Love Sourdough? Find the Best There Is at These Five Bake Shops
We dove into the local artisan bread scene to find the best places that bake naturally leavened bread in Pittsburgh.
Fermentation creates complex products from simple materials — sauerkraut from cabbage, cheese from milk, wine from grapes. One fermented food product that is on the rise is sourdough bread.
Most modern breads use commercial yeast, which comes to consumers as granules, often in packets or jars, and is mixed with flour, water and sugar to form a dough which can rise and be baked in a single afternoon. Sourdough bread is naturally leavened using a starter culture. A starter is made using a mix of flour and water, which is then allowed to sit out for a few days. It becomes inoculated with wild yeasts and bacteria from the surrounding environment, which takes well over a day, sometimes several.
The quick, commercial-yeast method made mass-production of bread convenient during the Industrial Revolution. Factories fed millions, and still do — with soft, uniform loaves sold at the grocery store in colorful plastic bags. However, the artisan movement has sparked the renewed popularization of naturally leavened breads. Consumers are drawn to small bakeries close to home, offering fresh, crusty loaves. Their flavor is complex and alluring, with a subtle tang. These breads are made slowly, typically by a handful of people as part of a small operation.
The artisan bread scene is still fairly small in Pittsburgh, but, increasingly, operations practicing these techniques can be found throughout the city. As demand grows, so does the city’s capacity for artisan bakeries, which distribute to restaurants for sandwiches and other offerings as well as Whole Foods, other grocery stores, farmers markets and even coffee shops.
ALLEGRO HEARTH BAKERY
Omar Abuhejleh opened Allegro Hearth Bakery in Squirrel Hill in 2004. A well-lit pastry case full of pies, muffins and other sweet bites greets guests as they walk into the inviting storefront. The wall behind the counter is outfitted with an array of shelves, displaying fresh loaves of bread. To the left, partially visible to customers, sits the expansive commercial workspace, where a crew of bakers prepares goods not only for foot traffic but for several dozen businesses throughout Pittsburgh.
Allegro Hearth typically offers more than two dozen types of bread. It has loaves large and small; swirled with sweet cinnamon and peppered with briny, pungent olives; light and airy or dense with thick, crackling crusts. Nearly all, along with the basic elements of flour, water and salt, are created with the use of one live sourdough starter.
Abuhejleh inherited this starter from Café Allegro, which previously occupied the Murray Avenue space. His understanding is that it originated in France and was brought to Philadelphia before making its way to Pittsburgh.
The starter sits in a round tank, much too large to wrap my arms around. It is securely covered with heavy plastic and topped with a lid. Removing these reveals a warm, bubbling organism, smelling of tangy acetic acid and sweet fermenting grain. Daily, the starter is fed 50 pounds each of water and flour. A tap at the bottom of the tank allows the mixture to be released for its extensive use.
A selection of Allegro Hearth’s offerings are leavened exclusively by this starter: its raisin walnut, multigrain, Kalamata olive, whole-wheat and left-coast sourdoughs, traditional and seedless ryes and signature levain. The rest of their breads, with a few exceptions, use a combination of starter and baker’s yeast. The starter-only loaves are crafted using a 36-hour process. In the early afternoon, the dough is mixed, and late that evening, shaped. The loaves are then retarded for nearly 24 hours in a walk-in cooler — this slowed fermentation process allows flavors to develop. Prior to baking, the loaves are proofed in a warm, humidity-controlled chamber, then finished in steam-injected stone ovens.
2034 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill; 412/422-5623, allegrohearth.com
Photo by Nico Shinco
To the casual eye, Driftwood Oven in Lawrenceville might appear to be a pizza shop. After all, the mobile-oven-turned-restaurant is celebrated for its pizza — crisp and light, topped with hand-pulled mozzarella, seasonal vegetables and local meats. At its core, however, lies sourdough bread.
Co-owner Neil Blazin ventured into sourdough bread baking at home about six years ago while working at Legume in North Oakland. In 2015, a few years after his sourdough experiments began, Blazin left Legume with co-worker Justin Vetter to launch Driftwood Oven.
When Driftwood Oven was mobile, Blazin sometimes offered loaves for sale along with pizza at their weekly spots. The bread was more consistently distributed at establishments such as Staghorn Garden Café in Greenfield and through a subscription program.
“I fell in love with sourdough baking because it reveals something new every day,” Blazin says. The original sourdough starter from his kitchen is still the one he uses. At about 400 grams, it’s small, fed each morning and evening. It’s used for all of the pizza dough, which undergoes a 48-hour fermentation process, as well as the bread dough, which get an overnight cold fermentation.
He seeks to produce bread that is nutritious — not just for people, but for the community and the environment. Sourdough bread, due to the fermentation process, is often lauded as easily digestible and nutrient-dense. At Driftwood Oven, Blazin uses 100-percent organic flour — local grains, minimally processed. The combination of carefully sourced ingredients and a traditional baking method form a product that meets his criteria.
Driftwood Oven currently offers a basic whole-wheat sourdough. It can be found scattered throughout the ever-changing menu: toasted, on the side of seasonal soups and salads; stacked into sandwiches with hefty fillings; topped, open-faced and served as an appetizer; or purchased as a full loaf to take home. Initially, it was difficult to keep up with the demand for the bread, but now that the business has settled into its Butler Street location, it should be more readily available for purchase.
Driftwood Oven also recently launched a subscription-based bread share. This six-week program will serve as a launching point for a variety of sourdough breads — loaves using rye, oat porridge, polenta and seeds.
3615 Butler St., Lawrenceville; 412/251-0253, driftwoodoven.com
FIVE POINTS ARTISAN BAKESHOP
I asked Geof Comings, baker and owner of Five Points Artisan Bakeshop, a simple question — why sourdough? To this, he gave me an equally simple answer — it tastes the best. The crust is thick, the interior open. Producing this excellent product, however, is not easy.
“Sourdough,” Comings states, “is the hardest thing to do in the entire planet.”
He envisions baking sourdough as a lifelong project. He compares it to mastering music, noting that it’s both an art and a science. Sourdough is highly variable, affected by humidity, the seasons, weather and so on. Bakers must be able to adjust to these variables if they ever hope to produce a consistent product. “I’m a glutton for punishment,” admitted Comings, who clearly enjoys the constant mental challenge.
Still, he is quick to assure me that the process is anything but romantic. “Being a baker is like being married for 30 years. The thrill is gone.” The home baker, meanwhile, enchanted by the fragrant, plump loaves they’ve just pulled from the oven, is essentially on their first date.
He spoke flippantly about his starter. “I’ve killed a few, borrowed some.” To Comings, the most notable aspect of sourdough starters is how quickly even the oldest, most heritaged starter will become one with a new environment. “Within a week, the starter transforms. Yeast is so local it will triumph over 2,000 years of history.” A starter brought to Pittsburgh from San Francisco, for example, will quickly take on the wild yeasts present in the Pennsylvania microbiome and lose its Californian bacteria.
Five Points typically offers an extensive selection of sourdough loaves. On their website, they list seven: Dark Rye, Multigrain, Olive, Plain, Sunflower Flaxseed, Walnut Raisin and Whole Wheat. The bread is crafted using an approximately 36-hour process, which ends with a 5 a.m. bake.
Comings opened Five Points almost four years ago, and says: “I didn’t want to be an angry old man who wanted to open a bakery and never did.”
6520 Wilkins Ave., Squirrel Hill; 412/521-2253, fivepointsartisanbakeshop.com
MADELEINE BAKERY & BISTRO
Take a look at Andrew Stump’s hands and you’ll know he’s serious about the work that he does. They are thin, wiry, and precise — a reflection of the intense focus he applies to his craft as co-owner and baker at Madeleine Bakery & Bistro in Wilkinsburg.
A neighborhood bakery, Madeleine is becoming known for its delicate pastries — several varieties of flaky croissants, intricate seasonal danishes, ever-fussy canelés and macarons, to name a few. All reflect the careful attention and perfectionism Stump practices.
In addition to these high-maintenance sweets, Madeleine Bakery & Bistro typically offers three kinds of naturally leavened sourdough bread: olive and herb, utility and multigrain. According to Stump, “We chose to offer sourdough because I really appreciate the tradition and technique involved in making good sourdough. There’s nothing to hide behind. It's just flour, water and salt.”
The loaves are small, thick-crusted and rustic. They can be purchased to take home and are also used in a small selection of café sandwiches — croque monsieurs are a classic offering.
Madeleine’s starter was made a month prior to its opening late last year, and it’s used in both the sourdough loaves and baguettes. The sourdough is crafted through a three-day process. On day one, flour and water is inoculated with the starter and left to ferment overnight. On day two, the dough is mixed, allowed to ferment, then shaped and retarded in the fridge. Loaves are baked on the third day. They sit stacked on a high shelf behind the shop counter, adding to the decor. Those who walk in and become immediately entranced by the fragrant waist-level pastry case up front might even miss them. As many locals could confirm, that would be a mistake.
609 S. Trenton Ave., Wilkinsburg; 412/371-1010, madeleinepgh.com
Nick Ambeliotis, a former importer and distributor of gourmet foods, established Mediterra Bakehouse in 2002. What started as a small operation grew rapidly into a large production that distributed widely at establishments large and small, including many regional Whole Foods locations. Along with the original, expanded Robinson Township facility, the Mediterra Bakehouse company has also added a production facility in Phoenix. At home, it has become quite the family affair, with numerous members of the Ambeliotis family involved.
Despite the dramatic increase in size, Mediterra Bakehouse remains faithful to time-honored techniques. Bakers focus on traditional methods: their breads use simple ingredients, many going through a slow fermentation before the loaves are hand-formed and finished in brick ovens. It’s uncommon for an establishment that produces on such a large scale to adhere to these methods, but for one as steeped in heritage as Mediterra, it’s fundamental to their operation.
Their starter is decades old, acquired from a bakery in Paris. According to Nick’s son, Niko, who is now head baker, the age lends itself to a particularly consistent and flavorful product. In French tradition, it’s a stiff levain starter — a dense mixture that must be incorporated through kneading. “Stiff levain takes longer to rise and has a more earthy, deep aroma and taste to it, while the liquid levain is quicker and has a more acidic sour taste,” Niko says. Many bakers use a liquid levain.
Many of Mediterra’s loaves use this starter. There are wide variety of breads, both classic and specialty: the signature Mt. Athos Fire Bread, farm bread, chocolate cherry and jalapeño cheddar, to name a few. Find Mediterra products at their small retail outlet in the Robinson Bakehouse; the recently opened Mediterra Café in Sewickley; Whole Foods; farmer’s markets and at various establishments throughout the city.
801 Parkway View Drive #8, Robinson Township; 412/490-9130, mediterrabakehouse.com