New Whole Foods bakes breads from scratch

Each night at about 10 p.m., when most Pittsburghers are starting to think about packing it in for the evening, things are just heating up in the bakery department of the new Whole Foods Market in Upper St. Clair.

After slipping into her double-breasted chef’s jacket and preparing the mise an place for the night’s production, assistant team leader Jenny Rump and her staff of four will spend the next several hours mixing, shaping and baking an assortment of artisan breads for the following day.

The ingredients cannot be simpler — water, flour, salt and one of four gooey “starters” —  but the process of turning a dense mass of dough into perfectly risen, crusty loaves worthy of a cult following is anything but. Even in Ms. Rump’s capable hands it’s as much of an art as it is a science — everything from the temperature and humidity level to how well she and the other bakers score the loaves before sliding them into the oven can make a difference. 

Slash the 1½-pound raw loaves at the wrong angle (it’s harder than it looks) and the bread won’t expand properly, or look as pretty when it’s done baking.

“Bread finds a way to expand on its own,” explains Ms. Rump, who studied culinary arts at Johnson & Wales in Charleston, S.C., “so you have to herd it.”

The bakery, which opened Jan. 25, produces eight varieties from organic flour, including a nutty, seedy whole-grain wheat bread called Seeduction and spent grain batards and baguettes crafted from malt from Full Pint Brewing. It also makes all of its croissants, bagels and Danish pastries in-house.

If fresh bread makes you swoon, this is exciting stuff. Among the 467 Whole Foods scattered across North America and the United Kingdom, only a little more than two dozen make their breads in-house. The Upper St. Clair location is among them, and the only store in the Pittsburgh area with a fully scratch bakery. What that means is that every loaf of bread displayed on the bakery’s shelves is either made on-site, or hails from Mediterra Bakehouse, an artisan bakery in Robinson.

Bread starter at Whole Foods' Upper St. Clair location. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

What about the aroma of fresh-baked bread from your local grocer’s bakery section, you ask? It’s deceiving. Most grocery stores sell par-baked (semi-cooked) bread that’s been prepared at another place, then shipped to the different locations to be  “finished off” in the oven. It’s a much cheaper way for groceries to do business, calls for less dedicated staff and allows for wider distribution. The bread baked at Whole Foods, for instance, has a shelf life of one day, But because par-baked bread is flash-frozen, it can sit for months before it’s shipped to a seller.

Still, baked bread is baked bread, right? Ryan Alabaugh, Whole Foods’ associate coordinator for bakery/mid-Atlantic region, begs to differ.

“It’s all about quality,” says Mr. Alabaugh, a self-taught chef who’s been with the company for eight years. Crafted with organic and unbleached local flour, scratch breads “have a really dynamic flavor profile,” not to mention one heck of a delicious crumb.

Compared to other specialty and rustic loaves found around Pittsburgh, they’re not even all that expensive, Mr. Alabaugh adds. Priced from $1.99 to $5.99, they’re about a dollar less per loaf than the competition. 

Most varieties start by mixing the dough with a chunk of one of four “babies,” or sourdough starter, from a five-year-old recipe that made its way to the South Hills from the Whole Foods in Rocky River, Ohio. Fed once a day, there’s always about 50 pounds of the self-proofing starter in the kitchen. Bakers then “work,” or knead, the dough to build strength and develop a gluten network (which helps dough rise and maintain its shape during baking). Stretching and folding comes next, after which the bakers cut and shape the dough into loaves and then place them in a cooler to rest overnight. Come morning, a final shaping and careful scoring follows, after which the loaves are baked at between 400 to 450 degrees for up to 40 minutes and cooled. 

They follow a similar process with the store’s Jewish rye and Seeduction breads, absent a starter. 

Sweetened with honey and Barbados molasses, Seeduction is one of the bakery’s best sellers, thanks to a crunchy coating of sesame, millet, sunflower and poppy seed that makes it especially tasty for toast. Its eco-conscious spent grain loaves and knotted epis also are extremely popular. They’re made with the stuff that’s left over after Full Pint’s beer-brewing process, after sugar and other components have been extracted from the mash. Dark crusted, it has a tangy, slightly malty flavor and spongy inside. 

Ms. Rump estimates the bakery produces some 150 loaves on weekdays and 400 on weekends, an undertaking that not only requires superior time management skills but strict attention to detail so the quality is consistent, and waste is minimal. (Any leftover bread is donated to area food banks and shelters.) Just as important is being able to judge when the loaves are done, simply by looking — the crust should be crisp and evenly brown. 

“You have to have the passion,” Ms. Rump says. That, and a desire to be on your feet while everyone else is sleeping. 

You also need one heck of an oven. Whole Foods’ custom-made gas model tips the scale at 20,000 pounds and was shipped piece by piece from Italy. Roomy enough to bake 60 loaves at a time, it’s so massive that it had to be part of the store’s original development plan, says culinary team leader Michael Hendricks, and is cemented into the store’s foundation.

Ms. Rump started her career at Whole Foods nine years ago, as a cake decorator. But bread, she says, has been in her blood since she was a South Carolina teenager working at a local bagel shop.

“There’s so much pride in seeing it from start to finish,” she says. “And I love the feedback from customers.”

 Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.


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