Artisan bread bakers and pizza makers who specialize in artisan pies are branching out into other product categories, such as sourdough bagels. 

Peter Reinhart, a James Beard award-winning baker who is an instructor at Johnson & Wales University, called it a natural progression and a good way for bakers to extend their business and make better use of their facilities.

“If you’re making pizza or artisan bread, bagels are just another variation of that theme,” he explained. “Bagel dough isn’t all that different from pizza dough. The process is different. It’s a very low-cost product to make.”

More examples of this are popping up around the country. The popularity of bagels rises and falls, Mr. Reinhart said, but they are on the upswing now because the influencers are doing it, and the numbers support it.

“There’s this bagel shop in Philadelphia called Korshak Bagels,” he said. “Phil Korshak is the owner, and he’s a former pizza guy. He had this dream to do an artisan-style bagel. It’s a partial sourdough, a sourdough with a little yeast. From Day One, the lines have been around the block. He’s selling out by noon.”

Mr. Reinhart is also seeing more enriched breads at bakeries.

“Babka is the one that seems to have some cachet,” he said. “It’s always been a steady item for certain bakeries, but it hasn’t been something that’s popped up on trends. But now we’re starting to see it at more and more bakeries. If you look at their product line, babka is one of the things you see them adding. I think Instagram has played a role in all that because breads that are photogenic help to push the envelope.”

Making sweet breads with a sourdough starter may sound counterintuitive, but some starters are not as acidic as others.

“The Europeans have been making sourdough — they don’t call it that; they may call it levain — but they’ve been using sourdough starters for centuries and have learned how to do it so the breads aren’t sour,” Mr. Reinhart said. “They culture their starters, so they don’t develop a lot of acidic sour notes, but they still have tang, and they have complexity.”

He’s even seen some bakers who have been using yeast for a long time trying to transition into sourdoughs, with some using the mix method, employing both a starter and yeast.

“That’s happening in the pizza world and the bagel world and the bread world, and that’s very European, too,” Mr. Reinhart said. “They use a combination of sourdough starter and commercial yeast so that you can shorten the fermentation time and get a more reliable timing on your product. And at the same time, it reduces the amount of sour, but it’s still technically a naturally leavened bread with the addition of what we call a yeast spike.”

Regardless of whether bakers are making artisan bread, pizza or bagels, the use of sourdough is experiencing an upward trajectory. 

“Sourdough is here to stay, and it’s going to grow because the customers want it, especially in the artisan community,” Mr. Reinhart said. “Sourdough is the new shibboleth of being in the artisan game, just like working with whole grains and ancient grains.”

Artisan bakers not only take pride in baking some of the tastiest clean label breads in the world, but they are also embracing sustainability practices.

“That’s a differentiator for us,” said John Friend, president of Farm to Market Bread Co., Kansas City, Kan. “That’s how we compete: on quality and the ability to offer that clean label product. It definitely helps us on the retail side as we continue to try to break into those bigger retailers.”

Guy Frenkel, founder of Ceor bakery in Los Angeles, who is known for pushing the envelope with his award-winning breads, works with upcycled ingredients, such as using garlic peels that are fermented for a few weeks and used for a focaccia topping.

“In our heirloom country loaf, we use spent grains from breweries,” he said, adding that they dry and mill them in house. “We run it through the mill, and it makes the most fragrant, gorgeous, delicious flour.”

Artisan bakeries build their reputations around producing the highest quality breads and baked foods, which comes from consistency, quality and creativity. Mr. Frenkel draws inspiration from a wide variety of sources for both the flavors and shapes of his breads. For instance, he is interested in traditional Chinese medicine, which prompted him to study and explore the subject, finding out the best ways to implement ingredients used in it in a functional way in bread.   

“It doesn’t even need to be culinary to inspire me. It can be pottery,” Mr. Frenkel said. “So many things end up being a part of the story of our breads that we take inspiration from. Sometimes it’s ingredients, and other times it might be a geometric shape, and I think, ‘That would look amazing as a bread.’ ”

Jon Davis, culinary innovation leader and vice president of R&D at Aspire Bakeries, said he and his team are constantly testing things and trying to stay as nimble as possible. Supply chain challenges have prompted the company to take a good look at operations to ensure they are running as efficiently as possible and producing the SKUs that are most vital to customers and consumers.

“We’re looking internally a lot and re-evaluating how we do things, why we do things,” he said. “It’s really healthy to do that because you can’t just set it and forget it. You have to continually evolve. There’s new competition out there, there’s new ingredients, there’s new machinery, there’s all of these things we need to continually look at that have very long lead times that we need to start testing and evaluating. And that’s what we’re doing. We’re looking at what we do and how we do it and how we can be better.”

Artisan bakers have so many ingredients and formats they can explore, and those who can respond to market challenges while staying true to their vision can find success.

This article is an excerpt from the March 2023 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Artisan Bread, click here.