Bread Anthropology and Theory

In the end, French bread is nothing more than flour, water, salt and a leaving agent, most often yeast. Recipes with anything else miss the point. French bakers don’t create time-consuming masterpieces to entice their clients into the shop. They make consistent, reliable quality bread, of mandated weights and dimensions, day after day, that is usually delicious yet simple.

There are no preservatives, no eggs, no oil, no milk, no strange emulsifiers or other chemicals although some bakers put ascorbic acid (vitamin C) for its benificent effect on the rise. They don’t go to all this trouble because it is too expensive and time consuming to put that sort of thing in the bread and because all their bread will be sold out by evening and consumed, if not the same day, at least very soon in the next day (for breakfast). Few French eat bread much older than a day or two.

What kinds of bread do the French eat?

The most frequently consumed bread in France is the baguette, a word that means baton or wand. This is the long, thin loaf you have seen. It is consumed one of three ways.

First and foremost, it is cut into short cross sections and eaten with the meal.

Second, it is used to make sandwiches by cutting it in half, then splitting it through the middle of the bread as if to make a submarine sandwich. It is then slathered with mayonaise, butter or cream cheese, etc. and it gets varied from there just as sandwiches do for us. One sandwich named béton armé, in English “steel-reinforced concrete”, is made by spreading large quantities of cream cheese (from La vâche qui rit) and placing (embedding in essence) cornishons or pickles similar to American sweet midgets. At least, it was a perennial favorite in the office in which I worked.

Third, this bread, or the larger one mentioned below, is consumed for breakfast as a tartine where it is cut into short sections, longer than for eating with the meal, but shorter than for a sandwich, and covered with butter and jam, then dipped into hot chocolate or coffee. This is done especially by children.

There is a variation on the baguette in many bakeries called a ficelle which means string. It is merely a very thin baguette, what we would call a breadstick, about 1 inch in diameter. I suppose it’s really for people who love crust. We rarely ate it in my family.

The next most frequently consumed bread is the pain normal or standard bread, a short version of which is sometimes called the bâtard. This bread is often used in pretty much the same way the baguette is used.

The bâtard is a shortened baguette, and sometimes just a little thicker like the pain normal.

France has a comparatively controlled economy and these breads are mandated as to their size, weight, general proportions and what can legally be charged the consumer. All are made from bleached, white flour such as type 45, referring to the percentage that the flour represents of the whole grain.

The third type of bread is the boule de campagne or country-style loaf. It is fat and round, almost spherical, and usually dusted with flour before baking. It is usually what some French call farine jaune (literally, yellow flour), or unbleached white flour. This bread typically has a very nutty and slightly sour flavor, but nothing so sour as San Francisco sourdough. There are also slightly elongated (oval) versions of this in most places. It is my favorite bread to eat and what I’m looking for when I made bread.

The crumb of the pain de campagne is what American artisan bakers imitate in their products. It must have irregular holes distributed throughout, a distinct chewiness along with a hard crust standing in contrast to the crumb.

There are myriad variations on the white bread theme including the pain d’épi, usually a baguette made up of sculptured, individually grain-shaped balls of dough baked together appearing as the tassle of a stalk of wheat. épi means ear. It is merely a novel baguette. Sometimes these are bent into a circle to make a wreath called a couronne, meaning crown.

Then there is the viennoise or Viennese-style bread. This bread is in the form of a baguette, usually thinner, but contains milk, some fat and perhaps egg, so in flavor and texture if not in shape is closer to American bread.

Last comes the brioche, a light, spongy bread full of air, sort of like an Angel Food cake without the sugar. It is often employed in a dessert or breakfast (sweet) setting.

The croissant, or crescent roll, is made of p&acric;te feuilletée, or flaky dough, that is folded with cold butter over and over. This is more of a pastry than a bread. It is difficult to make a croissant as the butter must remain cold or the dough will absorb it and the layering that gives it the flakiness will be lost. Production of this bread calls for returning the dough frequently to the refrigerator during fabrication.

What are the parts of bread according to the French?

Bread consists of two parts, the croûte or crust, and the mie, also called la miche, or crumb (the inside). Croûte is where we get our word crust in English.

The crust must be very hard and chewy. A sheen is nice too although typically, it doesn’t occur uniformly over the whole crust without paying special attention to it. Often, the sheen is interrupted by slash patterns, which force the dough to expand in a regular fashion, flour marks and other decorations. A distinction between normal and country/rustic bread is the replacement of the sheen with a dusty surface as the illustration on my recipe shows.

The crumb must be moist, but not doughy, with irregular holes and chewy. The crumb is the hardest part to get right. It is also the least understood in the United States because Americans have no bread of this quality except from some artisan bakers. My local, “authentic” French bakery does not make bread of the quality I’m talking about.

And the crust? (A short history of French bread baking)

This, however, doesn’t explain the crust. Commercial ovens in France have a vapor injection capability. It is the introduction of steam or fine water vapor into the baking process that achieves the crust. It is the use of pans, the lack of adequate vapor and the Health Department’s insistance that we thrust the bread into plastic bags that completely destroys the crust on American bread making its center part the dominant (and boring) feature whereas the crust and crumb of French bread form an essential alliance of contrasting and complimentary taste and texture.

Owing to the rather expensive nature of ovens, French bread, especially in the country town, was baked communally in a town oven maintained by one person. My children’s great grandfather was just such a person in northeastern France during the War, singled out because the occupying soldiers thought he could be trusted (mostly, he spoke Luxemburgish and German).

All the town brought their own pre-made pâtons or uncooked loaves to the oven when it was fired. The oven was firebrick piled into a vault with a flat floor and often bermed around with earth. A wood fire was started in the oven and allowed to burn down. Once it had gone out, the coals and ashes were swept out and, as soon as a piece of newspaper could be placed in the oven yellowing, but not bursting into flames, it was pronounced ready and all the loaves were shoveled inside using a long-handled peel. Each loaf was marked with an initial or other symbol uniquely identifying its owner.

Because dough has a high water content, all these individual loaves in close quarters gave off considerable vapor at the beginning. The oven was closed so this vapor persisted and had a effect on the texture of the crust, an effect that is duplicated in modern ovens in France and here by vapor injection.

The good news is that any attempt at putting water into the baking process advances the cause. The bad news is that it is difficult without artifice to achieve exactly the crust you might remember from your last trip to France. One way to do this is to purchase a steamer device such as the “Steam Baking Master” by Testrite Baparoma International as sold in the Williams-Sonoma catalog. However, the most effective method I have found is simpler and cheaper involving placing a small cast-iron skillet in the oven when it is started and then pouring ½ cup of boiling hot water into it as soon as the new loaves are placed on the baking stone (and the door promptly shut and not reopened).

An even more effective method is to duplicate more or less the conditions of the old oven by letting the moisture from the bread do it alone. This can’t be achieved in the kitchen oven, but it works perfectly if you bake the bread in “an oven inside your oven” as I do.

Convection and bread-baking should never meet. Do not use the convection setting when baking bread because it dries out the oven, venting the beneficent water vapor to the outside. Of course, if you’re using a Dutch oven inside your oven, this is not a problem.

Water vapor is only necessary, indeed, useful at the beginning of the bake.

Exactly how does water vapor form the delectable crust?

I had long wondered this myself until I chanced upon an explanation in a booklet for a product from another country. Though the explanation was poorly written or translated, it was enough to run it by a friend of mine, Chris Gibbons, who happens to be an experienced chemist with a university degree in that subject. He helped me formulate the following explanation.

In a hot oven, water vapor condenses on the surface of the bread because, relative to the ambiant temperature of the oven, the dough is very cold. This is the same principle illustrated by your glass of ice cold Coca Cola® on a warm day: the water in the surrounding, warmer air condenses on the side of the cold glass. Since it takes a comparatively large amount of energy to raise the temperature of water enough to evaporate it off the surface of the dough—much more than it takes to raise the temperature of the bread—the temperature of the crust stays a little cooler throughout more of the baking cycle.

This explains why French bread is never doughy, but perfectly cooked inside given that the inside has longer to cook before the crust is over-done. And it is a boon to the crust because the added moisture and resulting colder temperature of the surface of the bread permits the starches in the dough to polymerize better (form longer chains that stick together) instead of becoming composed of shorter, globules of starch. Crudely put, this makes of the bread’s crust, an envelope of plastic.

The crust does turn very brown as soon as the inside is baked and the amount of water vapor leaving the loaf through the crust drops.

The French in general have an aversion to the underdone baked goods Americans find so tantalizing including doughy bread and raw cookies. Hence the strikingly tough crust and chewy crumb.

The relative success of this undertaking can be measured visibly upon removing the bread from the oven in the sheen that appears on the crust (assuming that you didn’t dust it on purpose with flour, a common technique of decoration). If your crust is dull, powdery and too soft to cut your finger or slice through a gum, you have failed. Audibly, the crust will immediately begin cracking because as it cools, the crumb collapses in on itself slightly. The crust, reinforced by the longer chains of fired starch mollecules, collapses in, but not at the same rate because of its structure. This leads to it cracking.

The last thing that retarding the baking time for the crust does goes hand-in-hand with the polymerizing process: that of caramelization. Like browning meat in a pan, or firing meringue in an oven, the starch granules in the crust caramelize, a process that imparts great flavor differentiating it still further from the inside of the bread.

This process of caramelization is universally applicable in cooking: it is the reason you cannot use the microwave oven for cooking anything. It is why non-stick pans don’t work so well for browning meat or making sauces since they retard caramelization and leave nothing to deglaze afterwards. But that is a subject for another rant.