Different types of bread
Bread, Cooking Knowledge, Culture, Non Recipes

What are the characteristics of great bread?

3 comments

One of the most fascinating aspects of staple foods like bread, rice, or potatoes is that they are prepared so differently across the world. There are countless methods to prepare white rice. You can steam it, boil it, fry it, make it clumpy or loose, crispy or tender, salt it or not.

The same is true for bread. Germans look for different qualities in bread than Americans, Africans, or Asians. If you speak a second language you might’ve experienced that firsthand. If I search for English-language bread recipes on Google the results are quite different than if I search for German-language recipes.

In America, you basically have two kinds of bread which are very popular and can be found on countless food blogs:

  • Milk bread
  • Artisinal white bread

I’m always bothered a bit by the term “artisanal” because in American recipes it often refers to white wheat bread with an extremely open crumb. But isn’t milk bread also an artisanal bread if you prepare it in your home kitchen? The German term for artisanal bread is “Handwerksbrot”. Anything that is prepared by a person and not a machine is considered to be a “Handwerksbrot”. Even white sandwich bread or toast.

toast bread in toaster
Toast is an easy bread to make at home.

I am not a native English speaker so I am not 100 percent sure about the term “artisanal bread”. But I guess most American people picture a crispy and dark bread loaf with a widen open crumb. The bread is chewy, maybe even made with sourdough. Artisanal bread in the English sense is very different from milk or sandwich bread. Milk bread is fluffy, has an even crumb, and the crust of the bread is very pale and soft.

The same bread ingredient can have different purposes across cultures

If you make a Google search for milk bread, you will stumble upon countless American recipes for Japanese milk bread. As far as I can judge, it’s very similar to German braided bread or French brioche. Almost all the recipes include a so-called “tangzhong”. It’s a gelatinized flour paste that I also use for my spelt bread.

Almost all of the online recipes make it seem like they uncovered the “big secret” to fluffy bread. Because of the flour paste, the bread is so much softer. And that is true. In German, this flour paste is called “Kochstück” (cooked thing) and has been known forever. However, Germans use it differently than the Japanese and Americans.

Food market in asia selling bread
Milk bread is popular across Asia because of the tender crumb and crust.

In Germany, we don’t add the flour paste to our dough because we want the bread to be softer. We love firm and crispy bread. Germans add flour paste mainly to spelt bread. Spelt flour can hold less water than wheat flour. High-hydration dough can be horribly sticky and impossible to handle. The flour paste gets rid of that problem. We can get more water into the dough without it getting too sticky.

The downside of this is that the bread typically won’t develop a super crispy crust. But that is fine. The more water is in the bread, the longer it will last. Potato bread is extremely popular in Germany. Instead of the flour paste, you simply add leftover mashed potatoes into your dough. These will keep the bread soft and ensure a long shelf-life.

It’s quite interesting, isn’t it? Germans and Americans both add the flour paste to their dough but for vastly different reasons. American’s look for fluffy and tender bread whereas Germans simply want to extend the shelf life and make the dough easier to handle. The general rule in Germany is that, if it’s not necessary, don’t add flour paste to your dough.

German bread preferences

European preferences are very unique when it comes to bread. Germans love:

  • A dark, thick, and crispy crust
  • A very even crumb without too many large holes (“streichfähige Krume”)
  • A chewy crumb that gives some resistance to the bite
  • Seeds, grains, or nuts that make the bread even more delicious

On the other hand, a person from Asia and many people in the US prefer:

  • A pale and soft crust, maybe even crustless bread
  • A very fluffy, cotton-like crumb in sandwich bread
  • An extremely open and uneven crumb in “artisanal” sourdough bread
  • Slightly sweet and milky bread is very popular

Many Germans are slightly disappointed if they go to a foreign country outside of Europe and the only thing offered there is crustless milk bread. I like toast from time to time, but it’s certainly not one of my favorite bread types. On the other hand, I also wonder how on earth “artisanal” sourdough bread recipes with a very irregular open crumb can be so popular in the US.

They certainly look appealing. And I think such bread is nice to eat with a bowl of soup. We have baguettes and ciabatta here in Europe. Both have a very open crumb. The Italians like to dip these in olive oil.

But Germans are not Italians. I mean some people here dip bread in olive oil. But I’m fairly certain that the great majority loves to spread butter, cheese, sausage, or jam on their bread. If your bread has huge holes, the jam will just fall through them and make a big mess. So obviously, for breakfast or dinner, most Germans love to have bread that has an even crumb without any huge holes in it.

pain de cristal
Pain de Cristal. Picture Source: Twitter.

The craziest thing I have ever seen is that there is a Spanish bread that is called “Pain de Cristal”. It looks astonishing but I always wonder how people eat it. There’s almost no substance to it. But “Pain de Cristal” very nicely reflects the differences in Spanish and German food. The Spaniards like to dip bread in olive oil or eat it with tapas as an appetizer whereas the Germans love sandwiches.

Germans and Americans name their bread differently

Another thing I always notice when looking for English-language bread recipes is that they are often named weirdly. If you make a Google search for rye bread, you find countless wheat bread recipes with a rye content of less than 20 percent. In Germany, this is still called wheat or mixed bread (‘Weizenmischbrot’). If we say rye bread in Germany, we mean it. Rye bread typically consists of more than 80 percent rye flour. The same is true for spelt or whole-grain bread.

Many American bloggers are so obsessed with achieving a wild open crumb that almost all their recipes contain at least 80 percent white wheat bread flour. I’m sure these loaves of bread smell and taste amazing. However, if you really want rye flavor in your bread you need to use more than 20 percent.

For a German, it’s very confusing that a wide-open crumb structure is the most important aspect of bread. In Germany, we say taste first. We rather sacrifice bread volume and airiness for a deeper, more complex flavor. Especially for beginner bakers, I think it’s much better to focus on the taste of the bread instead of chasing a crumb structure with huge air pockets.

Sourdough rye bread
An ideal bread crumb from the German point of view.

But that’s just my priority. Online recipes are published on picture-heavy food blogs. So obviously, the crumb structure is the most important selling point for bloggers. The more open the crumb, the more clicks from Google.

To conclude this discussion: Bread preferences are a matter of taste and our cultural upbringing. Some bread features like a soft crust are preferred by the ones and detested by the others. A German loves an even crumb in “artisanal” sourdough bread while an American might prefer an irregular and wide open crumb.

No preference is better or worse than the other. But it is very interesting to see how vastly different people can approach such a simple ingredient like flour. It’s a plain white powder that can be turned into thousands of mouthwatering types of bread. In the end, there is no right or wrong way. There’s just delicious and even more delicious bread.

3 Comments

  1. To help you with your wonder of the use of the word artisanal bread in America its a catchy name to be part of like people going to the Opera more for to be seen with than the art!

    Yes I agree anything that is done by hand in a non comercial bread or hobby
    falls under that name.

    • Thanks, Harold.

      It was a little surprising to me that so many recipes call their bread artisanial. In Germany, we don’t use that term. We tend to call the bread sold in a supermarket “industry bread” instead of referring to handmade bread as “artisanal”. Maybe that’s because small bakeries are still very common here and supermarket bread started to appear on a large-scale just about 10-15 years ago. Before that, most bread sold in Germany was handmade. Of course, nowadays handmade bread has also become a speciality in Germany and the stuff sold in supermarkets has overtaken the mass market.

  2. Tim, living in the western world our way of life has not been tradition .
    Prosperity and income seem to out way the basic needs of life and while I am not against having the pleasure of choices in life what you are seeing in your country is the beginings of new values. Its sad to hear comments here from friends and in general like…. why would I want to bake Loaf of bread when I can pick up a few for little money and not sweat over the stove!, get a life as they say!

    Well choice is good but making something from nothing to feed a basic need is life and they are the sad ones . Its not a matter of time and money its being human something that is slowly muting into a new form !

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