Old World Breads

October 9, 2009

8 Min Read
Old World Breads

Walking down the street on a recent trip to Vietnam with Mark Furstenberg, a good friend, scholar of Old World breads, and owner of Breadline in Washington, D.C., a motorcycle passed, trailing a merciless scent through the crowdsthe scent of fresh-baked bread. Our conversation immediately turned to bread and its multicultural history from the Old World to the new.

Step into the Old World

Old World bread typically refers to an unadulterated, ancient recipe, using stone-ground wheat flour and yeast starters created with the flour, water and natural yeast from the surrounding air, baked in a hearth oven. Although the Old World generally refers to the Eastern Hemisphere, it has a particular association with Europe.

In places where wheat wasnt grown, particularly in northern Europe, bakers used the grains they had, says Furstenberg. Because the gluten in those grains doesnt have the extensible qualities of wheat gluten, the breads were dense and rich, and far more flavorful. They were also a lot more healthful.

Texturally, these hearty, whole-grain breads, with their crusty outside and chewy inside, were a great complement to any meal. Even with a simple soup or stew, they assert whole-grain flavor and add dimension.

Fermentation magic

Thanks to Americas growing community of artisan bread bakers, a host of Old Worldstyle bakeries is flourishing. The word artisan means skilled craftsperson, and Old World bread refers to the indigenous recipe and method used to produce that particular bread. The two often go hand-in-hand.

Nothing seems to define artisanal like extended fermentationspreading fermentation over a period of many hours or days. This allows the yeast to develop more slowly, fermenting carbohydrates and building flavor.

A pre-ferment is exactly what its name indicates: a mixture of flour, water, yeast and sometimes salt prepared in advance of making the main dough. The purpose is to unlock and enhance the flavors developed during fermentation. Three pre-ferments dominate artisan baking: biga, poolish and sponge.

Biga. This Italian pre-ferment mixes some of the water and flour from a recipe with some or all of the yeast. The usual ratio is a bakers percentage hydration of 60% (60 lbs. of water per 100 lbs. flour). The mixture is left to ferment for as long as a couple of days before making the final dough. This increased fermentation often permits a reduction in the typical amount of yeast used in the given bread, with longer fermentation times permitting an incrementally smaller levels of required yeast.

Since a biga calls for 60% hydration, it will knead like a French bread dough. After mixing, the biga is placed in a covered container for a few hours to develop, after which it can be used or placed in the refrigerator for a period of extended development. Three desirable developments take place by refrigerating the biga overnight for further development: lighter structure, better flavor and better shelf life. More time is allowed for further fermentation, which produces more gas and acidity. The formation of organic and carbonic acids produces aromas that are important in the flavor of the final product. The increased acidity also delays the staling and molding of the bread.

Poolish. This French pre-ferment differs from a biga in that it is made with 100% hydration plus some or all of the yeast. The result of the fermentation is similar to what occurs in a biga.This French pre-ferment differs from a in that it is made with 100% hydration plus some or all of the yeast. The result of the fermentation is similar to what occurs in a .

Sponge. A sponge, used the world over, is a mixture of all the water, all the yeast and half the flour. Its mixed up into a batter, covered and left to develop for 2 to 5 hours. The baker then adds the rest of the ingredients according to the recipe.Another proofing step that can improve artisan breads is what the French call autolyse. After mixing the flour and water until just incorporated, its allowed to rest as the flour absorbs the water and strong gluten chains begin forming. The pre-ferment and other ingredients are then combined with the autolyse.

Inside the oven

Artisan breads are generally baked in stone tunnel ovens, which provide the strong bottom heat needed to promote even spring and create the typical characteristics of an artisan loaf. However, if the temperature is too high, the bottom crust can spread excessively and harden. And if the top temperature is too high and/or not enough humidity is present, the crust can harden prematurely, which will prevent loaf expansion.

The distinctive rustic crust of artisan bread can be achieved with other types of ovens in automated production. However, strict control over the heat and process is essential to create the desired bread characteristics. In addition to the correct bottom heat, steam is generally applied in the first baking zone to prevent the crust from forming too quickly; it also helps promote an ideal rise during baking. Applying high heat in the final zone helps create the desired final crust, texture and aroma. After baking, the breads should be cooled on racks so the steam generated during baking can dissipate for proper hardening of the crust.

Old World examples

France and Italy provide a nice range of Old World, artisanal breads for considerationsome of which are growing more familiar in the West and others are poised for more exposure.Most whole-grain Old World breads traditionally have a very dense texture and dont fall into the norm of what most consumers think of when they consider todays artisan-style breads, which often have a soft, light, crumb and texture. However, when baked with a mixture of white whole-wheat flours and heartier types, todays Old World artisan breads can retain the rustic, typically whole-grain character of the original while maintaining widespread consumer appeal.

Baguette. This long, narrow, yeast-raised French bread is noted for its crisp crust and chewy, airy interior. These breads are made in sourdough or sweet versions and sometimes come studded with unhulled sesame, sunflower, brown flax and/or fennel seeds.In France, the dimension and weight are defined by law (diameter of 2 to 2.5 in. and just over 3 ft. long), but here the term is more loosely applied. Baguettes go well with pâtés and other appetizers, and make excellent crostini.

Bâtarde. The bâtarde is larger than a baguette, but otherwise is quite similar.

Boule. French for ball, this country bread has a chewy crust and open crumb, and often does not call for a kneading step.

Campagne. This French country bread (campagne is French for country) is usually made with a mix of whole-grain wheat and rye flours. It has more body and more-intense, nutty flavor than other French breads. The crust is firm and chewy, but inside the bread is still quite tender. Its a good candidate for sandwiches.

Ciabatta. A wide, rather-flat, Italian bread, ciabatta gets its name from its shape, which is said to resemble a slipper (ciabatta in Italian). It has a thin crust, often dusted with flour, and a tender texture with a large number of holes. This bread is great with hors doeuvres, including marinated vegetables, such as peppers.Traditionally, the holes in ciabatta meant that it wasnt an ideal choice for sandwiches. However, some bakers are adjusting their recipes to use milk as part or all of the liquid. This makes for a more-tender bread without the holes or crackly crust historically associated with ciabatta. When made with milk, the bread is known as ciabatta latte. Ciabatta made with part whole-wheat flour is known as ciabatta integrale; it has a toasted, nutty flavor that matches nicely with fontina and grilled vegetables.

Ficelle. This long, thin loaf is roughly half the size of a baguette, but otherwise is similar. Ficelle means string in French.

Focaccia. Cousin to pizza, focaccia is a flat, Italian bread that often includes olive oil in the mix and drizzled on top, along with herbs like rosemary and perhaps a sprinkle of coarse salt. It forms the basis of Mediterranean-style sandwiches, or accompanies soups and salads.

Levain. Like sourdough, this rustic, round, naturally leavened bread eschews commercial yeasts. Pain au levain often has an assertive grain flavor from the use of whole-wheat or rye flour, as well as a tangy note from the natural sourdough starter. The crust is typically golden and springy.

Pugliese. Often incorporating olive oil, this rustic, often oval breadhailing from Puglia, Italyis similar to ciabatta, but heavier, with large holes and distinctive grain flavor.

Few things in this world can evoke or create fond memories quite like great bread. Although the origins of these Old World breads stretch back hundreds of years, they carry their history with them. You know youre hooked when you find yourself savoring every bite of a sandwich made with a superb bread, enjoying the flavor and the texture all the way to the last bite.

Stephen Hodge, CEC, is senior executive chef at ConAgra Foods, Omaha, NE. He is a member of the Research Chefs Association.

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