or not, they really are supreme. Molly turned out the most amazing tasting cinnamon+nutmeg donuts while sharing her story and giving us a little lesson on just what gluten really is.
If you haven’t already tasted Sift’s baked goods at one of over a dozen Minneapolis locations you can special order GF treats or visit her at the Kingfield and Fulton Farmer’s Market this summer.
Tell us about your operation - What do you do? How long has the business been in existence and on what kind of scale? Has the business changed scale since its initial inception?
Sift Gluten Free started at the Kingfield and Fulton farmers markets in 2013. The markets were looking to provide a gluten-free option to their customers, and I wanted to see if baking on a larger scale was something I could actually do! Muffins, scones, donuts, cookies, brownies…a little bit of everything is usually available at the markets. At the end of that season, I started working with Peace Coffee to provide gluten-free items at their Wonderland Park location. Eighteen months and countless muffins later, Sift items are now available at thirteen coffee shops.
When I started Sift, I had envisioned a quaint little storefront—not a wholesale business. I still dream of the storefront, but wholesale has been a great way to quickly provide people with gluten-free options. It’s also been a great way for me to experiment with recipes and learn the business side of baking.
What is your background and how did you decide to start baking commercially?
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at 13, and had become frustrated with my doctors’ lack of advice on what to eat and how to take care of myself. It seemed a digestive disease could—and should—be managed through what I eat. So, in 2007 I enrolled at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. My time at IIN eventually led me to experimenting with a gluten-free diet, which then led me to experimenting with gluten-free baking because I wasn’t about to give up sweets!
Since college I’ve had various jobs in book publishing, marketing and advertising as an editor and writer. Baking was always just a relaxing hobby for me. I’d often talk about opening up my own bakery, but because I have no formal training as a baker, I just wrote it off as a dream. Over the last few years, though, I looked around Minneapolis at all the great food businesses that started as food trucks or at a farmers market, and I thought, “Why not give it a try?”. And I have to say, I’m really glad I did!
What is gluten? Why would someone want to avoid it?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. People diagnosed with Celiac disease have an allergy to gluten, meaning they have a severe reaction if it’s ingested. There’s no messing around with gluten when you have Celiac disease.
There’s a second group of people who are gluten free, and they have what is considered a sensitivity to gluten. This is the category I fall into. For me, avoiding gluten has helped control the symptoms of Crohn’s disease. I also feel significantly less bloated, more clear headed and more energetic from eating gluten free. Everyone’s reactions to gluten can differ, which is one of the reasons there’s no easy way to diagnose a gluten sensitivity. I know there are people who don’t believe gluten sensitivity is a “thing,” and it’s frustrating. If you pay attention to your body and know certain foods don’t make you feel your best, why wouldn’t you cut them out of your diet?
What quality does gluten bring to foods?
Think of a classic French baguette. Gluten provides pretty much everything that defines it: the crunchy outside layer; the soft, airy inside; the holes perfect for catching butter and jam. Gluten provides all of the texture, structure and flavor qualities that make bread bread—and help hold it all together in one tasty little package. It’s not impossible to recreate this effect without gluten, but because it takes more than simply substituting flours, baking without gluten takes a little experimenting.
What are good substitutes and can you simply swap wheat flour with rice flour?
Gluten-free flour substitutes require a balance of both starch and grains. I make my own mix with five different types of flour, and also sometimes bake with almond flour. There are many gluten-free flour mixes on the market that can be used as a one-for-one substitute for traditional flour, but most contain xanthan or guar gum, which I prefer to avoid. These gums act as binders and help to provide a texture similar to gluten. Some people with Celiac have issues with xanthan, though, so I decided just to bake without it from the start. I use flax seed and occasionally psyllium husk as a binder instead.
Don’t let what I’m saying intimidate you, though! If you want to take a stab a gluten-free baking, pick up a pre-made flour mix and give it a whirl on a favorite recipe. You’ll probably be pretty happy with the results!
What are your favorite sources for recipe inspiration and ingredients?
I initially started by converting family recipes to be gluten free and often dairy free. Apple coffee cake, banana bread, cut-out cookies—nothing fancy, but definitely items I missed once going gluten free. Oftentimes I don’t remember what inspired certain recipes. I get a flavor idea, then stumble down a rabbit hole online, bookmarking recipes and making notes. Many times it’s gluten-full recipes that are the start, because I want to get the balance of flavors right and will use them as a guide.
Do you have a grandparent or close elders who influenced your work? If so, how did they impact you?
My mom always had cookies, bars or quick breads on the counter when we were growing up. Again, it was nothing overly fancy, but there was something about a homemade treat that I always loved. Her chocolate chip and M&M bars had a special following among my high school friends. It’s a simple yet thoughtful way my mom shows she cares, and I think that’s what baking is all about: sweets for those who make your life a little sweeter.
What were you most proud of this past year?
Within a little over a year, Sift went from supplying one coffee shop to thirteen. There are still days when I find myself thinking, “What? How did this happen?” And then I just smile and get back to baking.
In November 2014, I decided to make Sift my full-time job. It was (and still is) scary to leave the comfort of a traditional full-time job, but I wasn’t sure how to grow the business without giving it more time and energy.
What are the biggest challenges you think you’ll face this coming year? How do you plan to address them?
Balancing baking with business is a lesson I’m always learning. I try to set boundaries around my time—for example, I’ll practice bake in the morning, then tackle bookwork in the afternoon. That is a tough task for me, because I’d just spend all day in the kitchen if I could. Alarms definitely need to be set to remind me to move on.
How can people support what you’re doing?
Sift items are available at the following coffee shops. Selection varies by location:
- Peace Coffee (Wonderland Park, Lyndale Gardens, Downtown Minneapolis)
- Dunn Bros. (Linden Hills, Fulton, Eden Prairie)
- Five Watt Coffee
- Bull Run Coffee (Lyndale & Nicollet)
- Blue Ox Coffee
- Healing Elements
Special orders can be placed by contacting Molly directly at email@example.com
What’s next for Sift?
In addition to continuing to grow the wholesale business, I hope to start looking for a potential space for a bakery! Stay tuned….
Photographs by Minneapolis-based photographer Lauren Carpenter.