Like a growing number of artisan bread bakers, Ted Wilson prefers to work with wet doughs, which allow him to develop unique flavors with lengthy fermentation times. Wilson, co-founder and bread baker at Union Loafers in St. Louis, joins many of today’s top bakers on a similar mission: To bake great bread using local ingredients.
“I’d really like to work with a mill that is part of a cooperative that works with local wheat farmers in Illinois and Missouri,” Wilson says. ‘We want to be transparent with where we are getting our grain.”
There’s a rising movement of artisan bread shops popping up across the country that appeal to ever-growing demand for clean label bread made with a simple list of ingredients. Opened in October 2015, St. Louis-based Union Loafers is such a bread bakery that specializes in naturally leavened, hearth-baked breads modeled on old-world techniques.
Wilson concentrates on baking great bread with the characteristic techniques involved in working with wet dough and just a handful of ingredients. He loves knowing where all of his ingredients come from and believes it makes a difference in the flavor. “A lot of this really tastes good.”
Wilson, 34, has been baking bread or pizza since the age of 16. He moved from his hometown St. Louis to New York City 10 years ago to work for a record label, as the music industry happened to be his career path at the time. Then one day, as he worked in a building across the street from New York City’s renowned Amy’s Bread, he stared at a constant reminder of another of his passions, baking bread, and decided to pursue a different job. Sullivan Street Bakery, owned by James Beard award winning baker Jim Lahey, was hiring for a retail position, and Wilson got it.
At about the same time, Lahey’s now famous no-knead bread recipe was going viral, and Lahey needed someone at his bakery to mix the dough for his recipe that is made with four ingredients: water, flour yeast and salt. “I was mixing 360 kilos of flour, and using a big hydraulic lift to get the dough out,” Wilson recalls. “Jim trusted me. Then I moved from mixer to the oven and then to overnight production manager.” Ultimately, Wilson yearned to return to St. Louis to start his own place, which he did last year with Union Loafers co-founder Sean Netzer.
Union Loafers serves up some of the best sandwiches in town since opening in October 2015, and critics rave about their breads. The cafe is open for lunch and offers sandwiches, tartines, salad and soup in a casual space. Fresh breads including baguettes, ciabatta, rye, oat porridge, light & mild, and dark & mild are available in the afternoon until they sell out.
Sandwich breads play a pivotal role in the success of any bakery cafe. At Union Loafers Cafe and Bread Bakery in St. Louis, Wilson concentrates on the art of bread baking as he prepares the daily offerings of ciabatta, rye, light & mild and other breads baked in their ABS deck oven.
Ciabatta, one of the trickiest sandwich breads to make well, is the centerpiece of two sandwiches on the Union Loafers menu, the roasted pork sandwich and the smoked beet with sauerkraut, thousand island, emmenthaler, and hard egg. The cafe also serves a ham and cheddar sandwich on rye and a nut butter sandwich on light & mild bread.
“Right now, it’s all about how to make the bread well and be consistent,” says Wilson.