Have you been wanting to bake better bread but confused and overwhelmed by all of the recipes and information out there?
Do you see photos of beautiful crusty loaves and wonder if you have the equipment and skills to bake like that?
Great news! It is possible to bake crusty, hearty artisan bread at home with a little bit of know-how.
In this article, I’ll answer some common questions about artisan bread, review what you need to get started and point you to my favorite Easy Rustic Boule Recipe.
Baking bread in France: the ultimate artisan experience
Back in the early days of my bread baking career, I was determined to learn how to bake the very best bread, study it, work for great bread bakers and learn their ways. That quest took me to San Francisco Baking Institute and then on to France where I learned the art of French bread baking.
What a wonderful time in my life to explore a new culture and challenge myself to learn the language. I worked in some very tough settings that were male-dominated, formal and strict.
I don’t think I could do that again now, but what a learning opportunity that was!
I learned the classic French bread baking methods. Each chef imparted a little bit of wisdom that was passed on to them from generations of family bakers.
The greatest satisfaction I experienced during those times was during a Family Meal. A Family Meal, in case you don’t know, is the meal where restaurant workers sit down together before the rush of customers arrive. It usually consists of something fabulous a chef whips up with leftovers. Each department contributes and each course is represented.
In France, every meal is given the respect and time it deserves.
Needless to say, we ate well. One of the earlier family meals I remember was when I was still struggling to grasp all the subtleties of baking the perfect baguette.
I presented to the table, a huge armload of baguettes fresh from the oven.
The chef, sitting at the head of the table, looked at me, tore off a chunk and smiled very big and pronounced them “ Tres Bien!”
Getting acknowledgment for my baguettes from a French Chef was the ultimate compliment!
I had finally mastered something that once felt mysterious and impossible.
And you can too!
Let’s get started by looking at what artisan bread is, and what makes it different.
What is artisan bread and how is it different?
While there isn’t an exact definition, artisan bread baking generally refers to a baker applying some science to mixing, fermenting, shaping and baking.
It often uses higher quality ingredients, takes longer to make, and is made by hand.
Many artisan bakeries claim to use traditional methods. What does that mean?
Traditional methods of baking bread usually refer to the techniques used to get great results. In a more modern era of baking, some shortcuts and ingredients can help get these results.
Artisan Baking is the old school way of getting great results.
Artisan baking applies science to:
How to eat artisan bread
Artisan breads inherently have more flavor than their chemically processed counterparts.
Because of this, artisan bread is more enjoyable to eat alone, or topped with something simple that complements the flavors in the loaf.
Favorite and popular ways to eat artisan bread are:
- Spread with butter- need I say more?
- Toasted and topped with a thin slice of cheese.
- Dunked in olive oil, especially if it’s a spongy bread like Ciabatta or Focaccia.
- Soaking up sauces with a crusty baguette.
Did you know that the French have a word for using your bread to wipe your plate clean?
Its called Saucé. (Pronounced sauce-ay. )
Just another reason why the French and their meal etiquette are brilliant.
What to look for in a good loaf of bread
The key characteristics of great bread are :
Crust- A good flaky crust is essential. The color and darkness of the bake give it flavor as well as eye appeal.
Crumb- the inside of the bread is called the crumb. Look for a variety of air bubble sizes. When you see this. You can be sure that more time and technique were applied to improve quality.
The crumb is often referred to as the cell structure of the bread. By analyzing the crumb you can understand more about the type of flour used, the fermentation time, the hydration of the dough and how it was shaped and baked.
Glossy interior- really good bread will have a slightly glossy interior with a little sponginess.
Flavor- Before you even taste it, you should be able to smell the flavor development in your bread. One of the biggest differences in artisan breads is that they have a much more developed flavor than commercial bread.
Above all else make sure you love the bread you are making and eating. None of the fancy terms, expensive ingredients or hours you put into baking mean anything if you don’t get that wonderful feeling of accomplishment when you master something you’ve worked hard at.
The best flour for baking artisan bread
With all the varieties of flour available to you, its good to know how each one acts in the bread you bake.
Wheat flour has protein in it. When flour has water added to it, it develops these proteins into gluten. The gluten becomes the supporting structure of the bread and traps the carbon dioxide produced by fermentation. This contributes to the chewiness and stretchiness of the bread.
Different types of wheat flour contain different amounts of protein.
All-purpose– can be beneficial when used in a soft variety of bread such as white sandwich bread or soft focaccia bread.
Unbleached Bread Flour- this is great for giving rustic hearth style loaves some structure.
High Gluten- this is best for bread that needs lots of structure and chewiness like bagels.
The use of a starter is a typical characteristic of artisan bread
There are lots of different terms used for starters, depending on the different qualities they add and the country of origin. They are commonly grouped together into categories called pre-ferments.
- Natural Yeast Pre Ferments
This type of starter relies on the growth of naturally occurring yeasts to give the bread its leavening and to impart a complex flavor. These types of starters are generally kept on a feeding schedule that can continue their life beyond a single-use.
- Commercial Yeast Pre Ferments
This type of starter uses a commercial yeast and is baked off the next day. When more is needed it gets remixed.
What type of equipment do you need to bake great artisan bread at home?
Great bread requires very little in terms of equipment. Investing in quality ingredients, a good mixer, and a few additional essentials will help you bake prize-worthy bread right from your kitchen.
Disclosure: Bear in mind that some of the links in this post are affiliate links and if you go through them to make a purchase I will earn a commission. Keep in mind that I link these companies and their products because of their quality and not because of the commission I receive from your purchases. The decision is yours, and whether or not you decide to buy something is completely up to you.
Mixer– I love my Kitchenaid Professional 6 qt. It can handle even the stiffest bread dough and mixes up to 10 dz. cookies! Some of its features are:
- 6 quart stainless steel bowl for up to 10 dozen cookies
- Bowl-lift design raises and lowers the bowl and provides sturdy bowl support for mixing heavy ingredients or large quantities
- 10 optimized speeds and 67 touch points around the mixer bowl for great mixing results
- Includes Bowl-Lift stand mixer, 6-quart dual-finish bowl, Coated Powerknead spiral dough hook, Coated flat beater, professional style wire whip and pouring shield
Proofing Basket– If you want the true artisan bread experience, this is what to buy.
- WELL MADE & EXCELLENT HANDMADE:The rattan is pure natural,free from dye and chemicals,Design with confortable and convenient.Smooth surface and no splinter, don’t need to worry about hurting hands.
- EASY CLEANING AND NOT EASY TO MOLD:We using high quality and natural rattan, keep dry after clean ,not easy to mold.
Stone in oven– I keep one of these stones in my oven at all times.
- Full of invisible micro-pores which absorb and eliminate excess moisture from dough, avoiding the sogginess that often occurs with metal pans, create a crisp crust for your pizza.
- Heat safe up to 1,450°F (787°C). Great for cooking fresh or frozen pizza on the grill or in the oven. Perfect for baking pizza, bread, cookies, biscuits and more at home with family and friends.
Dutch Oven- This is a great way to produce steam and develop a wonderful crispy crust that is usually only possible with expensive steam injected ovens.
- A flawless pairing of form and function that doesn’t quit, the Lodge Dutch Oven is an enameled cast iron classic that’s great for preparing and serving memorable meals.
- WHAT IS PORCELAIN ENAMEL ON CAST IRON? It is actually glass that becomes bonded to the cast iron at high temperatures. A particulate of glass, called frit, is applied to the cast iron vessel and then baked at temperatures between 1200 and 1400° F. The glass frit melts and fuses to the cast iron, forming a bond. Porcelain enamel on cast iron is heat tolerant and impervious to water and other consumables.
If you are ready to bake great bread at home, here is a link to my Focaccia Bread.