It’s a hot morning in early fall, and Keith Cohen can’t stand still. At the beginning of September, Cohen, the owner of Orwashers bakery, opened a new outpost at 81st Street and Amsterdam. The original Orwashers on the Upper East Side has been a citywide staple since 1916.
The Amsterdam Avenue shop hums with activity. A steady stream of late breakfasters flows in and out, collecting loaves and pastries, while a small team behind the counter fields orders. “It needs to get busier,” Cohen says.
When Cohen acquired Orwashers in 2007, the bakery still operated much in the same way it had in 1916, when the Orwasher family emigrated from Hungary and opened the original shop at 78th Street and 2nd Avenue. Orwashers thrived, using a brick oven in the shop’s basement to churn out loaves of typical New York bakery fare: pumpernickel, rye, challah, and small rolls that they delivered throughout the city first via horse and buggy, then by truck.
While the Orwashers that Cohen inherited had established itself as a legacy bakery in New York, Cohen realized that the breads themselves had lost their specificity to the city.
The starter—a fermented mixture of flour and water that forms the backbone of a variety of breads—was almost as old as the bakery itself, and kept alive through regular feeds of standard flour and commercial yeast. The traditional way of making a starter, Cohen says, involves using natural yeast—found in fruits like apples and grapes—to begin the dough’s fermentation process. When commercial yeast was invented in the 20th century, it expedited the dough-making process, but also regulated it. As Cohen sought ways to draw in the next generation, he decided to find a way to capitalize on the locavore movement, and root Orwashers bread more firmly in the city around it. He looked to yeast.
Revitalizing the starters motivated Cohen to look to other ways to update the bakery’s reach, and he landed on a type of bread that only the bravest New York bakers were attempting: sourdough. Since miners first began baking sourdough in California during the Gold Rush, San Francisco cemented its reputation as the tangy-bread capital (the type of bacteria found in sourdough bread is called Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis). New York bakeries began to experiment with their own loaves starting in the 1970s, according to Serious Eats, but even then, doubts swirled as to whether an East Coast version could ever rival the Bay Area’s. Because sourdough, through its fermentation process, absorbs elements of the environment surrounding it, speculation as to why San Francisco’s variety is so delicious centers around the city itself. “The indigenous yeasts in the air, the temperature, the humidity, perhaps even the water all contribute to its unique flavor,” SFGate wrote.
Cohen’s sourdough, made with the Long Island-grape infused starter, “is my answer to San Francisco,” he says. Making it involves the same process as San Francisco’s bread—it contains the same SF-tinged bacteria—but “it’d be misleading to call it San Francisco sourdough,” Cohen says.
Cohen’s new version relies on locally sourced grain; the spelt, whole wheat, and white whole wheat flours all come from regional mills and yield a distinctive flavor. “What makes a good loaf of bread is very elusive,” Cohen says. “You have to deal with the climate, the harvest, the flour—but nature aside, what emerges from the oven at Orwashers is unmistakably New York.” To nod to this specificity, Cohen calls his variety Soho Sourdough.
The year after he took over Orwashers, Cohen began collaborating with a Long Island-based winery, Channing Daughters, to harvest grapes for new batches of Orwashers starter. When the harvest happens each October, Cohen says, “It’s like a rebirth.”
As with any longstanding city institution, Orwashers inspires nostalgia. “I hear a lot of old-timers saying, ‘Oh, I remember how it used to be,’” Cohen says. But keeping a small business alive in New York, he says, is less about adhering firmly to the past, and more about bridging the old ways with the current culture—and in New York, that means keeping pace with the prioritization of local, small-batch production. A collaboration between the bakery and Sixpoint brewery in Brooklyn yields a craft ale bread, and Cohen’s wine-based breads are served regularly at Channing Daughters winery. The idea, as he notes in his book, is to continue “to craft creative new-world breads with old-world taste.”
For 100 years, Orwashers survived in the same tiny shop, but “that’s not the way things work now,” Cohen says. “You need to stay on top of everything you do well,” he says, “but constantly re-examine it and look for ways to grow.”