KANSAS CITY — Artisan bakeries are dabbling in a variety of baked goods and ingredients, from babka and bagels to local and sprouted grains. And they’re drawing inspiration from all over, creating a vibrant community that is embracing new flavors and formats.

“The trend toward local grains and small cottage bakeries is still on the upswing,” said Peter Reinhart, a James Beard award-winning baker who is an instructor at Johnson & Wales University. “Also, bagels are back, including sourdough bagels. Rich breads like babka and brioche variations seem also on the upswing.”

Guy Frenkel, founder of Ceor bakery in Los Angeles, who is known for pushing the envelope with his award-winning breads, said he’s seeing a surge in the creativity of artisan bakers.

“The idea that these bakers can liberate themselves and start exploring ingredients and shapes and new recipes, I see that more and more every year,” he said. “I used to feel like a lone player, and now I’m part of a movement. Creativity is very hard to replicate on scale. As long as the artisan bakers embrace the art part, the creative, the new, not just replicating but creating new stuff for their customers, I feel they all have job security in that aspect.”

Showcasing culinary-inspired breads

As artisan bakers explore new formats, they are creating baked goods with a culinary spin.

“I’m seeing products in artisan bakeries that are more compatible with the café environment,” said Michael Kalanty, an award-winning baker and R&D specialist. “There are more freshly assembled sandwiches in artisan bakeries and breads that are made specifically to showcase certain kinds of fillings. Places that come to mind are Jane The Bakery in San Francisco or Amy’s Bread in New York. Both have a line of breads that seem designed especially to be used for sandwiches.”

Different flours are being used to make sturdier sliced breads and sandwich rolls. Sometimes they’re made with higher protein flour, such as semolina, to make them more durable, chewier but still tender. They can stand up to a drippy pulled pork, French dip and other saucy fillings.

“It’s becoming more like a meal in your hand,” Mr. Kalanty said. “So the breads and rolls themselves are becoming more functional in terms of being able to hold up to that application.”

Aspire Bakeries, Los Angeles, recently launched its La Brea Bakery Cinnamon Raisin bread, which is a departure from the breads the company typically makes.

“It’s slightly sweet and has a good cinnamon kick to it,” said Jon Davis, culinary innovation leader and vice president of R&D at Aspire Bakeries. “It’s tricky because cinnamon messes around with some of the yeast. It makes it a little temperamental, so you’ve got to find the right balance. We found a new ingredient to help us achieve that. Our flavor profiles are usually not sweet-forward; it’s more about letting the raisins come through.”

Aspire has also been busy making rolls for foodservice customers.

“From an artisan bread perspective, we’re working on enhancing our foodservice portfolio because we’re noticing an uptick in premade sandwiches with to-go foods,” Mr. Davis said. “These rolls are more and more in demand, so we’re focusing on that part of foodservice.”

The popularity of the smash burger in recent years prompted a request for artisan buns from foodservice customers to go with them, said John Friend, president of Farm to Market Bread Co., Kansas City, Kan.

“Smash burgers have been hot for the last few years,” he said. “Customers wanted potato buns for that, so we developed a clean label bun.”

Mr. Kalanty said he’s seeing burger buns that are loaded with spices and inclusions to bring out the umami flavors of the burgers and enhance the eating experience.

“I’ve seen burger buns that are made with sauerkraut in a sourdough variation,” he said. “In addition to the natural tanginess of the bread, they’ve got a firmer texture and can absorb the juice from a medium rare burger and still hold their shape. I’m seeing breads made with different kinds of fats, such as olive oil breads that include solid ingredients like caramelized onions and sauteed mushrooms.”

Signature rolls can carry their own savory profile, such as adding rosemary and fennel seeds to make a bread that is a good pairing with Italian food, Mr. Kalanty said. He cited Azikiwee Anderson’s San Francisco-based Rize Up Bakery as a good example of culinary-inspired sourdoughs.

“He makes an ube bread using purple yams from the Philippines, which is popular on Instagram because of its intriguing color,” Mr. Kalanty said. “Its subtle, unique flavor makes it a good accompaniment for Asian cuisine ingredients, especially those with a natural sweetness. His masala bread includes cilantro, curry leaves, turmeric and onions. When you toast it, you think you’re eating a roti or naan.”

Another instance of this trend is bakers working with microbreweries. They can incorporate the grains or malt used in the beer or the beer itself to create breads or other products to complement the beers.

“Where a brewery might use local grains to make a signature stout, the baker might say, ‘Let’s take the same grain and figure out how to make that into a pretzel,’ or ‘What can we do to put the flavor notes from that beer in a bread and turn that into a grilled cheese for you?’ ”

Local and ancient grains

Bakers take inspiration from the local grains and other foods grown in their areas to create breads and other distinctive baked foods.

“If you’re supporting the existing artisan bakeries, you’re trying to keep up with the times,” Mr. Reinhart said. “They’ve all moved into working with local millers, local farmers and ancient grains if they can get them.”

Mr. Frenkel said a theme of his bakery is anything might go. Not everything will work, but he wants to be open to new ingredients that he can explore. And that includes the local produce in his area.

“If there’s a farmer who is growing something around me and brings it to the farmers market, I’m interested,” he said. “I would like to be part of that conversation because that’s what creates local cuisine, the farmers and what they’re growing. It’s less about me seeking specific ingredients and more about me enjoying all the fruits of their labors. In my farmers market I’m lucky that many of the farmers are very interested in esoteric produce.”

The wide variety of flours available today provides bakers with plenty of new items to explore.

“We have a giant wall with containers of every grain that you can get in North America and some that you can’t even get in North America,” Mr. Frenkel said. “It’s about 30 different grains. Most of them are sprouted because we sprouted them and dried them up again. If I want to make a bread, for example, with carrot juice, ginger and einkorn, I can do that.”

Because artisan bread consumers are becoming more savvy, they’re looking for foods that are packed with nutrition, and ancient grains fit that bill.

“There’s a perception that they haven’t been tampered with,” Mr. Davis said. “There’s a perception that modern wheat has been bred for volume, which is not necessarily untrue. They’re not genetically modified, but they’re crossbred. Ancient grains remain true to their past. I think people like that nutritional aspect and the story going back to some of the oldest grains that have been cultivated for hundreds of years.”

Oats are resonating with Mr. Davis right now, and he’s seeing new techniques for using grains, such as making a porridge from oats before they’re added into breads.

“Essentially they’re cooking grains and flour in some cases prior to mixing them into the bread for a variety of reasons, for hydration, and there are certain characteristics those cooked grains bring to the breads which I find very interesting,” Mr. Davis said.

Another example of this is Japanese milk bread, which is prepared in an unconventional way.

“It’s almost like you make a roux, so you cook part of the flour and you use that in the bread. It creates this very soft, brioche feathery light texture,” Mr. Davis said. “People are applying these to artisan bread nowadays, and that’s something we want to explore as well.”

Making the most of resources

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

Clean and creative

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,” Mr. Friend said. “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.”

When it comes to sustainability, Mr. Frenkel 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.’ ”

Mr. Davis 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.

Bakers see a difference milling flour in-house

Many artisan bakeries are milling their own flour, a move that they see as game changing.

Ceor has its own mill, and bakers there have upwards of two dozen grains at their disposal.

“The freshness is as important in flour as it is in coffee or spices,” said Guy Frenkel, Ceor’s founder. “The aromas, the oils really come through in the breads. Second, it allows us to make flours which are unavailable elsewhere.”

In-house milling is a detailed undertaking and not for everyone, cautioned Michael Kalanty, award-winning baker and R&D specialist. But the nutritional benefits of it are clear.

“It’s so advantageous because on a pound-per-pound basis, when you freshly mill your grains, the nutritional superiority to what you’re getting over commodity flour is off the charts,” he said. “Whether it’s wheat, rye or oats, you’re eating everything the whole grain has to offer. That means you’re also getting the oils that come with it, the vitamins A, D, E and K, all that soluble fiber, so you’re really power packing the nutrition.”

Other bakeries use boutique millers that feature more variety.

“The quality is better,” said John Friend, president of Farm to Market Bread Co. “A lot of that can depend on how the crops come in that year, what the weather was like, what protein levels you’re going to get out of the wheat. We’ll be humming right along with great flour, then all of sudden we get some bad batches, and the flour is absorbing a ton of water and we have to make adjustments on the fly, and it affects our quality.”