Four years ago, I walked into Oat Bakery in Santa Barbara, California, and tried fresh bread for what felt like the first time. I will never forget that bite—the pull of the crust, then the soft, slightly chewy interior with just enough give; a bit salty; somehow buttery, though there was no butter in sight. I was overwhelmed with flavor and texture. I asked for a list of ingredients because I could not believe that this was what bread could be. To my surprise, there were no gimmicks or tricks, just a few quality ingredients and attention to detail. This was my first foray into the bread world, and my first experience of bread at the bakery that soon became my second home.
A lot has changed since that first taste. For one, the experience of sampling before you buy is often nonexistent (thanks, COVID.) Plus, now it seems that practically everyone I meet is at least somewhat well versed in the art of bread making. (Remember the shelter-in-place sourdough craze of early 2020?) Not to mention that bread bakeries, old and new, are quickly becoming household names: People will go out of their way to hit Tartine while vacationing in San Francisco; Los Angeles’s La Brea can be found in supermarkets from coast to coast; New York’s Bread Alone now stocks loaves in supermarkets and grocery delivery services around the tristate area. It seems that the not-at-all-novel concept of enjoying fresh bread regularly has taken the world by storm these past few years. Yet I still find myself surrounded by underwhelming bread.
I am here to speak out against subpar bread. Call me a bread snob and you’d be right. I haven’t bought a loaf of generic sliced bread from the grocery store in years, and I have no intention of doing so anytime soon. Four years of baking, selling, and eating really high-quality bread has taught me quite a bit—at every step of the way. I’m here to share the tips that have made all the difference.
Know the difference between sourdough and yeasted bread when you’re eating. Sourdough is fermented and naturally leavened, relying on naturally occurring wild yeast (all present in starter) to make it rise. It can be challenging to make, but the payoff is the complexity of texture and flavor found in sourdough. Yeasted bread, on the other hand, relies on store-bought yeast to make it rise. It is a bit more predictable in the home kitchen, is often less of a time commitment to make, and usually has a more uniform texture throughout. Both styles of bread can be absolutely delicious, but they are different, and learning where you prefer one over the other can make for a more enjoyable eating experience.
When I stopped thinking of bread as purely a vessel for toppings, or, worse yet, an “empty carb,” everything changed. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a sandwich, but bread can be so much more than a convenient vehicle for deli meat or peanut butter, and should be allowed to speak for itself as part of a meal.
Should you leave your bread out for too long, don’t think of stale bread as the enemy and toss it. Use it to your advantage by baking it crunchier still, soaking it in custard and frying, tossing in vinaigrette, and more. (Think: croutons, French toast, bread pudding, stuffing, and panzanella—just to name a few.)
While it will require visiting a store other than the supermarket, if you have a local bread bakery, consider making regular trips. Bread bakeries (and more specifically, sourdough bakeries) can be few and far between in the U.S., but regular customers quickly become like family. Weekly (or more!) trips to the bakery could lead to the occasional discount or special taste-test, but at the very least the smaller shopping environment almost always leads to deeper connections between employees and customers. Bottom line: Ask questions. Good bakers care about their bread and want to talk about it.
If you can help it, don’t buy presliced loaves. Sliced and prepackaged bread can indicate that the loaf was treated with preservatives—while they extend the shelf life of the product, they can take away from those nuanced flavors and textures. On the other hand, sliced and packaged bread that doesn’t include preservatives won’t stay fresh for long. Once you get over that mental block of slicing your own bread, you won’t look back. I recommend leaving the loaf intact and only slicing a piece when you want it. If it’s the ease of presliced bread that appeals to you, try slicing a whole loaf, putting it in the freezer, then popping individual slices in the toaster as you want them—like a toaster waffle, but better. If you don’t own a serrated knife (but really, you should!) and need sliced bread, sometimes bakeries will slice it for you.
When it comes to storing bread, you can get creative. Anything from a paper bag, a traditional bread box, or a mixing bowl or pot turned upside down on the counter will do the trick. Basically, you want to find something airtight that will keep the bread from going stale. That being said, you can revive stale bread by running it quickly under the sink (just for a second!) and putting it in the oven at 350℉ until warmed through.
One of the first things to consider when baking bread at home—whether it’s made with commercial yeast or with a sourdough starter—is measuring ingredients by weight, not by volume. This helps keep things consistent, and no more washing pesky measuring cups. It means buying a kitchen scale, but it is an investment that is well worth it, and can be used every day, for way more than bread. Plus, these days you can find a pretty solid scale for around $30. My personal preference is the GreaterGoods Digital Food Kitchen Scale—it gets the job done for less than $20. Another huge game changer in sourdough bread baking is making sure your sourdough starter is mature and active before you start to bake. It should be frothy and at least doubled in volume since its last feeding. Some of my biggest sourdough disappointments can be chalked up to baking with a starter that isn’t quite at its peak. Technically, you can make a starter in five to seven days, but in my experience it takes about two weeks (minimum) of fermenting for it to really find its stride. If you simply can’t wait to bake your first loaf, try asking your local bakery for a small portion of starter. Sometimes if you’re nice they will share.
Finally, when baking, it’s important to remember that not all flours are created equal. While it’s possible to bake with whatever is available, I always look for unbleached flours, and use organic when possible. This makes a huge difference, especially when feeding a sourdough starter. In my experience, making a starter with highly processed bleached flour creates something more along the lines of Elmer’s Glue or sour milk than the sourdough starters you’ll see in high-quality bakeries. Starter aside, you can bake with bleached, processed flour, but your bread will have a lot more depth of flavor and a more satisfying texture with unbleached, organic flours.
If there’s one thing to remember in the bread (eating, buying, and baking) system, it’s to trust your gut as a consumer, customer, and baker. When eating bread, follow your cravings, mix flavors and textures, and allow your bread to have a voice. When buying it, trust that little voice inside your head that wants that one specific loaf, point to it, and ask for it. Try unexpected combinations with seasonal ingredients and you won’t be disappointed. When baking, play around with hydration, timing, shaping, and scoring. Sourdough is alive and responds well to confident experimentation. Bread is a practice in intuitive living—I say embrace it.
What’s your top bread tip—for eating, buying, or making? Let us know in the comments.