Once you learn the characteristics, you’ll know handcrafted bread by the look of it, whether it’s round or baton, a French or Italian loaf.
Scored with a design that’s a baker’s signature, the crust can range from golden brown to dark as bark. Use a serrated knife to expose an interior that’s absorbent but not spongy, with a crumb that’s not too dense, in a pattern that’s not as irregular as the holes in Swiss cheese. A chewiness and the sour note of fermentation also indicate success.
Baking naturally leavened bread — the kind that begins with a fermenting starter that incorporates only wild yeast — requires adjusting to factors such as humidity, temperature and dough hydration. To anticipate what should be done in the 24-hour period that includes mixing, kneading, folding and resting, bakers have found that, to be any good, they have to develop an understanding that’s akin to learning a language.
At the moment, there are few opportunities to find this kind of bread in a Pittsburgh-area bakery, specialty shop or restaurant. As a result, some home bread bakers are taking things into their own hands, turning to books from Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, author of “Tartine Bread” (Chronicle 2010) and “Tartine Book No. 3: Modern Ancient Classic Whole” (Chronicle 2013).
Although they’re beautiful and inspiring, these books offer more than the novice baker can chew.
An author who’s more empathetic to the home cook is Sam Fromartz, whose book “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey” (Viking) went on sale last month.
Mr. Fromartz is a veteran journalist in Washington, D.C., who is editor in chief of the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit investigative news service. In this book he educates readers through a journeyman narrative, with a handful of recipes from an “easy-to-make baguette” inspired by travels in France, to pain de campagne from California bakers and German Roggenweizenbrot he learned in Berlin.
With engaging stories and occasional diversions into wonkiness, he helps readers understand why man could have lived by bread alone: when ancient methods preserved nutrients, protein and the flavors of heritage grains, before mass-production food processing took the life out of a loaf.
Mr. Fromartz and his family gave up this kind of store-bought bread long ago.
“My daughter doesn’t eat hot dog buns or, really, any store-bought bread,” he told me. “Her friends come over as they walk in the door, they say, ‘Sam, where’s the bread?’ ”
Here’s a man who, in 2008, after 10 years of avid home-baking, recognized he still had so much to learn. This was especially the case when it came to breads from French-baking traditions, such as baguettes.
When two of his regular editors didn’t need his writing services anymore, he thought he was in financial trouble. Instead, his life opened up when a new client stepped in and asked him to write an immersion travel piece. He pitched baking baguettes at Boulangerie Delmontel in Paris, which serves as the first chapter of his book.
“Many novices start out with this iconic loaf,” he writes, “and that’s where the trouble begins, because it’s the equivalent of wanting to knock out a Beethoven sonata when you sit down at the piano for the first time.”
Here’s a snapshot of why the baguette is challenging. Flavor doesn’t come from mixing ingredients together but from “coaxing it out of the flour.” The interior crumb should be light and open. The crust should be slashed just before it slides into the oven, allowing the dough to burst through the slashes, he says. Wiggly slashes point to failure. And the crust should crackle when you bite into it. Also, the baker should be comfortable working with sticky dough and should understand how to adjust the fermentation process.
It took him “a month or two,” after he returned home to Washington, D.C., to make what he considered a good, but not great, baguette.
From there, Mr. Fromartz inspired a baking competition several months later, held by Tim Carman of Washington City Paper and judged by cookbook author Joan Nathan, bread guru Mark Furstenberg, restaurateur and executive chef of CityZen Eric Ziebold, and a staffer at the paper. His baguettes won the best bread award, though the judges weren’t necessarily pleased that a home baker’s bread beat out anything else available in town.
If his breads weren’t available to the public, what would he do with what he’s learning?
After traveling around the world to meet with bakers, research and hone his skill, he answered the question by writing this book: his attempt to bring back nutrition, flavor and craft into everyday bread.
If you don’t know much about how or why handcrafted bread is vastly different from what’s sold in bakeries and grocery stores, start with this book.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter@melissamccart.