European Artisanal Bread – Misconception & Truth

Growing up in Asian culture, the type of bread that I usually have is the Asian soft bun with countless of varieties and fillings, such as red bean, coconut, custard, meat floss, sardines, etc. I only had the opportunity to try European artisanal bread when I traveled to Australia about seven years ago. Needless to say, I was not used to the crusty and sometimes chewy texture of some artisanal bread, but then I gradually fell in love with it because the rustic-looking bread exuded the most fundamental flavour — the flavour of wheat.

It makes me wonder, what does “artisanal bread” (or artisan bread) mean? Is it referring specifically to bread using sourdough starter? Why it has a crusty outer skin but soft inside, and usually dries out quickly? I have too many questions in my mind, and so I decided to go for a 4-day course on artisanal bread making at Creative Culinaire The School to satisfy my curiosity. The bread course covers quite a wide variety of artisanal bread over a 4-day duration. Right on the first day of the course, the chef instructor had destroyed some common misconceptions of artisanal bread which a layman would have.

So, what are the three common misconceptions?

Misconception #1: Artisanal bread refers to rustic looking sourdough bread only.
Truth: Although a lot of artisanal bread looks rustic and may be made of sourdough, it is actually referring to bread, in general, made of the finest ingredients such as unbleached flour, and without the use of any chemicals or preservatives. The key to a great loaf is patience. Artisanal bread has to depend on much longer fermentation time (8 hours or longer) with the use of pre-ferment. Apart from the commonly known sourdough starter, in fact pre-ferments include poolish, sponge, pate fermentee (a.k.a. old dough), Italian biga, French levain and German Saurteig (rye sour).

Misconception #2: Making of artisanal bread must use natural wild yeast only.
Truth: A lot of artisanal bread omits instant yeast and just uses natural yeast, such as those in a sourdough, for leavening. However, there is nothing wrong to add a little bit of instant yeasts to boost up the fermentation process, as long as the instant yeasts we used are purely dried yeasts without additional chemicals. Sometimes artisanal bread such as baguette, brioche, pain rustique, can be made without sourdough starter at all, but a small amount of instant yeast is used instead.

Misconception #3: Artisanal bread is hard, chewy, and not soft at all.
Truth: Yes, an artisan loaf is often crusty and hard outside, but because of high hydration, the bread is contrastingly soft and moist inside especially when it is just freshly out of the oven. Due to a lower fat and sugar content in most artisanal bread, it dries out quickly and often hardens on the next day. The use of flour will alter its inner texture as well. For example, a rye bread is more chewy or gummy compared to bread using wheat flour. However, not all artisanal breads have a hard crust. Brioche is an exception – it is rich, buttery, and tender, almost like an Asian soft bun.

As I unveil the secrets of artisanal bread, I truly salute the integrity and patience of bakers who persist in using the finest quality ingredients possible without chemicals or preservatives in order to fabricate authentic artisan loaves. So, my friend, let us show our supports to bakers who truly bake with heart!


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