KANSAS CITY, MO. - Interest in sourdough has been on the rise for years.

The coronavirus pushed it into overdrive, with people stuck at home turning to home baking in record numbers.

People turned to sourdough not only out of curiosity, but because, in many parts of the world, yeast was hard to find. The wife of Karl De Smedt, communication and training manager for Belgium-based Puratos, whose US headquarters are in Pennsauken, N.J.  came home with tales of their local supermarket in Belgium only allowing one package of yeast per customer.

When people start going back to work in larger numbers, they won’t have all that extra time to learn how to bake sourdoughs, but De Smedt believes that the interest kindled during quarantine will carry over to demand for sourdough in the bakeries and grocery stores people shop in.

The number of web searches for sourdough starter is up “1,000% or something” since the onset of the pandemic, said Melina Kelson, chief fermentation officer for Skokie, Ill.-based Bootleg Batard and a board member of the Bread Bakers Guild of America.

COVID has just accelerated what had already been going on for some time, Kelson said: a sourdough renaissance.

“A lot of my customers are asking for sourdough starter,” she said. “Then they come back with lots and lots of questions.”

Answering those questions, and providing education about sourdough in general, is crucial to overcoming misconceptions about the bread, Kelson said.

“People don’t understand the process. They feel like it should be cheap because flour isn’t very costly. They don’t understand the skill, time and equipment that goes into artisan sourdough loaves.”

Even when they become educated about sourdough, however, people still love the mystery that surrounds it, Kelson said. And the health benefits don’t hurt, either.

“Sourdough unlocks micronutrients that make it way more digestible,” she said.

Scaling challenges — and opportunities

The challenge to scaling sourdough lies in the variety’s complexity.

“For all its simplicity, sourdough is a most complicated thing,” De Smedt said. “It’s a living thing. Bakers can make yeast breads well. But sourdough can change from one day to the next.”

The makers of wines, cheeses and beers are masters. The same is true, De Smedt said, of sourdough bakers. The difference? A master winemaker only has to do his or her job once a year. A master sourdough baker, by contrast, works at their craft day in and day out.

Kelson agreed that mass-producing sourdough faces many challenges. Take space, for example.

“If you’re retarding doughs, you need to have room to have all the breads in the retarder room,” she said. “It takes real estate — and electricity. That’s a challenge.”

Obviously, not every bakery or grocery instore bakery can afford to have a team of master sourdough bakers on staff. But companies like Puratos help train bakers in the art, and volumes will increase at all levels, including grocery instore, De Smedt said.

For many, that investment will be worth the effort, given the increased exposure and demand for sourdough during quarantine, Kelson said.

“There is so much diversity of flavor, depending on how you’re managing it. With different flours, hydration, there’s incredible versatility. It makes it really easy to create a signature item.”

Chicory, a New York-based tech firm, found people searching the internet for instructions on making a sourdough starter hit 140,542 views in the week ended April 4, which compared to 10,349 views in a week that ended in early March. 

The home bakers may be finding out how much time and care sourdough requires. 

“For several years I taught public baking classes, and the best thing I could hear at the end of the class was, `Wow, this is a lot of work. I think I will just buy it,’” said Jonathan Eng, technical sales representative for BreadPartners, Cinnaminson, NJ. “I liked hearing this not because it gave me job security, but it showed peoples’ appreciation for how much work goes in to bread baking.” 

The education curve

It’s difficult to become good at bread-making by watching YouTube videos, Eng said. 

“It is one of those things you just have to do, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes,” he said. “As people begin returning to work and have less free time, they will look to bakeries to provide that delicious sourdough bread they got used to eating at home.” 

Sourdough sales were surging before COVID-19. Puratos US estimated as many as one in five breads sold in the United States contained sourdough ingredients. 

 “We’ve seen this trend play out across channels, customers and eating occasions,” said Michael Gleason, product manager bakery flavors and sourdough for Puratos. “With the rise of fermented foods such as kimchi and kombucha, it was only natural that sourdough would capture the attention of the American consumer. Likewise, the overall health halo and the perception of improved gut health and strengthened immunity derived from fermented foods like sourdough will fuel more sourdough bread consumption in the face of this global pandemic.”   

Bakeries making sourdough bread face obstacles in educated labor, space, consistency and time, said Rob Nordin, in southeastern sales for Brolite Products, Bartlett, Ill. 

“A true sourdough needs a long fermentation period and space to proof properly,” he said. “It takes trained personnel to care for a mother sponge properly. A solution would be find a supplier to work closely with to find the perfect flavor profile. 

“Brolite started over 90 years ago crafting naturally fermented sourdough cultures that are consistent in pH, taste, texture and appearance. By using a prepared sourdough base, a baker will be confident the product will be perfect every batch.” 

Eng said the long fermentation would present a challenge, but still be possible, for large commercial bakeries. 

“If your bakery is set up to mix and then immediately divide and shape, then you are not used to having large quantities of dough bulk fermenting for hours at a time,” he said. “The long fermentation time is not as much as a challenge as the space one needs for all of the dough.” 

 Fermentation times may vary from 16 to 48 hours, Gleason said. Puratos offers Sapore and O-tentic products based on natural fermentation techniques. 

“Within our Sapore range, we have developed stabilized ready-to-use powder and liquid sourdoughs,” he said. “We have also extended our Sapore line to include living sourdoughs which impart unique texture and a high level of flavor complexity.” 

Andrew Brimacombe, president of Puratos US, said instore bakeries at retail outlets could buy par-baked sourdough products from a baker through direct-store delivery. 

Flavor variations for sourdough bread are abundant. 

“Just because something is leavened with natural yeast does not mean that it has to be acidic and crusty,” Eng said. “For example, traditional panettone is leavened with natural yeast (sourdough) and is soft, delicate and can be sweet as candy. There is no reason why there cannot be a soft sourdough sandwich loaf in the bread aisle.”  

 Retailers may highlight that sourdough is not always sour, Gleason said. 

“A strong sour taste can be polarizing for some consumers, and retailers can spike consumer interest by showing how sourdough can develop many flavor profiles such as creamy, fruity, roasted and more” he said. “Just as consumers have preferences for different wines or cheeses, there is a sourdough bread flavor for everyone.” 

Colorful options

Color experimentation could happen as well. Terry Howell, Suntava Purple Corn ingredient expert for Healthy Food Ingredients, Fargo, ND, in a May 13 blog post spoke about how he asked the HFI ingredient team to experiment with Suntava in sourdough bread. The purple corn contains water-soluble phytonutrients called anthocyanins. 

“I have not had the opportunity try a slice of purple sourdough bread yet, but I have seen the photos which far exceeded my expectations,” he said in the blog post. “The crust of the bread is a delicious-looking brown while the interior is a natural deep purple color which is shocking when your mind is telling you a sourdough bread is brown on the outside and white on the inside.” 

Those who have tasted the bread said the purple corn extract powder did nothing to alter the flavor of the sourdough bread, Mr. Howell said. 

No matter the flavor or color, making a consistent batch time after time is a challenge for artisan bread like sourdough. 

“Dough improvers can be used in conjunction with different preferments such as biga, Polish, pate fermentee and levain/sourdough,” Eng said. “You can get the advantages of the flavor and texture from the pre ferments while ensuring consistent results with the dough improver.” 

Gleason said he often hears sourdough bakers talk about how difficult it is to make the same sourdough bread twice. 

“But part of the charm of sourdough is that each bread is unique,” Gleason said. “In fact, our Taste Tomorrow research showed that consumers are craving personalization and unique experiences, so sourdough plays very well to this trend.  

“At the ingredient level, every sourdough starter is unique and has its own subtle characteristics that can impact the bread-making process, which again gives an opportunity to be unique. In particular, we see that US consumers embrace small differences and imperfections for artisan breads as a mark of craftsmanship. Indeed, these traditions of uniqueness in bread-making have been prevalent in many markets around the world, particularly countries like France and Italy, for many years.”

This story is from the July 2020 issue of Supermarket Perimeter. To view the full magazine, click here