Christmas 2019 had its start already in August. Why?
Because the so long expected and hottest tool for homebakers was finally launched: The Challenger Bread Pan* – a brand new and unique cast iron pan with a clear mission: enabling all homebakers to bake like a pro.
But who in bread-universe comes up with the idea of inventing a pan for bread baking? A former computer programmer?
Well…sounds like a challenge, right? Not only one. Because he and his wife mastered them all. Jim and Lisa are the Challengers: Read on and discover the whole back story of the Challenger Bread Pan – its initial idea, the long path until its launch, the mastermind behind the pan and…why every single purchase of this pan contributes to allaying hunger.
I am very proud and happy that Jim Challenger joined #brotokoll for a “pan”-oramic talk about his invention.
Happy reading & happy baking!
Jim, let’s start right away with the most burning question: what is the Challenger Bread Pan*?
The Challenger Bread Pan is the first covered cast iron baking vessel that was designed by bakers for bakers in order to let people bake bread like a pro in home ovens.
When did you come up with the idea and what was the reason?
This idea has been running around in my subconscious since I first started baking naturally leavened bread 3 years ago. At first, I tried to use my deep Le Creuset enameled cast iron Dutch oven because it’s what I already owned. I have to say that I found it to be quite impossible to use—especially because I was a beginner. It was extremely difficult to lower my dough into the Dutch oven without degassing it or burning my hands.
Then I discovered Tartine by Chad Robertson. He recommended a small camping oven that’s made by Lodge, called their combo cooker. This was better because it had a shallow base to make loading the dough easier. Once again, though, I found this pan not well-suited to baking bread because it was both too small and could only make round loaves called boules.
I then tried the Baking Steel that I use for making pizza. I also did some reading on the internet to learn how to create the steam that’s needed to properly back bread and achieve a crispy crust. It’s not easy to do because regular ovens are designed to vent steam. My steam hacks worked, but I just knew there had to be a better way for all us home bakers.
Being an entrepreneur, I started dreaming about a cast iron pan that was designed for baking bread. I knew it needed a shallow base and a deep cover. I wanted it to fit large boules and bâtards, along with two demi-baguettes or rolls. Most of all, it had to have well designed handles so that managing the pan when it’s red-hot was easy. However, I’m a tech entrepreneur, and I’d never made anything but software before.
Our wonderful Instagram community came through. I met Sara Dahmen of House Copper (@housecopper) on Instagram. She makes the best copper cookware, and one day I noticed she had a cast iron skillet on her website. This fact hit me like a lightning bolt. Sara and I started talking, and she introduced me to her product designer and the cast iron foundry that made her skillet. She became my mentor. Best of all, everyone was within 3 hours of my house. I started walking, then running, then sprinting, and then I realized creating this pan was going to be a marathon.
Baking bread with prototypes in the backyard
What was this journey like, inventing a new product for our bread baking community from scratch? What were your thoughts, doubts and hopes?
It’s been a fun, frustrating, and exhilarating journey of learning. When I started out, I was just going to make 4 pans for me and a few more for my baking friends, in order to recoup my investment.
I designed the first prototype with the help of a handful of fellow bakers. I poured 10 pans. When I received them, I realized I had no idea how to season them. I researched seasoning, and I learned that to properly season cast iron, you have to heat the pan to 600°F/315°C—hotter than my home oven would go for sure. My wife’s first thought was to visit our local barbecue store to see what they had. Luckily, they had a used pizza oven that was large enough to fit our first prototype. So, I seasoned the first 10 pans in my backyard—and I “seasoned” my arms a few times too!
I sent out 6 pans to bakers and kept 4 myself. I loved baking in them. I was ecstatic. And so were my baker friends. We all started posting about the pans on Instagram. I received a few comments, messages, and emails from other bakers inquiring about the pans. First, it was 25 pan requests, which is what I needed to break even. Lisa and I laughed about me seasoning 25 pans in our backyard, but we were excited. We were going to box them up in our kitchen and store them in our garage until we sold them.
However, the interest kept flooding in. First it was 100. Then 200… and more and more coming in. It was exciting to say the least. Lisa and I realized we had no idea how to season this many pans. I talked to an old high school friend about this because he’s a chemist and works in the aerospace industry. He said they do this sort of thing all the time, and I should find a metal treatment facility and instruct them on what process to follow. I found a seasoning facility just a couple of hours drive from where we live. Lisa and I were off to the races!
My entrepreneurial juices were flowing through my body faster than they had in years.
I was anxious to pay back this great community that had sustained me with friendship, help, and encouragement for so long. However, my test baker friends said that the pan was not perfect. What?!
Trevor J. Wilson convinced me that to have patience and get it right. Luckily, I had learned all about patience while learning to make naturally leavened bread. Trevor and I talked. And talked. And talked. He started sketching. We brought our product designer in to our discussions. We tweaked and tweaked. We reshaped the pan to better mimic a loaf of bread. We made it bigger for demi-baguettes and boules. And the handles! They were totally redesigned and relocated on the base and lid for ease of use. We were happy. It was perfect. And the messages were still coming in from bakers all over the world who wanted this pan, urgently.
Challengers vs. challenges
You are the Challengers – but what were the biggest challenges on this path from an idea to a fully developed product, we are all excited to have it in our hands now (or receiving it soon)? And how long was this development process?
We are the Challengers, and Lisa and I had to overcome so many challenges. It has taken us over 1.5 years to get here. One of our biggest challenges was how to make the pan available as easily and cheaply as possible to bakers in every country of the world. A Pan For Everyone became our motto.
The pan was gaining traction from bakers all over the world. We now had over 2,000 people who wanted to buy our pan! Lisa and I realized that this was no longer a mom-and-pop operation that we could run out of our kitchen. Our life was going to change. We had to build a real company.
I dove right in, and I tried to figure out how to scale up quickly. A friend of mine introduced me to a supply chain expert, Kevin McCarthy, who came on as a consultant and then became our first full-time employee. Kevin understood this world far better than me. Kevin negotiated rates with UPS and DHL so that we could ship everything from the US with the very best possible prices. He hired trucking companies to pick up pans from the foundry in Wisconsin, deliver them to the seasoning house in Indiana, and then deliver the seasoned and boxed pans to our fulfillment company in New York.
I was designing our website and ecommerce shopping cart. I was a techie, right? Building our website turned out to be way more difficult than I thought. I hired a fellow baker, who’s also a web developer. He worked on it for many months, but the needs of our website grew out of his hands. So we found a new company whose expertise was exactly what we needed.
Now, we are very happy with our website which makes it easy to place an order from anywhere in the world. We will continue to make www.challengerbreadware.com a resource for bakers to learn from each other. We’ll be frequently adding recipes and helpful techniques from our baker community as well as new baking products and tools.
The Challenger Bread Pan*
There are already cast iron pans on the market. What makes the Challenger Bread Pan unique? What are the most important specs of the pan?
The Challenger Bread Pan is unique in so many ways. First and foremost, it was designed by bakers for bakers. The size and shape of the pan was designed with the size and shape of the common loaves made by bakers: large bâtards andboules, and demi-baguettes too.
We created a shallow base so that it’s simple to load your dough into it. There’s no need for parchment paper, and no risk of burning your hands and arms. We created a tight seal between the base and the lid, trapping all that wonderful steam needed to make the perfect loaf. We designed the lid so that even a 2 kg loaf couldn’t bloom and hit the top of the lid. Finally, we designed outstanding handles, placed strategically, so that the hot lid could be easily managed with thick oven mitts throughout the baking process.
Where do you see the major advantage of baking bread in the Challenger Bread Pan in comparison to baking on an oven stone?
You can make good bread on an oven stone, but you can’t make great bread on an oven stone. Except for professional deck ovens, most ovens are designed to vent steam. It’s a constant battle between baker and oven. The baker keeps trying to find ways to get enough steam in the oven for the bread to bake properly, and the oven is desperately trying to get rid of all the steam. I baked this way for years. I had one pan in the bottom of my oven that had water and lava rocks to create steam slowly, and I had another pan filled with water containing a towel to add more steam slowly into the oven.
I can honestly say that my bread improved dramatically from the first bake in the first prototype of our pan. Our pan traps steam perfectly to help you bake the perfect loaf. You have to remember that Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery tried everything and said that a covered cast iron pan is by far the best way to bake bread in a home oven. Then, Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya created the scientific tome called Modernist Bread. They tried everything imaginable to bake great bread in a home oven. Their conclusion? A covered black cast iron pan that traps steam perfectly: this is the Challenger Bread Pan.
What about you? What is your background?
From an education standpoint, I’m a computer programmer, a techie nerd. I started a computer software company in the 1980s with $100. That’s what it cost me to drive a few hours to Springfield Illinois where I could incorporate my company without having to hire an expensive lawyer.
Companies were just starting to build products that had computers in them: an automatic pinsetter for bowling, medical instruments, and the defense and aerospace industries. My company made software to enable these industries to write and test computer programs that were running within their products, not on PCs. We were the first company to create a visual environment for these corporations to make their jobs easier. Then the industry exploded when everyone started building products that had computers in them: the Palm Pilot, antilock brakes and airbags, and a growing array of consumer products.
We were still really a niche in the technology industry until Microsoft turned its eye on us and created a version of Windows called Windows CE (Consumer Electronics). We had to stop Microsoft. I merged my company with a public software company in Silicon Valley and became their Chief Technology Officer. In order to keep Microsoft from taking over our industry, this company almost immediately merged with another public software company. After the second merger, they wanted me to move my family to California. I declined, and became a dad. I never found anything else to ignite my passion. Until now. I haven’t been this energized since the early days of my software company.
Passion and love for bread
Following your IG account clearly shows your love for baking bread. What makes you so passionate about it?
It’s funny really. For many years, I turned my need for passion in my life into cooking for my kids and their friends. Cooking is very loose. Baking is very scientific. I’m really more of a scientist, so baking suits me better. I’d tried several times to learn how to bake bread in my life. Frustrated, I always stopped without really learning how to do it well. If I do something, I always want to do it well.
One day in August 2016, I confided in Lisa and said, “I’m going to try and learn to bake bread once again. I’m giving it 3 years without quitting. If I’m not having fun in 3 years, then I’ll allow myself to quit.” It’s 3 years right now as I’m talking to you, and I love it. I love eating bread. I love the science behind making it. I love the challenge of learning nuance after nuance after nuance. I really love every single step to making a good loaf of naturally leavened bread. I also discovered that I could bake bread to give away in my community. This is how it’s been done for thousands of years. Community bakers have sustained their communities through baking. I’ve always loved the idea of communities, and I love bringing my own community together with bread—and now, my worldwide community with Challenger Breadware.
How do you feel and see the growing community of home bakers?
I absolutely love the growing community of home bread bakers. I’ve made so many friends on Instagram all over the world because we all share the same passion. Plus, I have to say that bakers are without a doubt the kindest community I have ever been involved in. As I said before, I started designing the pan in order to give back to the wonderful world of bakers who’ve been so nice and so kind and so helpful to me.
Lisa and I just moved into a new home which is actually a small farm. We will soon start giving classes on how to make bread and pizza, and we will start making more and more loaves for people in our community. In addition, we are donating 10% of our profits to No Kid Hungry.
Challenger Breadware: what is the idea behind it? Is it the pan or may we expect even more “breadtastic” tools from your team?
Challenger Breadware started out as a pan. It was a way for me to go from software to breadware. It’s become and will continue to become so much more. We started distributing excellent spiral dough mixers from Italy. We’re designing new products for bakers—a new product will be launching soon! We will continue to design and partner with the best companies and artisans who make products specifically for baking bread. Also, we’ll expand the breadth of our offerings to complement home-baked bread; this will include products for serving and entertaining both adults and kids, all interacting and eating together.
Do you have any special hints or recommendation for #brotokoll readers whenever baking with the Challenger Bread Pan?
My hints are simple really:
- Love each step of the process and pour your love into each and every loaf.
- Remember patience, persistence, perseverance, and practice.
- Enjoy eating each and every loaf.
- Share your loaves of bread with others
- Help people understand the value of eating delicious and nutritious bread for every meal. A revolution starts one person at a time. In fact, Lisa and I are very proud to support No Kid Hungry by donating 10% of our profits to this fantastic organization. Anyone buying a pan can feel really good that part of their purchase is helping children in need.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thank you is all I’d like to add, Alex. Thank you for asking me to talk with you and your readers. Thank you for being a friend. A goal of mine is to bake with you one day in Austria or in the US, or both!
Thank you Jim for your time, this interview and most of all for your friendship – we”ll manage to have a baking session together very soon. Take care – I wish you, Lisa and your whole team all the best for the next steps of Challenger Breadware and Blue Moon Farms.
A weight of 9 kilograms, a length of 39.2 cm, a width of 26.0 cm and a height of 13.6 cm – sounds like the announcement of a WBO boxing fighter? No, these are the specs of my new sparring partner in the “oven-ring”. I was very proud and honored to get the chance to test the Challenger Bread Pan* before it’s launch – at home and in the #brotokoll workshops.
A great design, multiple and strategically positioned handles and size dimensions that make the pan even suitable for 2kg bread loaves. This was my first impression.
But what about baking? How is the performance? Does this pan optimize oven spring? What about crust and crumb?
I have to mention at this point that this is an unsponsored post – have a look at my recent bakes with the Challenger Bread Pan. Breads, ciabattas, breadrolls…The results speak for themselves…
Challenge your bread
…and bake like a pro. HERE* is the direct way to Challenger Breadware for all of you who can’t wait to get our hands on the pan…and the pan into your ovens. On #brotokoll I’ ll continue keeping you posted about hints and recommendations for using the Challenger Bread Pan* in existing and upcoming recipes. A brandnew recipe (featuring the Challenger Bread Pan*) will be coming for you in just a few days – stay tuned!
I have to mention at this point that this is an unsponsored blog post – however, as for transparency reasons I inform you that the * marked links are affiliate ones. The final sales price for you doesn’t change in any way!
Just a completely fabulous interview! As you both know I too love my challenger and hope I get to bake with you both one day too! Here- there and everywhere!
Blessings and congrats my friends!
Thank you so much Patrice for your kind words! I am very looking forward to that day! Cheers, Alex