American Bread

The artisan bread movement has changed the course of baking in this country, making ever more delicious loaves possible for professional and hobbyist bakers alike.

By William Alexander

Published on April 22, 2012

I was at a French conversation class recently, and a poor soul who didn't speak the language, having been dragged there by his wife, had taken refuge in the back row. The teacher asked each of us to introduce ourselves, and when my turn came I said, in my fractured French, that I enjoyed baking bread. "Pain au levain?" came a voice from the back of the classroom.

"You speak French?" another student said in disbelief.

"Not a word. But bread I know!"

That's when I realized the artisan bread movement had arrived.

I'd had my own bread epiphany a few years earlier at the unlikeliest of venues, a hotel breakfast, where the bread basket presaged its arrival with an aroma that wafted across the room, almost leading me by the nose, cartoonlike, into the kitchen. To someone who'd grown up on presliced, cellophane-wrapped, bleached-white products whose very blandness was their selling point, this bread was unlike anything I'd ever tasted. The dark-brown caramelized crust defied physics by being crisp and chewy at the same time. It was a crust to be eaten slowly, first with the teeth, then with the tongue. The bread clinging to the crust was every bit as good. It wasn't white, wasn't whole wheat; it was something in between and had a rustic quality—a coarse texture that, while managing to be light and airy with plenty of holes, also had real substance. When you bit into it, it bit back. It was an utter surprise, an almost-mystical revelation, that bread could be this good.

Daniel Leader had a similar reaction when he discovered artisan bread as a young American chef visiting Paris in the late 1970s. "It was like hearing music that you liked for the first time," is how he described the moment 30 years later when I visited him at the main location for his Bread Alone bakeries, in Boiceville, New York. Leader learned to make bread through what he calls the "back-door school of baking," knocking on the rear entrances of his favorite Parisian bakeries at two in the morning and asking if he could come in, watch, and learn. By 1983, he'd decided to leave the New York restaurant scene behind, on the gamble that Americans would appreciate—and pay a little more for—the kind of handcrafted loaves he'd experienced in Europe.

Coincidentally, in the same year Bread Alone opened, Steve Sullivan, a rhetoric major at the University of California, Berkeley, who'd bused tables at Chez Panisse before becoming the restaurant's in-house baker, founded Acme Bread Company, introducing just four varieties of European loaves and garnering rave reviews. With Leader firing the ovens on the East Coast and Sullivan on the West, and others starting to follow their lead, what had begun as a few iconoclasts pursuing personal visions started to look like a movement. By the early 1990s, brick ovens and sourdough loaves were popping up all over America.

Leader says he wasn't aware of being part of a movement; he just wanted to make good bread. Industrial baking—from the steel roller mills that stripped the grain of its bran, nutrients, and flavor, to the chemical additives required to stabilize the roughly handled, mechanically whipped dough—had turned bread into an industrialized, mass-produced commodity over the past century. Leader's objectives virtually amount to a definition of what we call artisan bread today: "We wanted to use organic flour. We wanted to make simple, European-style hearth breads. We wanted them to be baked in brick ovens, using old-world recipes. We wanted to use sourdough. And we wanted to make them by hand."

Credit: Todd Coleman

So did I. Following my own bread awakening, I was determined to reproduce that simple (only four ingredients: flour, water, yeast, and salt) yet complex (one of them is alive!) country bread, or pain de campagne. But would artisan bread be out of reach for the average home cook, much like sous-vide cooking and molecular gastronomy? An hour south of Leader's bakery, at my home in upstate New York, I was about to find out, having begun my "52 Loaves" project (which I ended up chronicling in a book of the same name), pledging to bake a loaf of country bread every week for a year until I'd reproduced the sublime object of my desire.

Certainly I faced some challenges. I was a writer, not even an amateur baker. I knew nothing about bread, yeast, fermentation, or flour, which was apparent to anyone brave enough to taste my initial loaves. So I bought books, lots of books. I visited local artisan bakers, a yeast factory, a mill. Yet the more I learned, the more daunting my task appeared: How to duplicate a commercial oven's steam injectors, which delay crust formation and allow the dough to achieve its full "oven spring," that dramatic burst of rise caused by carbon dioxide pressure and heat in the first minutes of baking? I stuck the nozzle of my houseplant mister into the oven and gave a dozen hearty squeezes, the last one scoring a direct hit on the oven light, sending shards of glass into my loaf.

My hunger for knowledge often outstripped my common sense. To simulate the thermodynamic properties of a ten-ton wood-fired brick oven, I dug up hundreds of pounds of the heavy clay soil in my yard and turned it into an earthen oven. Then I spent the next three months in physical therapy, the disks in my lower back having lost to the clay. And since I'd realized, with some embarrassment, that I actually didn't know what flour was—that is, how wheat went from being a golden, tall grass to the white stuff in the bag—I grew, harvested, threshed, winnowed, and ground my own wheat, all by hand, something so rarely done today that the source I relied on for advice was Pliny the Elder.

As I continued to bake, week after week, 20, then 30 disappointing loaves, the honeycombed, open-celled crumb structure I craved continued to elude me. I'd ignored (or perhaps disbelieved) Leader's advice in his book Local Breads (W.W. Norton, 2007): "If I could convince you of just one thing about making bread, it would be how little effort it takes to cultivate a sourdough," otherwise known as a levain, a mother—or simply, a starter. But when Charlie Van Over, a semiretired baker living in Chester, Connecticut, forced upon me a container of his 12-year-old sourdough, explaining, "to go to the next level, you have to use a levain," I had no choice but to try.

Until then I, like most home bakers, had been using commercial yeast to leaven my bread. Flatbread, essentially flour and water cooked on a hot stone, dates to the Paleolithic era, but it was the ancient Egyptians who discovered that if you added some yeast—and there was plenty of that around, since they were accomplished brewers—the dough would rise into a loaf. Some 6,000 years would pass before Louis Pasteur would unlock the secret why, and it's really quite simple and beautiful: Living yeast, when fed sugar, produces carbon dioxide and alcohol, the process we call fermentation. Meanwhile, flour, in the presence of water, produces those long, tangled protein chains called gluten. Kneading stretches the coils out, aligning them side by side so that they can bond, forming the strong elastic network that enables the dough to stretch and capture the carbon dioxide gases emitted by the yeast. What wonderful choreography! Subtract any one dancer, and the ballet falls apart.

Credit: Todd Coleman

The commercial yeast I'd been using was providing plenty of carbon dioxide, but not much else. For flavor and texture, Van Over explained, you need to use yeast that's been around the block a few times; that is, some type of prefermented dough, or starter, made with wild yeast gathered from the air. Wild yeast belongs to a different species from cultivated yeast, and a mature starter contains bacteria and hundreds of organic compounds, which provide the signature taste and smell we identify with freshly baked artisan bread.

The next loaf was easily my best—and tastiest—so far. Another lesson came by chance when, stuck in a summer vacation rental without my stand mixer, I was forced to knead by hand. I let the dough rest before kneading, a process known to bakers as autolysis, and found that not only did this loaf have a more open crumb with more flavor, but I'd enjoyed kneading with my hands and had known by feel when the dough was ready. I would never use my mixer again. Before the year was out I'd learn how to create steam (by pouring a cup of water into an old cast-iron frying pan placed on the bottom rack of the oven) and how a long, cool fermentation (in the coolest part of the house, or even the refrigerator) draws out the flavor of dough before the bread is baked. I'd learn how to turn an electric oven into a hearth (by preheating a hefty pizza stone at the oven's highest setting for an hour and a half before putting in my dough). I'd even make my own local levain from the wild yeasts in the air. In short, I would become an artisan baker.

Many of the well-known artisan bakeries that followed Leader's and Sullivan's footsteps during those heady early days have since closed, sold out to multinational corporations or, some say, lost their artisan ways, shipping par-baked, frozen loaves to supermarkets—perhaps the biggest threat to small bakeries yet. But the genuine artisan movement is still growing and, after some quiet years, suddenly getting a lot of attention again. Why now?

Leader attributes the phenomenon to the interest in local foods. "Back then," he says, "we were almost treated as a food fad. But now bread is part of the discussion with cheese, and wine, and vegetables. Now we're a piece of that puzzle." Another crucial piece of that puzzle is the newfound interest in locally grown wheat, spelt, and other grains (see how to choose the right flour below). The Maine Grain Alliance's Kneading Conference, which promotes the revival of small-grain farming and artisan bread baking, is in its sixth year, having proved so popular with everyone from home bakers to farmers that it added a West Coast edition this year.

Leader uses at least 15 percent New York State wheat in all his breads. Like many artisan bakers, he'd like to use more, but there are challenges. "There's a reason why most of the wheat comes from the Midwest," he explains. "It's economical to grow, the conditions are optimal, and it's consistently good wheat, so good that some of it ends up in baguettes in France." Local wheat also faces a distribution and processing hurdle. The great railroad lines were built in the 1800s to bring Midwestern wheat to the back doors of Eastern mills. No such infrastructure exists for the new, smaller farms scattered around the country. Finally, the volume of flour that a large artisan bakery like Bread Alone uses—1.4 million pounds annually—would challenge even the largest local farms. Yet Leader is hopeful about the future of both the artisan-bread and local-grain movements, and is putting his money where his optimism is: He's bringing a stone mill to his bakery to grind local wheat. In fact, he feels the two movements are inextricably linked. Farmers and millers need an outlet for their flour, and artisan bakers want to use more local grains. "It's a partnership," Leader says.

Nowhere is that partnership more apparent than at Wild Hive Farm in New York's Mid-Hudson Valley, where baker and miller Don Lewis has established close relationships with local farmers, who are growing wheat (including heritage varieties) in the region for the first time since the 1940s. A baker since 1983, Lewis began milling local grains in 2005 for his own retail bakery, but demand for stone-ground local grains has grown so rapidly that Wild Hive is producing 160 tons of flour annually. Three-quarters of that ends up in the loaves sold at Eataly, the New York City Italian-food emporium that's rooted in the ideology of Slow Food. (The original Eataly, in Turin, makes bread with flour harvested and milled in the surrounding Piemonte region.)

Lewis also ground 15 pounds of grain that I'd reaped from my little backyard wheat field after I'd tired of rubbing handfuls of kernels between two stones. That flour ended up in my 52nd loaf, baked in the earth oven on a frigid February day. Sitting in a lawn chair, drawn up close to the fire for warmth as a gentle snow fell, it seemed that what I was doing was a miracle, as much a miracle as fire itself. Seeds of grass, wild microorganisms, salt, and water were about to become bread, a food as natural as any on earth, yet paradoxically one that cannot exist without the intervention of humans. This synergy of mankind and nature is what I think makes bread the perfect, the archetypal food, and perhaps on some level our subconscious knows it. Maybe this, as much as anything, is the force behind the return of good bread. During all those years it was absent, we—our bodies, our souls, and maybe even our DNA—missed it.

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