Bread. It’s played the villain in certain culinary tales (remember the Atkins diet?). It’s played the hero in a number of non-so-culinary stories (Stomach flu? Eat toast!). No matter what relationships you’ve had with bread in the past, the fact remains that bread is one of the world’s most ancient foods – dating back to 4,000 B.C. – and is now one of its most diverse. Bread is found on every continent, has been adapted by nearly every culture, and is one of the universal staples of our collective diets.
In this three-part series on bread (it deserves at least that). we’ll explore some of bread’s most delectable incarnations. We’ll honor its rich history, go behind-the-scenes of how it’s made, and get ready to feast. For the purposes of organization, we’ll break bread in to three primary categories:
1. Yeast breads; 2. Quick breads; 3. Flatbreads
To get started, a definition: At its most basic, bread is a milled grain and water. But that doesn’t mean bread is simple. As we’ll see, thousands of years of ecological evolution and baking innovation have turned bread in to so much more than commonplace.
Read more: Pretzel Buns for Burgers
On to part one, yeast breads. Likely the most familiar to you – 99% of the bread sold in America falls in to this category – these are breads that contain a leavening agent (yeast!) and have risen.
To help guide us through both the predictable and the more surprising yeast breads, we’ve spoken to master baker Zachary Golper of Brooklyn’s Bien Cuit. Zach started baking about 15 years ago, when the scent of fresh bread literally dragged him out of bed. During a farm apprenticeship in Oregon, Zach recalls, “My room was upwind from the bakery, and every morning around 3 or 4am, the aromas that wafted in to my bed drew me in.”
The rest is pretty much history, just like his philosophy on baking bread. “It’s an ancient thing to do,” he said. “It feels natural. While it may not be easy, it brings pleasure.” It is with this credo that he bakes traditional – and delicious – bread every day.
Let’s dig into a few main types of yeast bread:
Known to many Americans as “French bread,” this elongated oval is arguably one of the most recognizable breads in the western world. By definition, a baguette is four simple ingredients: Yeast, water, flour, salt. So the facts that bakers are often judged solely on the quality of their baguette and that there is an annual competition called the Grand Prix de la Baguette in Paris makes it clear that even within the constraints of four ingredients, there’s potential for magic. You’ll taste this magic the moment you bite into a warm, crusty baguette whose middle is still chewy and soft. And you’ll get close to nirvana if you spread a little fat on top (butter is classic, but good olive oil won’t disappoint you, either). As Zach poignantly notes, “with bread, if you made it well from the get go, the only way you could screw it up is by adding to much to it.” With a good baguette, you’re best off keeping it simple.
Try it with: Provencal Fish Stew, Banh Mi
While some of us might think of this as a singular type of bread, rye is actually a category quite vast in its own right. Made from varying proportions of rye and wheat flour, rye can range from dark (black bread rye) to light (buttermilk rye). Rye is a favorite of many Eastern European and Nordic countries. In Finland they actually hang “rye rings” on rafters, and spray them with water before they eat them. Because of its dense texture and strong, almost sour flavor, rye is great for sandwiches or even toasted with a creamy cheese, smoked salmon, or a sweet jam.
Try it with: Salmon Pastrami, Tempeh Rachel on Rye
Miche is a bread with a story. Sometimes referred to as pain de campagne (“country bread” in French), this bread originated centuries ago in Western Europe when families used to bring all the grain they’d been able to harvest (mostly wheat, at that time) to the village baker. Over a large fire, with all gathered around, the baker would work his magic, and families would leave with large, round loaves that could last an entire week. So it seems appropriate that the signature shape of a miche be perfectly round and hearth-like. It’s about as communal a bread as they come.
This is the bread that most often makes it home with Zach and in to the stomachs of his family. His version is made from a simple sourdough starter and a combination of wheat and rye (miche can be made from many grains; its defining characteristic remains its large, round shape). The long bake time that roasts the outside actually produces a smoke that permeates the entire loaf, enhancing the flavor throughout. Zach’s favorite way to eat miche? With just a little bit of butter.
Try it with: Tuscan Ribollita
Pronounced “pool-yee-AY-zee,” this bread was born of economic resourcefulness. In the southeast region of Italy, Puglia, the wheat source was primarily durum, is a hard grain that doesn’t make the most pleasant bread when used all alone. Hundreds of years ago, the enterprising community discovered that using mashed potatoes as a supplement to the durum flour was the perfect solution. The potato addition literally stretched the bread, making the crumb chewy and tasty, which is why we can still find it in artisanal bakeries today. Some pugliese now include potato flour, but Zach of Bien Cuit roasts Yukon golds – with a little olive oil and salt – and then folds these, cooled and skin still on, into a wheat-based bread dough. The result? A chewy, slightly chunky, bread that’s goes perfectly with meat or a sharp cheese.
Try it with: Fontina Grilled Cheese, Mushroom and Tomato Toasts
Best known for its role in the Jewish faith, challah is a bread that has climbed far beyond religious boundaries. The addition of eggs and fat (sometimes oil, other times butter) gives challah a richness and sweetness that delivers on the indulgence its braided look suggests. Despite its religious associations, challah isn’t beholden to rigid baking laws. Unlike most challahs that are made with water and oil, Zach uses a milk-based preferment (the mixture gets the yeast and flour going, before you start making dough), and butter is his fat of choice–it is added at the end. That exterior sheen that takes challah to the next level of eye pleasing is a product of an egg wash that’s painted on the dough just before it goes in the oven. Challah often comes in rolls, which are a great replacement for brioche when serving burgers.
Try it with: Turkey Burger Sliders
“If you’re going to put s&*$ in bread, put the right s&*$ in bread,” Zach quoted from mentor and baking connoisseur William Leaman. It’s an intuitive – albeit blunt – statement, which reminds us that good food likes other good food. And, in truth, there are some add-ins that are better suited for bread than others. Raisins and walnuts are classic examples of good add-ins. If you’re making your own bread – which is an ambitious undertaking in its own right, so congrats – and want to add some bells and whistles, do so after the dough is made, and before it goes through its second fermentation process. This way, the accoutrements have a chance to take on the texture of the rest of the dough, meaning you’ll have consistent bread in the end. Dried fruits that can absorb moisture, rather then give it off, are usually a good place to start if you’re feeling adventurous.
Try it with: Goat Cheese Toasts
These six yeast breads are just a slice of all that’s out there. From your local bakery to your Blue Apron box, there is an abundance of bread waiting to be found. So whether you’re a die-hard sourdough fan from San Francisco, or a loyal follower of focaccia, the next time you’re in the market for bread, try something new. You never know what you may end up loving.
Up Next: Quick breads, in all their sweet glory.