Bread is awesome. It’s crazy delicious and there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a crusty rustic baguette, ripped into chunks and slathered with fresh cheese or salty butter.
Why then, from Atkins to Paleo, has it been maligned? The sad reality is that we’ve grown afraid of bread, blaming it for making us overweight and sick. The thing is, it’s not bread that’s the problem: it’s the industrial machine that bread has become that’s the problem.
That isn’t to say we should all start chowing down on the processed loaves that sit on grocery store shelves for months without developing even the slightest bit of staleness. Shelf-stable bread is an entirely different food than the kind made fresh every day by local bakeries.
With bread, it’s all about the basics. Making it takes time and practice, but not many ingredients; flour, water, yeast and maybe a bit of salt is all you need 99% of the time. Okay, yes — depending on what you’re looking to make, you could add spices and herbs, sweeteners, seeds, eggs…but the essentials remain the same, and no matter when and where you’re buying bread, you should be able to pronounce all the ingredients.
It’s really only in the last half century or so that bread has become such a commodity in our culture. In most of Europe, people still go to their local bakeries multiple times a week (if not daily) to pick up their fresh loaves, and they eat them soon after. We’ve been wrongly trained to believe bread should last for days on end, and we’ve also been wrongly trained to believe that flour has such low nutritional integrity that it needs to be enriched with vitamins and minerals.
As with many of our large-scale commercial crops, wheat has been cultivated and bred for hardiness, disease resistance, and quick growth, rather than rich flavor, nutritional density, and genetic variety (basically everything you, the bread-eater, really wants). However, when you make bread from whole grains milled in small batches, the natural proteins and nutrients remain intact. Unsurprisingly, these flours are more perishable, and so big companies tend to rely on the bland, hardy, last-on-shelves-for-years-at-a-time types of flours.
Then there’s the yeast to consider. Commercial yeasts bloom quickly and create buoyant, bouncy breads, but due to their fast-acting nature, they don’t have time to digest and process many of the more complex carbohydrate strands. Many small artisanal bakeries use wild yeasts that slowly digest (ferment) the dough, intensifying the flavor, adding more irregular air pockets, and helping to form deep, rich crusts. Many people who suffer from a gluten intolerance are able to enjoy these wild yeast sourdoughs because the yeasts have taken on some of the burden of digesting some of those difficult particles.
Okay, so fresh bread tastes better and is better for you…but what if you don’t feel like devouring an entire sourdough batard all at once? It’s a true and incontrovertible fact of life that fresh breads go stale super fast; hands-down, bread is best the day it’s baked. You can, however, prolong its life a little bit:
- Day 2-3: Put it in the fridge. From here, you’ll probably want to warm or toast it in the oven before eating, but it will remain delicious and last up to a week.
- Day 5-6: Make croutons, crostini, or breadcrumbs! For croutons, cut your bread into cubes, toss with some olive oil, salt, pepper, and maybe a little rosemary if you’re feeling fancy. For crostini, slice thinly and brush with a bit of olive oil. Bake both on a sheet in the oven until they’re toasty; croutons and crostini can last for weeks in an air-tight container at room temperature.
If you’d like to learn more, we recommend checking out this excellent New York Times Magazine report on why “Bread is Broken,” Michael Pollen’s Book or Netflix mini-series, Cooked, which has an entire section devoted to bread-making, and The Art of Bread by Zachary Golper, the talented baker behind one of our proud NY marketplace partners, Bien Cuit.
Do yourself a favor, and let yourself love bread again (just like Oprah).
Discover (and taste!) more at Farmigo.