The Big Bread Conversation: Is Sourdough Here To Stay?
The sourdough became a pandemic favourite, but is the trend here to stay, or do we already have the next sourdough in waiting? Industry experts and chefs weigh in on the big bread conversation
When I first bought sourdough from a French bakery in Paris many moons ago, the slightly chewy and tangy texture of this airy bread with a crisp, crackly crust won me over. And last year, when journalist Vir Sanghvi wrote about sourdough picking popularity, little did I realise that it would, in fact, become the pandemic bread of choice of a primarily rice- and roti-eating nation like India, which relies heavily on soft, industrial bread.
From the shiny shelves of five-star hotels and high-end restaurant menus where it appealed to the developed palate of well-heeled locals and overseas guests, this bread has entered the ovens of home bakers and local bakery chains. Not only have sales picked up everywhere — retail outlets offering artisanal breads included — but also bakers have become confident to add new spins to sourdough.
But will it remain at the peak of its popularity or will a new bread overtake? We find out.
Home baker Sakshi Singh runs La Leurre with her mother, Vandana Singh, in Delhi, and feels a lot of people are now aware of how bread is made, and they only want the best. “Sourdough is always going to have its place right at the top because of its health benefits. For some people, it has become more of a household staple, rather than a trend. I see people leaning more towards artisanal breads than commercial breads now,” she says, adding that healthier vegan, Keto, and gluten-free breads are fast gaining momentum, and that the next bread that may demand attention are vegan ones.
For Mitali Sahani, founder and chef at Mr and Mitts Bakery, there isn’t a “next sourdough”, but sourdough is being played with, with multiple flavours and additions. Think garlic, olives, herbs, cheese, seeds, grains, and cherry tomatoes.
Sahani, too, feels that healthier breads with millet blends like ragi and jowar have caught on, and will continue to do. “We are currently trying our hand at charcoal sourdough bread, and have been doing sourdough donuts that call SoDo’s, that have got a superb response,” she says.
“Packaged breads are pumped with chemicals and preservatives, while artisanal sourdough bread uses honest ingredients (flour, water, and salt). Sourdough is a way of life, and will continue to see a rise in sales across the board,” adds Sahani.
She also believes that bread consumption has gone up as rice can get a little boring, rotis are difficult to make and don’t taste good if stored for long. “We supply to cafés and restaurants, which add a significant chunk to the sales as well, and we have a host of loyal consumers,” she adds.
At Bread and More, the Delhi-based boulangerie and patisserie of Kwality Group that has outlets in Mumbai and Goa, sourdough has been a bestseller even before the pandemic. But the brand has made a few new additions to the sourdough repertoire, like multigrain sourdough, cheese and garlic pull apart sourdough, cream and milk sourdough soft loaf, and soft loaf sandwich sourdough.
“There is enough market for everyone to enter and there is always a space for talent. It has to be specialised as people are ready to pay for the things they want and if your product is consistent,” says Mandira Lamba, creative director.
Restaurants, too, have seen a sudden boom, and chef and restaurateur Alex Sanchez says: “When we started ideating the menu at Americano, I knew I wanted to offer sourdough that’s very similar to the bread I grew up eating in San Francisco, and we’ve been baking and serving it since March 2019, when we opened. But prior to the pandemic, we had never sold whole loaves. As the pandemic hit and everything shifted to delivery and take-away, we decided to sell our loaves.”
While initially, crusty, chewy breads like sourdough were a very tough sell, he says that since then, there has been a complete turnaround, and sourdough has grown 10-fold in popularity.
According to him, the next sourdough is focaccia. “It is perhaps the most ubiquitous European style bread in India. It’s soft, completely vegetarian, and can be loaded with flavours and garnishes, making it highly versatile.”
But chef and restaurateur Tarun Sibal looks at the German Pumpernickel, his personal favourite, as the next big bread. He’s been doing sourdough at both his restaurants — Titlie in Goa and Street Storyss in Bengaluru — since their inception.
“Titlie had a menu section called Breaking Bread, where one of our fastest movers was rustic sourdough bread served with homemade spreads and butters. Currently, all my toasts and crostinis at Titlie are done with sourdough. Whereas at Street Storyss, we do sourdough pizzas and flats, and it’s quite the thing. So much so, that we had to do a separate wing for just flats and pizza,” he shares. He even gets queries for buying sourdough starter, and requests for a masterclass.
Sibal lists multigrain, rye, and focaccia as some of the other popular breads.
Siddhant Wallia, owner and founder of Nature’s Store in Mumbai, always has customers asking for bread that does not have any sugar, and is made with organic wholewheat flour. “Sales of sourdough breads at Nature’s Store have definitely picked up since the pandemic began, and now they are stable as the market size of sourdough breads has increased immensely, and a lot of amazing competitors have popped up,” he says.
Apart from sourdough, Nature’s Store has seen an increase in focaccia sales as well, as it goes well with almost every cuisine, and tastes amazing on its own as well, he observes.
However, according to Swasti Agarwal, Culinary Strategist at Foodhall, gluten-free sourdough and different millet-based sourdoughs will be the next big trend.
“Foodhall is a market leader in this segment, and we have been doing sourdough for five years,” she says. At Foodhall natural, additive-free, wholewheat, multigrain, and gluten-free breads have their respective customer base apart from sourdough.
Cut to the five-star hotel industry, which is also experiencing the bread boom. At Taj Palace, sourdough has always been one of the bakery’s most popular breads. “It is interesting to see the increasing preference for it, especially over the last couple of months. Given its excellent nutrient quotient and deliciously mellow flavour profile, it has become the go-to bread for many and this trend is expected to grow,” says master pâtissier, chef Surendra Negi.
Artisan rye bread, which is also prepared using a sourdough starter, is also popular at Taj Palace, and is prepared in small batches on request. “Focaccia will always be a bestseller and at Taj Palace, we take it notches up with the addition of black garlic and parmesan. Multigrain breads and footlong garlic breads are perennial favourites as well,” he adds.
Echoing a similar sentiment, Vikas Shrivastava, complex executive pastry chef, ITC Royal Bengal and ITC Sonar in Kolkata, says: “I believe the 100 per cent German rye bread, which is also a sourdough, is going to gain wider popularity in the coming days. Our guests also prefer wholewheat bread, farmer’s and country bread, which is baked using forgotten grains such as ragi, bajra, jowar, etc.,” he signs off.
In the breadbox
A look at seven types of breads, and what they pair best with
By Master Pâtissier, Chef Surendra Negi, Taj Palace, New Delhi
Rye bread: Smoked salmon, cream cheese, dill
Irish soda bread: Butter and conserve, stews
Ciabatta: Cheese, peppers, roast chicken, works great for sandwiches
Pumpernickel: Cream cheese, aged cheeses, mustard
Challah: Fruit, conserve, honey
Cornbread: Grilled meats and jus