A decade or two ago when Americans thought of bread, soft, sliced loaves packaged in clear plastic bags would ultimately come to mind. Hosts for peanut butter and jelly or tuna salad, those sweet, squishy slices had little merit on their own. Thanks to bakers of a new generation, this is no longer true. Artisan baking–the art of hand-crafted breads–is emerging across the nation as we realize how delicious flour, water, yeast, and salt can be when mixed by the right hands and using discriminating techniques.
In contrast to uniform prepackaged sandwich breads, the beauty of artisan bread comes in its rustic look, yeasty flavor, and hearty texture. While you’d never think of snacking on a slice of plain “Wonder,” rip off a hunk of full-flavored artisan bread and you need no butter or jam to make it complete. Bread makers experiment with yeast fermentation and flour varieties to develop unique but subtle flavor complexity. Equally as pleasing to the taste is the chew that results from the dark, thick crusts, which sometimes look nearly burnt. Beneath the crisp outer layer, this bread is often marked with air bubbles and irregular holes that enhance both taste and touch, unlike that machine-made spongy weave from the factories.
A recipe with four basic ingredients, bread would seem to be an unlikely candidate for much discussion. Bring it to the masters, and your opinion may change. Things like kneading time, proofing temperature, starters, fermentation, flour characteristics and, of course, baking temperatures will each set off their own heated debate. All of these variables, among others, contribute to the texture, flavor, and look of a prized loaf. The current generation of American bakers uses a base of traditional approaches learned from century-old European bakeries, which many then adapt to their modern kitchen facilities. Just as each village has their own baker who swears by his method, including the steps of mixing, kneading, proofing, scaling, shaping, proofing (yes, again), and baking, our artisan bakers also embrace slight variations of basic bread recipes. When the flour settles, they can all agree that wonderful breads are harvested from undivided commitment, superior quality ingredients, and blazing-hot hearth ovens.
Just like fine wines and micro-brewed beers, artisan breads are treated in small batches to the utmost care and precision by masters in the field who combine science with artistry. While bakers follow specific recipes to create their loaves, they also use a masterful touch to feel their way through the process until reaching their desired dough. Outside forces such as humidity, protein levels in flour, and even natural yeast in the atmosphere can dramatically affect results, forcing master bakers to be acutely in tune with their products and able to adjust to these conditions for consistent results. As the subtle differences in every loaf give artisan breads their appeal, drastic changes from day to day are the sign of an unseasoned baker.
A dose of simple pleasure, rustic artisan breads have an unquestionable appeal in our otherwise pre-fabbed world. Combining the earthy flavors of wheat with a spike of yeasty acidity, bread is no longer just another delivery system for its old companion butter. Move over white bread, and hit the road Parker House Rolls–these days, crusty loaves of mixed wheat, once considered peasant food, are rightfully taking over the bread baskets in homes and restaurants across the nation.