20 January 2010


'What Artisan Bread Means to Me' by Rachel Renee Wyman....

Just kidding.  When conceptualizing this piece it just seemed to have that elementary feel to it.  I imagined myself back in middle school being instructed to write about manatees or democracy.  The difference now is that this word truly means something to me and I feel it is being misused left and right.  I started thinking about this essay a couple years ago when a Wendy's commercial touted the use of artisan bread for their new sandwich.  I must have let out an audible gasp the first time I saw the ad.  There is no way Wendy's is employing bakers to hand shape each roll before it is sent out to their franchises.  It is equally unlikely that each store has a craft bakery in the back, behind the microwaves and deep fryers, baking off crusty bread.  Wendy's ad was the first I noticed.  There were several to follow and they continually pop up here and there.  Subway uses artisan sub rolls, Panera sells artisan bread, Dunkin' Dounuts makes artisan flat breads....it's everywhere.

In France there are laws that determine how certain food products can be marketed.  If any part of the bread making process is automated, save the mixing, the store that sells the finished product can not be called a "patisserie" or bakery.  Sure people can call it that but the law states that the sign on the store front can not contain the word patisserie.  The same laws denote the weight, shape, length and scoring of a baguette.  The Food and Drug Administration issues laws about packaging and ingredients but in a different way.  Did you know that it is illegal to package a product as "whole" wheat unless it is 100% whole wheat?  Sellers get around this by using terms like 'honey wheat' and 'soft wheat.'  Maybe they'll move on to 'wheat-like' in the coming years.  The FDA also regulates the terms 'good source of', low fat, fat free and light.

The bread baking community is split on what can be called artisan bread.  Technically, artisan refers to the crafter not the craft itself.  I am an artisan baker who bakes artisanal bread, to use the proper grammar/semantics.  What makes an artisan baker?  If an industrial mixer is used and the rest of the process is done by hand, is the bread an artisan product?  What if the dough is divided by machine, then shaped by hand?  What about using a mechanized roller to shape the loaves but individually, hand loading the bread into the oven?  What if the dough is loaded into the oven on a conveyor belt but a baker scores each loaf before it bakes?  There are several lines that can be drawn and there really isn't any end all be all to categorize artisanal bread. 

Wikipedia feels artisan bread is defined by the water content in the dough, 60-75%.  This seems odd but somewhat understandable.  High water content makes for a more fragile dough that is much harder to work with.  This hydration level would make for a more open, airy inside or crumb and it could make for more fermentation which makes for more flavor.  It would be interesting to know how wikipedia came up with this standard.

My line is drawn after the dough is divided.  I don't think using a mechanized divider as opposed to hand weighing on a balance scale, takes away from the quality or outcome of the bread.  Mechanized dividers come in several forms.   I've used a 20-pocket hydrolic divider that gentley presses and cuts large masses of dough into 20 equal portions.  This one is best used for baguettes and loaves.   I've also used a 36 peice divider/rounder that cuts smaller lumps of dough into 36 equal portions and it can round them into rolls.  Both of these machines are quite common in the industry and from my experience, they both like to break down a lot making for very trying production.  I feel shaping the dough by hand is essential in the artisan process.  It is a difficult skill to master which makes it a defining part of the baking process.  If the dough is improperly shaped it will tell on the baker who shaped it.  Have you ever cut into a loaf of bread and found a hole running down the center of the whole loaf?  This is called a 'baker's grave;'  it happens when too much flour is used when shaping and the dough can't surge to itself.  If the loaf isn't shaped tight enough, it will loose its shape before going into the oven or if it is shaped too tight, the dough may start to pull apart and break open.  There are different ways to shape dough to yield different outcomes in the finished product.  It takes an artisan baker to know these rules and to consistently create beautiful bread.  Shaping bread by machine takes the soul out of the process.  For me, shaping loaf after loaf, baguette after baguette, is very cathartic.  Even though it seems monotonous at times, there's a whole lotta love going into each loaf I shape which puts my name, my mark on the bread I sell.

There is definitely an increased awareness of bread in America in much the way there is an increased awareness of organic, natural products.  As educated consumers, we have to be cautious about which products to believe in.  Is it labeled as artisan or organic or both to sell a product or is it labeled that way because it truly is organic artisan bread?


  1. And after all of this hand labor and repetitve production you have the most amazing finished product. There's not a day I don't miss your bread.