17 November 2011 by Elaine Lemm

Bread alert: the rise of the artisan loaf

Fifty years ago, the sliced white loaf revolutionised our breadmaking and eating habits. Today, says Elaine Lemm, there's a backlash against it and a return to artisan and homebaked bread

Artisan bread_soda bread-620 BigstockEarlier this year, a 50th birthday slipped by practically unnoticed; remarkable given that this ‘birth’ has, without doubt, had an impact on all our lives. The British sliced white loaf appeared in June 1961 and totally changed our approach to bread. The Chorleywood Bread Process (as the technique is called) produced a uniform, cheap, 40 per cent softer and double-shelf-life loaf thanks to the scientists at the Chorleywood Bakery Research Association labs.

Today this process accounts for 80 per cent of British bread. Using the Chorleywood method, British bread quickly became industrialised and was soon the cheapest in the world. This had a devastating effect on small bakeries, who despised the new-fangled Wonderloaf because it wasn’t ‘real bread.’  Unfortunately, we had already fallen in love with the convenience of the sliced white and thousands of bakeries went out of business.

Thankfully, there has now been a backlash against the emulsifiers, enzymes and other chemicals used in modern baking that has resulted in a not unexpected revival of the artisan baker. And, just like baking, home breadmaking is also on the rise.

But why, when it is now so easy to buy a good loaf of bread, would people go to the trouble of making their own?  As an avid breadmaker, I can tell you why: simply for the pleasure of it. Little is required save flour, water, leavening, perhaps a few other bits and bobs depending on the recipe, and some time.

A vigorous massaging of the dough relieves pent-up stress and – ditch the air fresheners – as estate agents know, we so love the scent of baking bread that it can help sell a house. Then there is the sheer delight in eating a warm, freshly baked loaf slathered with salty butter or a drizzle of good olive oil. Wonderful.

Be warned, though: breadmaking is an addictive process and, once started, is hard to give up. One day it means a simple wholemeal loaf, but before you know it, it means salt-crusted, pillow-soft focaccias, multigrains and an obsessive interest in spelt, chestnut and other fancy flours.

What of breadmaking and machines you may ask? For me, the contentment of breadmaking comes from the hands-on, primeval process of stirring, mixing and kneading. But when pushed for time, I will use my stand mixer and dough hook. I was given an automatic breadmaker years ago and, though the resulting square loaf was more than adequate in texture and taste, it just didn’t cut it for me. (Frankly, I have no idea what became of the machine.) I have friends, however, who swear by them, which is great.

For all my obsession with breadmaking, though, I have not – and probably never will have – abandoned the Mighty White. After all, it was the uniformity of the slices that also led to the invention of the pre-packed sandwich. Try to imagine what M&S would look like without those today. And bacon butties with a dollop of HP are not quite the same on any other bread.

If you fancy giving breadmaking a go, here are a few tips to help you on your way.

  • Use flours labeled as ‘Strong’, which contain extra gluten, the protein that makes dough elastic. With ordinary plain flours, your bread will not rise well.
  • Allow plenty of time for the rising (proving) of the dough. Choose a coolish, draught-free place and do not try to force the rise with heat.  The longer and slower the rise, the better the resulting crumb of the bread. Overnight in the fridge works very well.
  • Fresh yeast gives a good flavour to bread but is harder to find than packaged yeast. As it freezes well, buy a large quantity when you can find it.
  • If you need to substitute dried yeast for fresh, use half the quantity specified for fresh.
  • For a really good crust, place a roasting tray with a good handful of ice cubes in the bottom of the oven five minutes before baking the bread to create steam.
  • For great bread tuition, you can’t beat Dan Lepard’s workshops.
  • A highly recommended book on breadmaking is 100 Great Breads by Great British Bake Off judge, Paul Hollywood.

 

Elaine is a trained chef and has run her own restaurant. She has written widely on food and wine, including for Waitrose Food Illustrated and Olive, and is editor of NY Times’ About British Food. Follow Elaine on Twitter.

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