What is “Artisan” Bread?

“Artisan” has become an all-too-common term when describing bread. You find it everywhere from the names of small specialty bakeries to the buns surrounding  fast food products. The meaning is diluted. I try to find more specific words to differentiate between my hand-made bread and what you find in the supermarket, but there are times when “artisan” is the most efficient word to convey this idea, and before I can edit myself, I hear the a-word slip out of my mouth. Well, if I am going to use the word, let me take a moment to explain what I mean when I say it.

Merriam-Webster defines “artisan” as “one that produces something (as cheese or wine) in limited quantities using traditional methods.” This has a nice ring to it, but I can’t say that limiting quantities has ever been a priority of mine, in fact the goal of increasing production is the same for bread bakers as it is for any business. The trick is to balance this with the integrity of the finished product. A bread factory may employ any means available to ferment and proof their dough fast so they can get more in and out of the oven per shift at the expense of compromised flavor and texture. An artisan baker takes the opposite approach, actually extending the time for fermentation and proofing with the aid of refrigeration in order to a achieve a more complex flavor, creamy crumb, and chewy crust. This does not mean that they are not interested in making as much delicious bread as possible, just that scheduling becomes more difficult.

Now, as far as the use of “traditional methods,” there are bakers who go to extremes to avoid electric mixers and gas ovens; a noble pursuit to retain the knowledge of how bakeries operated in past centuries, but the old ways do not account for advances such as refrigeration (not all that new, actually) which, when employed in the bakery, can change our understanding of the biological processes that make bread making possible and lead to new and better techniques. If the goal is to discover methods which release the flavor trapped inside each kernel of wheat and make it available in the most pleasing texture possible, then bread making is as much about science as it is about art. It requires endless experimentation combining the best techniques of the past with new discoveries of the present.

In his book Artisan Breads Every Day, Peter Reinhart presents a brief history of the bread baking movement in America. (This book was my first introduction to home-baking and gave me a great foundation to build upon. Many of my formulas are based on those presented in this book, so I highly recommend checking it out!) He describes three waves beginning with the whole grain movement of the 1960s, also known as the health-food movement where flavor and texture took a backseat to choking down what ever seemed natural and untainted. A good start, but eating healthy shouldn’t have to be a sacrifice!

The next wave arrived in the 1970s and 80s and focused on traditional methods as Americans began to rediscover European culinary practices. This movement was also seen in the emergence of craft beer brewing. The third movement took these traditions and combined them with local and regional influences.

The 1990s saw these waves converge into the artisan bread movement. This is the era that saw the creation of the Bread Bakers Guild of American with a dedication to “advancing the artisan baking profession.” The results of these efforts were made clear in 1999 when the guild-sponsored Team USA won the gold medal at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in Paris. This victory was not unlike the events in the wine industry just a decade earlier, announcing to the world that American bakers were ready to participate in the advancement of the cause.

The most exciting thing about bread making to me is that the more I learn, the more I realize there will always be more to learn. Bakers have been on this journey ever since the first yeast-leavened load was tossed in a fire 6000 years ago.

So, for what it is worth, I believe “artisan” is not in the bread, it is in the baker.