Not all breads are created equal. There has been a lot of buzz lately about artisan breads. Is this just a fancy name for regular bread that folks spend high dollars on or is there something special about this “new” bread?
Actually, artisan bread is not “new” at all. As a matter of fact, it is basically returning to how our grandmothers baked bread with wholesome ingredients and none of the bad stuff. However, not all artisan breads are created equal either. Each artisan bread is as individual as the person who created it. Just because a loaf carries this label, doesn’t mean it really is, so check your ingredients. Real artisan bread contains only the four basic ingredients of flour, water, salt and yeast and maybe some mix-ins such as dried fruits for flavoring.
Bread is all about the fermentation process and when it comes to this, faster isn’t always better. Most commercial bakeries use high speed mixers and chemicals to speed up the fermentation process and the result is pretty unremarkable bread. Artisan bread, on the other hand, is fermented over a longer time, sometimes up to 24 hours, which allows the natural enzymes to react with the flour in their own time for a more robust flavor and texture. Artisan breads are also easier to digest because the enzymes have had time to start breaking down the gluten in the flour during fermentation.
True artisan bread is made in smaller batches using traditional methods which is why they are usually found in smaller bakeries. Although the ingredients are simple, each baker often creates his own combination of flavors, resulting in signature breads that are their own creations. The bakers use source ingredients from a particular provider which ensures consistent quality.
Because of this, different artisan breads have different flavors although the basic characteristics of a full aroma, deep golden brown crust with soft interiors with large and irregular holes and deeper wheat flavor are present in most loaves. These breads come in different shapes and forms and flavors that are as varied as the bakers who create them.
They are referred to as artisan because artisan bread is truly an art form. A baker’s choices of ingredients, fermentation times, water temperature and even the ovens they choose to bake the bread in make each loaf unique and no less a masterful creation than a work of art.
The type of flour makes a big impact. Flour is produced y milling wheat and during this process wheat bran and germ are separated and the white interior of the grain is ground into flour. The quality of flour depends on the class of wheat used, climate conditions during its growth and harvest, the variety in the class, milling practices and the handling and condition after milling. Bakers make adjustments to the dough’s mixing time, the percentage of water added, fermentation and handling based on the flour’s condition.
A flour is further rated on its mixing tolerance, the measure of protein quality it contains. A good quality protein contains sufficient gluten which allows the bread to hold its shape. If the flour quality is poor, the resulting loaf will have a lack of volume poor texture, lack of symmetry, lack of keeping quality and will be off color. With a lower protein count, bread will have a flatter shape and will be brittle whereas a higher protein count will result in bread that is more rounded and chewy.
Bread quality is also affected by its water content. Bakers state the amount of water used in a recipe as a percent of flour used. Known as “bakers’ percent,” a good starting point is 60%, then individual bakers adjust it from there.
Water temperature also plays an important part in the final outcome. It affects the fermentation time and dough handling. The more water and the higher temperature, the faster the fermentation and the stickier the dough. Even the hardness of the water affects the outcome. Soft water also increases the stickiness whereas hard water will result in a more “holey” bread. For this reason, the same type of bread at franchises like Subway tastes different from location to location.
Salt is almost always added at 2% of the flour rate. Particle size of the salt crystals determines how quickly the salt dissolves and its purity can retard the yeast fermentation if some metals are present.
Finally, yeast is probably the most important ingredient of bread. This single-celled fungi converts its food (sugar and starch) into carbon dioxide which makes the bread rise. The quality and quantity of these four ingredients control the final outcome of the artisan bread and allow each baker to tweak his recipe by adjusting these.
The last control a baker has is the oven it is baked in. Most use steam to add crispness and shine to the crust. Some use wood-fired ovens which lend their unique flavor to the breads.
Artisan bread is bread that is better for us. It uses simple ingredients and the longer fermentation process automatically makes it easier to digest. When you add a flour like Red Fife, a heirloom flour that has a lower gluten content than many modern day flours, you get a double whammy of lowered gluten content and a more digestible product.
So, artisan bread is nothing new. As a matter of fact, it is relatively old, going back to the way our grandmothers used to make bread. There’s something comforting in that.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
BASIC ARTISAN NO-KNEAD BREAD RECIPE
• 3 1/2 cups flour
• 2 teaspoons Kosher salt
• 1/2 teaspoon dry yeast
• 1 1/2 cups warm water
1. Whisk flour, salt and yeast together, then add in water to make a ball. Transfer to large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until dough is covered with tiny bubbles, anywhere from 12 to 18 hours.
2. Place Dutch oven or ceramic liner of a Crockpot in a 450 degree F oven. Transfer dough to a floured surface, fold corners under dough until a ball forms. Put on a piece of parchment paper, dust with flour and let rest 15 minutes.
3. Score an “X” in the center and spritz with water. Place in the Dutch oven, cover and bake 30 minutes. Remove the lid and continue baking until top is golden brown. Remove from oven and let rest 30 minutes before slicing.