Bakers disagree about the true definition of the term “artisan,” but reach a consensus that producing quality bread is a true art form in itself.


Bakers passionately debate about the true definition of  ‘artisan’ bread. They may disagree on fermentation times, whether it must be made by hand and how it needs to be baked, but in the end, like with all art, it comes down to a matter of taste.

By Dan Malovany

If Ray Million had it his way, he would make only four types of bread and form them all by hand.

    “If it were the dream bakery, it would have a wood-fired oven with a mixer, a dough knife and a pair of hands,” he says. “That is, in effect, how you get your best bread.”

    As vice president of operations and head of research and development for Hudson Bread, North Bergen, N.J., however, Million has to be a realist. Sure, he won’t compromise on fermentation. He won’t budge on giving the dough the time to mature naturally, but he believes that bakers can automate some processes and still make good bread.

    “I’m willing to work with the equipment that is out there that lends itself to soft dough dividing or separating or rounding,” he adds. “Think about it. You either need 30 people at the end of a table rounding 10,000 loaves of bread, or you have two pieces of equipment and five people to make an artisan product.”

    Taking it a step further, Ralph Hoffman, sales manager for Denmark-based Lantmannen Unibake that recently bought Eurobake of St. Petersburg, Fla., describes the word “artisan” as “the most abused word in the baking industry as of late.”

    Hoffman says the Eurobake operation, which custom develops signature breads primarily for foodservice accounts, relies on a starter brought from Germany plus long fermentation processes and substantial resting times for the dough to produce European-style breads and rolls. The products are then tailored to the American palate, which for breads, has come a long way since the early ‘90s.

    “At that time, the offering of bread was limited in the U.S. and especially when you look at the Florida market,” says Hoffman, a native of Germany with a European background in culinary arts.     “The only thing that was out there was Wonder bread white and Wonder bread not-so-white.”

    Today, many chefs are trying to satisfy consumers’ yearnings for crusty breads that are European in style but still soft and moist on the inside the way Americans like it.

    “It’s become a mixture of what the American customer wants and what we as Germans like to see in a bread,” Hoffman says. “We’ve implemented a time-consuming process. This is how we develop the flavor in the product.”

    Lantmannen has more than 30 bakeries, and the Eurobake purchase last April was its first venture in the U.S. market. Scott Kolinski, president of Lantmannen’s North American division in Lisle, Ill., stresses that quality artisan breads have a subtle flavor note to them.

    “I have had the opportunity to taste a lot of bread, both domestically and European products, and our products – even as basic as the baguette – have an outstanding flavor with a nice hint of sourdough note,” Kolinski says. “That flavor profile differentiates our products from some of the larger producers out there.”

    Speaking for a lot of bakers, Shannon Talty, owner of Olde Hearth Bread Co. in Casselberry, Fla., suggests that many companies call their breads “artisan” when they are clearly not. Olde Hearth Bread products, he notes, are created with a natural yeast starter that’s fermented overnight, rounded by hand and are baked in a Llopis oven, or the modern-day version of the authentic ovens found in the old abbeys of France, Italy and Spain.

    “It has become a marketing tag that has lost its identity,” Talty says. “My interpretation is that artisan baking implies a return to the practices of using methods that focus on hand development and an eye toward buying the best ingredients and producing products from scratch.”

    Philip Shaw, president of Toronto-based ACE Bakery, believes that what consumers perceive as “artisan” describes the product’s attributes such as an open-hole structure, a richness in taste and a high contrast between the crust and interior crumb texture.

    “At ACE, we use natural starters, low temperature and long fermentation times, and we hand shape most of our breads,” Shaw explains. “I don’t want to get caught up in the debate on who is and who isn’t meeting the measure of being a ‘true artisan bakery.’ Let someone else be the judge.     For me, it’s so much more about the quality of the bread and less about the process in which it is made.

    “There are bakers whose process is truer to the definition of an artisan bakery making inferior bread, and there are bakers using more highly automated processes making superior bread,” he adds. “I think the most important thing is not to fixate on preconceived notions about what process makes a better loaf of bread, but rather [to] appreciate that ultimately you are going to put it in your mouth and eat it. I would rather focus on the consumer’s experience rather than on the process.”

Fresh Versus Frozen

Purists, Talty notes, have even debated whether parbaked products can be called “artisan.”      

    However, because most artisan breads contain no preservatives, a short shelf life becomes a consistent issue. Freezing, many bakers argue, is a reasonable compromise.

    Talty’s Olde Hearth Bread’s top-selling products range from Challah, sourdough, Cuban and French breads to ciabatta, Cuban and flatbreads. They’re distributed fresh everyday, but the realities of the marketplace and the economies surrounding distribution have Talty considering frozen as an option.

    “We are researching getting into frozen parbaked but have not rolled out that product line yet,” Talty says.

    On the other hand, Lantmannen’s Hoffman believes that parbaked is the best format for the U.S. market. Chefs can simply heat and refresh to give consumers a warm product to start off a meal.   

    Moreover, he is seeing a greater move toward easier-to-use products among foodservice and in-store operators struggling with labor issues.

    “We’ve seen customer demand go to fully baked products and thaw-and-serve products that offer more convenience,” he says.

    ACE Bakery delivers fresh locally and frozen parbaked throughout Canada and the United States.

    “Parbaked allows the company to reach a broader number of accounts as well as to service national customers such as foodservice chains,” Shaw says.

    Overall, frozen products account for about two-thirds of ACE Bakery’s sales with its classic French baguettes as the primary driver of revenue, but other products are gaining in popularity. The bakery’s newest products, a potato focaccia and an olive fougasse, are gaining in popularity not only because of their uniqueness, but also because of their versatility in multiple eating occasions.

    “We’ve seen a heightened interest in Italian flatbreads like ciabatta or focaccia because of their multiplicity of use,” Shaw says. “You can cut them in half, and they have a nice open-hole structure that makes them great carriers for sandwiches. They also can be sliced and used in bread baskets.
They lend themselves to a nice accompaniment to a meal for consumers who are purchasing them at retail to take home and serve with pasta."

    San Luis Sourdough, the California division of Sara Lee Corp., only distributes its traditional sourdough breads fresh, mostly to retailers. True to its core, the company still uses its natural starter and 15-hour proof times to develop its signature flavor, says Marshall Kruse, plant financial manager for the last 19 years.

    “We don’t use yeast,” he says. “We don’t use artificial additives. We don’t use preservatives. Basically, we’re just flour, water, salt and sourdough starter, and it really shows in the strong flavor and consistency of our product.”

    In addition to the best-selling traditional sourdough bread, the company’s most popular items include sourdough crack wheat. Consistency, Kruse says, is the No. 1 driver for the company right now.

    “A lot of our customers want to see the artisan style, but with a truer sliced shape,” Kruse says. “We’re still primarily sourdough, but we do introduce new shapes form time to time to help with customer demand. One of the newer shapes has been a square shape that’s easier for the toaster and to make a consistent sandwich size for delis.”

    Million notes that Hudson Bread, which makes 35,000 to 40,000 lb. of dough daily and doesn’t freeze any of its products, has been updating its process with new combination proofer/retarders to ensure greater consistency of the quality of its products. Baking a good loaf of bread, he adds, isn’t difficult. It just takes a little passion.

    “Ever since I’ve been in this business the last 20 years, I listened to these guys who toot their horns on how they are using these sours that are hundreds of years old, and I respect them for having the true nature of the art of baking,” he explains. “But it’s not a complicated thing to make a good loaf of bread. It just takes dedication. It takes some understanding of the product that you’re handling and a character to present a product that you stand behind.

    “I’m not snobbish about it,” he adds. “I’m just a normal guy who likes to make bread.”

    That’s the realist’s perspective on the art of baking.



Photo courtesy of ACE Bakery