What are Artisan Breads?

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“You get what you pay for” so the old adage goes. And in the search for a quality loaf of bread, the expression has never been truer. While a loaf of a “national brand” sliced white bread can be as inexpensive as a buck and a half, Artisan Breads can be more than twice that. So, if it’s nothing new, just flour, water and a few ingredients why the big difference in price?

Well, to begin with, I have to agree that bread is nothing new, in fact, it’s ancient…very, VERY ancient. Today’s white bread of “P.B. & J.” fame and Artisan Breads do however, have a common ancestry, that is; flour, water, yeast, sugar and salt. So, I suppose the two breads are related, but let’s just say they’re very distant cousins. Like “coffee at the vending machine versus an Espresso at Starbucks”.

Unlike coffee however, in spite of modern “improvements” like commercial yeast, vitamin enrichment, mold inhibitors, dough conditioners, sweeteners & flavor enhancers, many bread purists are convinced that unlike many other things in our world, bread hasn’t gotten better over the years, it’s gotten worse. How did the so called “Staff of Life” get so bent out of shape? Where were WE when the “Grain Train” rolled out of town and left us all with loaves of spongy bread with colorful balloons?

Likely, we were asleep at the switch. The switch to convenience that is…

Among the conveniences for the bakers, commercial yeast is more easily controlled, thus has a more predictable outcome. Vitamin enrichment is a convenience for the flour mills because stripping off the bran and germ allow for more convenient milling. That sounds great until you learn that flour is stripped of some of it’s nutrition as a result, so adding back some of it’s former “goodness” only gives you “half a loaf’s worth”. Mold inhibitors, dough conditioners and sweeteners allow the bread to stay “fresher” longer, and that’s a convenience for the consumer.

Artisan Bread on the other hand starts with flour that is MUCH less processed, there are usually no artificial ingredients, very little sugar (2 to 3 %) and the salt is quite often sea salt. The one obvious ingredient you may have noticed isn’t there, is fat. And that’s because many Artisan Breads don’t use it. It’s one reason Artisan Breads have such a GREAT taste and such a crisp crust, the down side of that (for many) is that it also greatly reduces its shelf life (or freshness). Many Artisan Breads have only a day or two at the most of “true” freshness. So, unfortunately, with the schedules that most of us have nowadays, it’s easy to see which of the “bread” cousins eventually won favor in the check out lines over the years. Mr. Convenience.

So just what are Artisan Breads?

And I don’t mean Artesian (…that’s a “water” well). The term Artisan simply means, “A skilled craftsman” in this case, a skilled Bread Baker. What a “skilled bread baker” does makes all the difference between ending up with the loaf of sliced white bread you might buy in a brightly colored plastic bag and the bread you see in the windows of a French Boulangerie (Bread Bakery).

Without getting “bread geeky” let me explain what makes Artisan Bread so special, and specifically what makes the Artisan Bread we make at Nino’s Clinton Township Store so special.

It all begins with GREAT flour.

At Nino’s we use nothing but King Arthur Brand Artisan flours which are farmed in the Mid-West and milled in Vermont. The flour isn’t bleached or bromated (which ultimately means you get a better taste and more nutrition). We choose different King Arthur flours with different protein percentages and that allows us to make the many different styles of bread we offer from Ciabatta, which requires high protein flour, to our Sourdough and Tuscan Semolina breads which require less.

The next most important “ingredient” in Artisan Breads is a story in and of itself here at Nino’s. Namely, the “starter” or wild yeast culture which is the “leavening energy” and flavor enhancement that many of our breads receive here at Nino’s. Its story began a decade and a half ago when I began an Artisan Bread program with my former employer. It all has to do with yeast.

Yeast is an interesting fungus. Especially the many strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae (ok….I’m being a bit geeky here). It craves sugar, warm, moist places and creates carbon dioxide and alcohol in the process of being…well…? Itself.

The same strains of yeast that can make beer also make bread and amazingly enough, you don’t even have to go out and buy it? It’s free!! It’s generally in the air, all the time. And, not surprisingly, it is attracted to sweet things that have moisture, like grapes for instance. Or a bowl of soupy flour and water left out on the sill. Each of the many strains of wild yeast produce an ever so slightly variation of flavor in their resulting work. Thus, each bakery which develops a wild yeast starter has the chance to have a flavor of bread all their own. Some proprietors (bread bakers and distillers alike) guard their “wild yeast colonies” with such fervor that only a very few have access to its propagation and lawsuits have been waged to protect them from their competition.

Our starter has the unique distinction of coming from a single cluster of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the acres of Robert Mondavi’s vineyards in Napa, California in early August of 1995.

I…ahemmm…“creatively procured” a particularly healthy cluster of grapes with a good deal of the powdery white wild yeast that had collected on them over the summer months. After carefully wrapping them in some parchment paper, I stuffed them into my luggage for the return trip back home where within 2 weeks I had a robust “bacterial broth” of wild yeast starter bubbling away in the bakery.

Those first loaves were amazingly good and the flavor was everything I could have hoped for. From that day until today, each and every day, 7 days a week, sometimes twice a day, that very same starter has been invigorated with more nutritious artisan flour and water and kept active and alive for over 15 years now. The yeast from that one cluster of grapes has been grown and re-grown every day, thousands of times, keeping the characteristics of that same strain of yeast over and over again all the while creating leavening and favor for what I can imagine is well over a hundred thousand loaves of bread of one kind or another. Just at Nino’s alone!!

The other major difference that makes Artisan bread so unique is, unlike “bagged, white bread” which tastes like yeast, sugar and “added flavor enhancers” an Artisan Baker’s is dedication to developing the flavor of the WHEAT. That is, in the end, mostly what bread is?

How do you do that?

The simple answer is that instead of a warm dough with lots of yeast and sugar, and a short and explosive proof and a quick bake to get the bread to market, the Artisan Baker does just the opposite. Cool dough temperatures which slow down the yeasts grown to give the dough all the time it needs to extract and then harness all the delicious flavors of the wheat. Even the baking is extended a bit longer to develop a nice, crisp brown crust with another flavor all its own. Everything about Artisan Breads takes time, you don’t rush it, and you can’t tell the bread what to do or control it too much without ruining what it is. Perhaps, on a warm day, you can slow the dough down a bit with cooler water and on a cold day just the opposite, but in the end, the bread is in charge. It’s a living thing. It’s nature. Literally…

We only make our Artisan Bread at our Clinton Township store. Our Artisan Bread Bakery is tucked in the back of our store’s bakery department. (It’s back by the big wooden butcher block table where all the dough’s are “benched” then cut and shaped.) And while you’re there, check out all our terrific values and the fine display of our Artisan Breads. We feature over a dozen different varieties in many different shapes including Baguettes, Batardes (free formed loaves) Boules (round) and rolls. You’ll also find other unique breads that we feature including our ever famous Pretzel bread.

Try a loaf and see for yourself the difference that “skilled craftsmen” (& women) make. “You get MORE than what you pay for” when you buy a loaf of Nino’s Artisan Bread, you get our guarantee of complete satisfaction and assurance that each and every loaf is deliciously hand crafted by our dedicated bakers so that when you pay the difference you can TASTE the difference!