Once available only in major cities, artisan breads and their imitators are now made and sold throughout the United States. By artisan bread, I mean bread made as it has been for centuries, by trained hands. The dough must:
• contain only flour, water, salt, and leavening (supplemental ingredients, such as walnuts or olives, are fine),
• undergo lengthy fermenntation,
• be baked directly on a masonry hearth
The result of these methods is usually bread with more flavor, better texture, and a crustier crust.
Many bakeries and large-scale grocery stores sell bread they call “artisan” but really only offer loaves made from mixes and bases that are baked on or in pans in convection ovens. Others advertise “baked fresh daily,” but only thaw and heat partially baked bread. That said, there is a lot of good bread out there. Here’s how to identify a loaf of authentic handmade bread.
Winter wheat flour and a starter are key
Identifying authentic examples of good handmade bread can be confusing because some bakeries, in the name of creativity, play fast and loose with traditional terms. More common than blatant misnamings are breads that are the correct shapes but use the same dough for several supposedly very different breads. Taste is subjective, of course, but there are objective standards that can be applied to bread.
Although artisan bread is made with the hands, some machinery can be used, and certain artisan breads (such as French pain de mie, the rectangular loaf baked in a squared-off pan) can be baked on the hearth with the support of a pan and still be called artisan.
Artisan bakers generally use flour from hard winter wheat (rather than hard spring wheat) because the protein quality of winter wheat flour results in dough that will stretch well during shaping and rising. Dough from winter wheat flour will ferment more readily, giving bread with better texture and better flavor.
Most top-quality artisan breads contain a starter in the form of a yeast sponge or a bakery-maintained starter that’s added to or “fed” on a regular schedule. These pre-ferments give a more complex flavor, better texture, and longer-lasting freshness.
Oven conditions make a difference
The essentials for good artisan bread aren’t a wood fire and European bricks. Good artisan bread requires the following.
Radiant heat rather than convection. While convection is great for evenly browned pastry, radiant heat results in the color gradations and variations that are a part of what give artisan bread its visual appeal and complex flavors.
Baking directly on the hearth so heat transfers rapidly, helping loaves bake quickly and thoroughly. Bricks aren’t absolutely necessary. In addition, “stone hearth” has a romantic ring to it, but most often this really means a hearth of heat-tolerant cement that’s specially made for bread ovens.
Adequate thermal mass to keep the oven temperature from dropping too much when bread is loaded into the oven. Insufficient oven heat can give a pale crust, gummy insides, and less volume. (Too much heat can yield gummy insides, too, with a burned crust.)
Steam in the baking chamber, which allows the exposed dough surface to remain soft during the early minutes of baking so it can stretch to accommodate the rapidly expanding dough—the “oven spring.” Steam is also key for good browning and flavor.
Many breads have “hearth” associated wi th the name but have never touched a hearth. Take a look at the loaf’s underside. If tiny, inverse dimples cover the surface, the bread was baked in a perforated pan, and likely in a convection oven.
Visual cues reveal good workmanship
There’s a lot you can tell about a loaf of bread before you bite into it. Ingredients, loaf size, shape, and color all give hints of inner qualities. A glimpse of a loaf’s crumb reveals even more.
A loaf of artisan bread should be symmetrical and seamless, which indicates skillful shaping. Except for ciabatta, shaped loaves should be a relaxed horizontal oval in cross section, rather than a tight circle or tense vertical oval, which can indicate too dry a dough or insufficient rising time.
The crust should be a rich golden brown, which contributes a delicious, complex flavor and crisp, not leathery texture. (Know that wholegrain breads will be crisp for only the briefest time after being peeled out of the oven.) The larger the loaf, the darker the crust can and should be, because a larger loaf of bread takes longer to bake.
Razor cuts, which allow the bread to rise evenly in the oven and for the crumb to open, should show a gradation of colors, each of which carries slightly different flavors. If the dough looks quite convex at the cuts, this usually means insufficient rising time and that the bread waslikely made from a stiff, drydough.
Crumb structure should be relatively open, with holes (alveoles) of varying sizes, although this will vary somewhat depending on the type of bread. The insides of the alveoles should be glossy, not chalky. If you push on the center of the cut loaf, the crumb should bounce back to its original position. If it compresses, the loaf was underbaked and probably wasn’t thoroughly mixed or fermented.
The crumb color should be a creamy yellow for ciabatta, baguettes, sourdough, and white pain au levain. This indicates that the flour wasn’t bleached and that the dough wasn’t overmixed (overmixing bleaches out the pigments in the flour). This is a loss of more than color: yellow pigments carry much of the flour’s flavor, too.
Careful handling comes first, top-notch ingredients are a close second, and a combination of the two is ideal. Because skilled, experienced craftsmanship is so crucial to good bread, choice of flour, proper mixing, adequate fermentation, skilled handling and shaping, thorough proofing, and proper baking are actually more critical to making good bread than using organic flour made from heirloom wheat, natural starters, and a wood-fired brick oven. Both are important, though—and when you get them together, you get great bread.