Burnt bakery, fermentation and the sourdough-led bread boom

With bread sales on the rise, Food Spark discusses burnt trends, sourdough innovation and today’s experience-hungry consumer with Puratos UK’s Kurt Van Vlasselaer

27 February 2020
bakerybreadfermentedgut healthnutritionprovenance

Last week, Waitrose released a set of eye-opening bread sales stats, revealing that consumer purchasing habits with old school carbohydrates are very much on the rise.

According to the supermarket, online searches for sourdough increased by 65% in January (compared to the same time last year), with sales of the bread rising by over 30% over the last three years.

Sales of speciality loaves, including those made with linseed, mixed grains and seeds, are up 22% over the last three months, searches for white loaves are up 20% and unsliced loaf searches have increased by a remarkable 450% compared last year.

Even the classic sliced loaf is benefitting from the boom, with a 14% increase in Waitrose customer searches.

“Our customers are re-discovering the beauty of bread, but are looking for great quality, traditional and speciality loaves in particular,” said Zoe Simons, senior innovation chef at Waitrose & Partners. “Burnt bread is certainly something we’re seeing a trend for, going hand in hand with the increase in popularity for sourdough.”

Waitrose’s stats and stance are in stark contrast to Tesco’s recent move away from traditional loaves, with the country’s leading supermarket to do away with scratch-baking in 58 of their outlets from May, citing “a big shift” in consumer preferences towards wraps, bagels and flatbreads.

Science and sourdough

To get something of a third opinion (and to find out more about burnt bread bakery), Food Spark sat down with Kurt Van Vlasselaer, bakery NPD manager at Puratos UK, while also discussing the regionalisation of bread trends and fermentation innovation with sourdough.

Van Vlasselaer says consumer trends in health and wellbeing has had a real impact on the sourdough market, with the fermented bread ticking multiple other trend boxes from the use of simple ingredients to manufacturing using natural processes.

“People are talking much more about health nowadays, and about fermented foods, with kefir, kombucha and sourdough now really entering the mainstream,” says Van Vlasselaer. “Consumers are also interested in where the food comes from - the origins, the history and the theatre of it all – and sourdough fits perfectly here.”

Fermentation is a really hot topic across the food industry today with NPD teams from Marks & Spencer to KFC more than keeping an eye on the emerging possibilities with the potential new flavours and on-trend gut health properties.

Puratos UK are very much a presence in this field and are researching the still highly experimental fermentation arena at their NPD/innovation centre in Oxfordshire. As part of an ongoing project, they're investigating sourdough flavour profiles made with hyper-local ingredients.

“We’ve created over 20 unique sourdough starters using local ingredients such as flour, wine sediments and honey, and have performed DNA analysis to map the lactic acid bacteria and the wild yeast that naturally occur, with detail like this helping the customer get the best experience.

“We’ve also tested finished products too to see what impact different hydration, storage, temperature and fermentation times have on them. We’re learning through experience, all to understand what happens so we can share with the customer.”

Challenges with the unknown

Puratos host the only world heritage sourdough library (found in Belgium) which has sourdoughs from all the world. But, as Van Vlasselaer says, there is still so much to learn.

There are no rules with sourdough, there is a lot of unknown,” Van Vlasselaer continues.

“With even one sourdough starter, you can produce many different products. Even if you make the same loaf, you can change the taste dramatically with different fermentation times and temperatures.

“You can change from lactic and sweet to very acidic, for example, just by changing the refinement. It’s a fascinating world and you learn something new every day. It’s unbelievable what you can do.”

Working with sourdough has its challenges, however, with government health directives also something of a hurdle in general bakery. According to Van Vlasselaer, mass production can be difficult as sourdough is a sensitive and live product.

“Healthy is huge with consumers but there are salt, sugar and fat regulations from the government and incorporating these without impacting taste is a big challenge,” he adds.

Burnt regions and the ‘eyeliner’

On the topic of burnt bread baking, Van Vlasselaer says Puratos are aware of the trend but that they see it is a very regional concept, with there being no evidence that it is to become a wider, long-term trend.

“As far as I’m aware, burnt bread is popular in the north of the UK – it’s very regional thing,” he explains. “You’ll find it mostly in Glasgow. Consumers there like a long-baked bread, with a burnt crust, and the reason why they like it is that it’s crunchy and more bitter.

“Burnt bread rolls, for example, are crushed with the filling in, which is a bit of a generational thing I believe.”

While not burnt, you often have a dark crust with sourdough, explains Van Vlasselaer, with the ‘eyeliner’ a very visual, artisanal addition.

“Sourdough is most often baked in a very hot oven (around 250 degrees) because you want to activate the sourdough and the direct heat gives you a nice texture,” says Van Vlasselaer.

“When you bake in a high temperature, you get a nice dark crust, but not a burnt crust. In the artisan world, they cut the bread with a very fine knife so that the crust jumps open during baking and you have a nice burst down the centre.

“We call it the ‘eyeliner’ because, with a nice open crust, the sides have a black edge.”

The hands-on consumer

Going into 2020, Van Vlasselaer says that Puratos UK’s three main bread focus areas are taste, freshness and health, with the impressive sales of unsliced loaves potentially down to today’s consumer wanting a more hands-on experience, with white bread still a recognisable convenience.

“When you don’t slice bread, it looks more artisan,” he says. “And some customers want more of an experience - to slice it, to smell it, and to have the final judgement on how thick or how thin they want their bread.”

“I’m a sourdough bread nerd, but if I want to eat Nutella or Jam, a cheaper white loaf is what I might still go for. It’s convenience and what we’re used to, and white sliced bread is just that.”

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