Our newest team member at Slow Food USA is Nathan Leamy. Nathan came to us from San Francisco where he was working to help organize for, and subsequently, clean up from Slow Food Nation. Prior to his adventures there, Nathan wandered the globe with a Watson Fellowship studying the impact of the Green Revolution on grain consumption in Mexico, India, France, and Egypt. A graduate of Oberlin College and Deep Springs College, Nathan grew up in Portland, Oregon. Here he starts what we hope to have as a series on his passion, hobby, and means of sustenance – bread.
by Slow Food USA staffer Nathan Leamy
Though I have been a voracious eater all my life, my breaducation (‘cause that’s what the cool kids are calling it these days) started while I was living on a ranch in Eastern California. Since then, the works of Nancy Silverton, Julia Child, and Steven Kaplan have inspired me to find, produce, and eat better baked goods. Work in various quasi-professional kitchens, an apprenticeship at a bakery in Paris last spring, and the dedicated consumption of carbohydrates have rounded out my working knowledge of bread.
While I respect all breads, my passion goes out to traditional French loaves made with sourdough. Sourdough is a wild yeast which has been caught and tamed to produce slow developing, flavorful bread. Contrary to the term, sourdough breads need not be sour. Many breads labeled as sourdough in the US are still made with commercial yeast and actually just have extra acids added to them to make them taste sour, but traditional bakeries nationwide are seeing a resurgence of sourdough use. Sourdough breads can be made in any shape or size, but the traditional shapes are the boule, baguette, and epi.
Even where crusty, artisanal breads can be found, many fall flat in flavor. How can you tell if a loaf of artisan sourdough is good? For your reading pleasure – and perhaps even the first part of your breaducation – here’s an attempt to summarize the five easy indicators of good bread.
Judge a book by its cover. Ugly bread is rarely good. Pallid, dimpled, and dull bread should turn you away. Good sourdough should have a dark, caramel crust with weight to it. The bread should be aesthetically pleasing – well formed, balanced, even. It is saggy or looks over stuffed, no good. The crust shouldn’t shine like it’s been lacquered – but it should have a healthy amount of texture to it. If you’ve got a real winner it will have a pinhead sized, light bubbles evenly spread about it. Slashes across the top should be pronounced and should have prevented the bread from ripping at the seams during baking.
Listen to your bread. When picking up a loaf of good bread, it should have an even feel – it should not be lopsided or off-kilter. Knock lightly on the bottom with your finger tips and you should hear a hollow thump like you are striking a drum. Squeezing lightly, the bread should have some give and make a crackling noise.
What’s on the inside counts too. The inside of the bread (called the crumb) should have air holes in it. Unevenly spaced, unevenly sized, with stretches of gluten on the edges. How dense or light you like your crumb is all a matter of personal preference, but you need to see some holes to show that there was some action inside the loaf.
Dive in, nose first. Good bread shouldn’t be just a neutral medium to pile other things atop. It should have a flavor and smell that complement what you are eating. Breaking open a loaf and pushing your nose in it should give you the best idea of what’s going on in there. Depending on the sourdough used, flavors can run the gamut – but most importantly there should be some sort of fragrance and not the dull, sweet, hollow smell of industrial yeast.
Eat it. Since the point of bread is eating, a bread should be, well, good to have in your mouth. Biting into bread you should have a bit of pull on the crust, but not have to fight with it. The crumb shouldn’t just dissolve, be so dry as to make you feel parched, yet not so soggy to make you feel icky. It should feel good to loll around in your mouth for a little bit before you finally get to eat your good bread.
That’s how you identify good bread. The most important matter is to stop and think about it. Though eaten nearly everyday, people often settle for something mediocre without giving it a second thought. These indicators aren’t prerequisite for good tasting bread – but every little bit helps. Whether buying from a bakery – or making your own sourdough treats at home – it takes all of your senses to find that which is good.