Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What makes bread good?

I'm a snob.

A bread snob, that is.  I won't let bad bread enter my house.  I feel as if it is a food only to be eaten if it is worthy of enraptured lovers falling at its crusty feet proclaiming heartfelt sonnets.  I don't often like to slather my bread in condiments, or dip it til it is soppy in liquids.  I want to appreciate its complex flavors and textures, without ostentatious adornments.  Actually, as we speak, I am eating a bruschetta.....last night's bread toasted in a cast iron pan, rubbed with raw garlic, and drizzled with some quality olive oil.  It's my favorite food in the world.
This is what I'm eating now.  Yum!

So what makes bread good, or even great?  I've been trying to get my Italian husband to recognize good bread, so it's something I've thought about a lot. You think of Italy, and you think the bread is probably awesome, right? Unfortunately, not so much, at least here in Valle d'Aosta.  It could be that I haven't developed a taste for the local bread, but I think it's more like the bread isn't very good.  There is one stellar bakery (Bio Panetteria), but they don't have a shop, so you have to hunt them down at the random, and seasonal, markets in the region.  Aside from that, bread comes in three varieties:

1)White.  No flavor, overly crusty crust, used for sopping up sauce.
2) Whole grain.  You can break bullet-proof glass with this stuff.
3) Pane Nero.  Ok, so I do appreciate this bread.  It's very traditional, it's done in ancient wood fired ovens.  It is the reason for many incredibly fun festivals.  It is made with rye flour, and sometimes they even use a starter. However, I just don't like it, probably because it's meant to be 'good' for up to 6 months.  That translates to it being rock hard.  It could break 10 layers of bullet-proof glass!  But it gets my respect, though not my taste buds.
Pane nero.  They let it harden up on these racks!  And when it is too hard to eat without breaking teeth, they eat it soaked in red wine, and call it 'donkey soup'.

So, what makes bread good? Everyone has a different take on this, but here is mine:

1) Should be made with a starter or a poolish. I'm sure there are yeast breads out there that are perfectly good, but they aren't to my taste.  I love the rich, complex flavor of a slowly risen, fermented bread.  You can taste taste the love and energy that went into it, I'm sure of it!
This is my starter, and she does all the 'heavy lifting' of all of my breads.  I adore her.  Come visit and I'll give you some!
2)  Open crumb.  Those big, beautiful, lacy holes in the soft part of the bread.  If you go into a bakery in France, they usually have a loaf opened up for each bread type, to show off what kind of crumb it has, as that is a big indicator of bread quality.  If they don't show you their crumb before you buy, it is probably no good!  So, what does an open crumb mean?  It means that the bread is probably a fairly high hydration (percentage of water used), which means it will be moist.  It means that the gluten developed fully, which you want because it will give the bread structure, a good consistency and texture.  It means the bread rose fully, which also gives a good consistency and texture.  It means there was probably a long and slow fermentation, which helps in developing a divine flavor.   These breads usually also have a dense, chewy crust, that is just a bit crunchy.
This is what open crumb looks like! This one is fresh out of the oven.  60% white, 20% semolina, 20% whole wheat.

3) Flavor.  Ok, you can't see this when you buy it, and it is totally a matter of preference, but most people can probably agree on a few factors.  Bread should have flavor.  It depends on the type of bread obviously, as to what flavor it is, but it should be there.  Enough to make you stop and ponder the deliciousness of it.  It usually has a tiny bit of sweetness, even though there probably isn't sugar in the recipe.  The flavor should linger like a good memory.  Also, it shouldn't be overly sour.  I know, naturally risen breads are called sour dough.  But more often than not, they are so sour to the point that they leave a bitter note on your tongue all day.  I don't like when bread does that, although I think  it's preferable to no flavor at all.  I like when it is in a range from no sourness whatsoever, to just a light, almost undetectable sour note that is fleeting.

4) Shininess.  Good breads, unless seeded or something similar, are usually a bit shiny.  Not exactly shiny, but I can't think of a better word.  It means the bread is fresh, that it has been cooked in water vapor (yes! you want this!), and that the crust is probably really tasty.  Shininess is usually an indicator that it was made using a starter and that it has an open crumb, as well. Sorry, you can't know if it is sour from the shiny factor!
A shiny bread I made a while back.  See the shiny?

So, how do you go about making bread that  meets these requirements?  I'll write about it here sometime, or check out Barbara Swell's new bread book, Aunt Barb's Breads.


  1. That is a gorgeous loaf of bread, I've been making sourdough on occasion for years and have yet to achieve that structure... I think I'm kneading too much flour into it.

  2. Thanks! There are a few things you can do do get a better structure. A higher hydration helps (I usually do 75-85%),working the dough enough to make sure the gluten properly develops, as well as folding the dough before the final proof, and baking the bread in a preheated pot that's covered for the first 15 or 20 minutes. The first two tips give it structure, and the last two give it lift.

  3. Hi Annie, My friend, Alessia Ceppi Enria, wrote me about you in response to my question to Alessia which was this: do you have a cooking school you could recommend to a friend in Texas who wants to come to Italy to a cooking school? I want so much to come and live in Italy myself in the Val di Gressoney! Ciao, Jane Vercelli

  4. Hi Jane, I'm sorry but I don't know any cooking schools in Italy! I'm sure there are many of them, but I don't know anything about them. I DO know where to go in Valle d'Aosta to eat really good food, though!