Maintaining the artisan-quality
of sourdough bread
on a wholesale level
depends on the
ingredients as well
as the production
While early settlers were unfamiliar with the term artisan bread, they were more than familiar with sourdough, a staple on the frontier. The product was so common that prospectors rushing to the Alaskan Klondike gold fields were called ‘sourdoughs.’
A century ago, in 1910, 95 percent of bread in the U.S. was still made at home. As equipment manufacturers, ingredient suppliers and bakeries perfected mass production, this figure reversed itself, and by the 1960s, commercial bakeries supplied 95 percent of the bread eaten by U.S. consumers. Sourdough almost disappeared from the American scene, but small pockets of the country, most notably San Francisco, kept this artisan bread alive.
Traditional artisan bakers still create each loaf by hand. But how do bakers reproduce the sourdough bread experience in a wholesale bakery with a large-scale production process?
Beyond a simple matter of ingredients, creating artisan-style bread depends on the equipment used, including mixers, dough dividers/handlers and ovens.
Artisan breads often are mixed in either spiral or oblique-axis mixers built solely to mix bread dough. These mixers employ rotating bowls, rather than the stationary bowls found in vertical mixers used for American pan bread.
Typical pan bread production involves a mechanical dough handling process for kneading, shaping and cutting that is too rough for lower-strength, higher-hydration artisan dough. To achieve high-quality hearth bread, bakers use newer style dough dividers for varied bread production that handle higher-hydration dough gently.
Artisan breads usually bake in deck ovens, with refractory bricking, which absorbs and reflects heat. In large-scale production facilities, sourdough pan bread is fed in a continuous stream on a conveyor belt through a tunnel oven with convection heat. According to Michel Suas, owner and president of TMB Baking, San Francisco, Calif., many tunnel ovens use a mesh conveyor that is “porous and pulls the moisture out from the bottom of the loaf. If you don't have a good bottom bake, the top will either be crusty and the bottom soft, or the bottom will pull up into a ‘dome shape.’” Tunnel ovens are designed with either stone or marble plates, 4 in. or 5 in. wide, to provide better heat transfer for the bottom of a loaf than a mesh conveyor. This style works best for those bakers who are set up for a continuous bake production, yet wish to conserve the traditional sourdough bread shape and texture.
According to “the Dough Doctor” Tom Lehmann, director, bakery assistance, AIB International, Manhattan, Kan., while sourdough production is possible in a tunnel oven with a standard conveyor, the process does create variances in the bread. “You lose that thick, crunchy crust characteristic.”
Traditional sourdough uses the action of lactobacillus — yeast from sourdough — or starters that either are active or can be reactivated. With the addition of grain products (flours) and water, they are capable of continuous acid generation.
It actually is the method of production that defines true sourdough — it doesn't have to taste “sour” at all. Bakers can control the flavor, finding a unique balance between sweet and sour. The process of discovering and identifying sourdough cultures is far from over, and each culture house offers its own blend or selection of strains.
Bakers also can create their own sourdough, called levain. This is a seven-day process of first capturing the wild yeast, breeding and then feeding and concentrating the yeast, notes Werner Simon, global bakery consultant for Caravan Ingredients, Totowa, N.J. All yeast cells and bacteria from the starter must be kept in a dark place to ferment in a controlled manner.
The problem with this process, notes Lehmann, is that the baker has no idea what sort of flavor is going to develop. “A native or wild culture could bake up good or bad. If it is good, you're home free, but if not, then all the equipment has to be sanitized and you start all over again. When you buy a culture, someone has already done the work for you, and you get a clean culture without background bacteria and one with a proven track record.”
An experienced baker working on his own or with a small team, instinctively knows the breads' phases and the stages between leavens. However, as bakeries expand, the struggle exists to maintain artisan bread quality with a growing work force and increased production demands.
Steve Sullivan, president and co-founder of The Acme Bread Co., Berkley, Calif., says the challenge for his bakery, which now employs 200 workers, was to replace instinct with a systematic process, without automating. He still uses deck ovens and every loaf is formed by hand. “We needed to train all of the employees to rigorously follow a checklist of procedures to maintain our consistency and bread quality.”
Lehmann agrees. “A worker might think five minutes here or there, what difference does it make? But it does make a difference when working with a cultured product because if you keep all other factors the same — like temperature and pH — time becomes pretty predictable. There should be only one minute plus or minus variation in the production process.”
Typically, pan-style sourdough breads use inactive cultures conditioned in such a way that they act as a flavoring material. “They don't require the leavening and sponge, but rather mixed with yeast, supply the anticipated sourdough flavor,” Lehmann says.
Puratos Corp. U.S.A., offers a line of ingredients bakers add to pan-style bread, says Christophe Dewilde, business development manager, flavors, for the Cherry Hill, N.J.-based company. Sapore is a range of natural, ready-to-use sourdoughs that can be used in a no-time dough process. This range of ingredients is versatile, and can be added to multiple forms of baked products, from crusty artisan breads to croissants, as well as in low moisture, high temperature baked items.
For ease of selection, Puratos has narrowed the broad field of possible sourdough flavors to focus on seven different varieties that specifically cater to the needs of the U.S. market. The top two flavors are Fidelio and Panarome, the most popular variants because they originated in the United States.
While it might be true that certain sourdough flavor profiles best suit the American marketplace, room exists for innovation and unique flavor profiles to broaden the palate. Both small artisan bakeries and larger corporations send representatives overseas to visit and experience European sourdoughs.
For the artisan baker without the time or equipment to make a sour, Caravan Ingredients offers Slipper Deluxe 5 and True Artisan 10, products with a clean label that require the addition of only flour, yeast and water to make sourdough.
Simon and a fellow company representative continue to comb bakeries, searching for European inspired bread flavors that could help U.S. bakers build a premium world bread program.
Pan-style sourdough bread appears to lend itself best to nationally distributed prepared foods because of its sliceability, uniformity of shape, texture and flavor. The popularity of sourdough bread extends even to the freezer case, where consumers can enjoy sourdough flavor in products, such as Lean Cuisine® Southwest Style Chicken Panini from Nestle USA.
Packaging is an important factor in maintaining the quality and proper texture of frozen prepared foods that consumers heat in the microwave. A microwaveable product often uses a susceptor board, or a specially modified paperboard container that absorbs microwave energy and changes it to radiant heat. The product consequently cooks at 500°F, “and that is what bakes and browns the bread portion of a frozen entrée,” Lehmann says.
Only one real deciding factor determines whether a hand-formed artisan loaf or pan-style sourdough is better. Steve Sullivan of Acme Bread Co. puts it best: “Let people judge for themselves.”