In Defense of Bread: Returning to a Love for the Loaf

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Editor's Note:

Alexandra Stafford, author of newly published cookbook Bread Toast Crumbs, writes a blog called Alexandra’s Kitchen, a place for mostly simple recipes. She writes weekly about weeknight cooking for Food52. She lives in upstate New York with her husband and four children, and joins Signature to express her opinion on making, eating, and enjoying what bread has to offer, despite its bad rep.

One of the Italian words for meal is companatico – that which you eat with bread.

In the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan writes: “At an Italian table, food and bread are inseparable.” Italians nibble on bread throughout a meal, she says, from the moment they sit down to the moment the lamb stew or artichoke gratin arrives to just before the salad plates are cleared, at which point, bread is used to soak up the salty, vinegary olive oil lingering on the plate.

Bread as an integral part of a meal is not celebrated in America. From the popularity of the low-carb Atkins diet in the early 2000s to the more recent Paleo and Whole 30 diets, people have developed a fear of gluten. (Those with Celiac, of course, stand apart from this crowd, as they simply cannot eat it.) Bread, in particular, has taken a beating.

As someone who has eaten bread every day for about as long as I’ve been alive, I feel this to be wholly unfair. I, however, am neither a scientist nor a nutritionist and so can only speak from the heart as I question why bread has been so maligned when there are so many factors at play. When processed foods have never been more readily available or more attractive or affordable. When people are working longer hours and relying on restaurants, meal-delivery services, and corporations, whose business models depend on the use of cheap ingredients, to cook their food.

Could it be that the less time we spend cooking, the less healthily we are eating? Might we all be eating better overall if we adhered within reason to an idea voiced by Harry Balzer in Michael Pollan’s documentary “Cooked”: “Eat anything you want. Eat all the cookies, all the pie, all the ice cream. Just do one thing – make them all yourself”?

It’s time to give bread a break. Here’s why I bake and eat bread often and why I think you should, too:

There’s an Italian proverb: “Pan di sudore, miglior sapore,” which means bread that comes out of sweat tastes better. In other words, homemade bread tastes better than store-bought. I would also argue that breads requiring no sweat taste better than anything you can buy at the store. It’s not uncommon for store-bought breads to be made with thirty-plus ingredients, many of which are unrecognizable and impart artificial flavors in the loaves. Homemade bread, at its simplest, requires flour, salt, and water. If you use high-quality ingredients, flour in particular, you’re well on your way to creating a tasty loaf.

Kitchen Satisfaction. I have learned over the years that nothing receives more compliments than homemade bread. Nothing disappears faster from the dinner table, nothing elicits more recipe requests, and nothing fills a cook with more triumph than pulling homemade bread from the oven. And it doesn’t have to be an archetypal loaf of bread naturally leavened, made from milled-at-home, organic flour, baked in a wood-fired oven to crackling crust perfection. Baking a simple bread is as satisfying as making an artisan bread.

This question has been asked many times before: Is there anything better than homemade bread? Especially when freshly baked? And spread with salted butter or paired with some cheese and a glass of wine? Is a bowl of soup or a pot of mussels complete without a loaf of crusty bread alongside to accompany each bite? What would avocado toast be without a thick, toasty base? Why should we deny ourselves something that brings such joy? As Julia Child says, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

I confess I often bake with all-purpose flour, mostly for ease: All-purpose flour, which has been stripped of the nutritious bran and germ (which can make for denser loaves) is so cooperative – it rises quickly, and it bakes beautifully, producing a loaf with a soft, light crumb. Bread, however, can be a great source for whole grains, especially when made with stone-milled flour, which keeps the three parts of the grain (the endosperm, bran, and germ) together during the milling process. This differs from roller-milling, which separates the grain into its three parts. Most flour on the market today, whole wheat flour included, is produced by roller milling, and some people believe the nutrition to be lost as soon as the kernel is separated into its three parts, even if the parts eventually are reunited (as they are with whole wheat flour). I’ve had great success substituting a stone-milled flour from the Finger Lakes, Farmer Ground Flour, for half of the all-purpose flour in many of the breads I bake.

On a recent visit to Los Angeles, I spent one morning at Gjusta, a bakery/smokehouse/deli/café offering some of the best breads I’ve ever tasted. The breads wove their way through the menu of sandwiches, tartines, cheese plates, and charcuterie platters, which drew an enormous crowd. Seeing Los Angeles – the land of acai bowls, juice cleanses, and raw food – embrace companatico, filled me with joy. Maybe bread’s best days lie ahead.