The Fresh Loaf

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If French Bread Is So Good, Why...

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Cliff Johnston's picture
Cliff Johnston

If French Bread Is So Good, Why...

If French bread is so good why don't we see more of it in the U.S.?  I've read so many articles praising the quality of French bread and even more from frustrated bakers who can't come close to duplicating it.  It wouldn't take much to obtain some French wheat grain, bring it to North America and grow it.  I think that I've found one answer as to why this hasn't happened.  It's not that their flour is so much better.  It's that the French flour is so much worse, or to put it in less inflammatory words, French flour has less protein.  North American bakers have historically opted for higher protein wheats.  There may well be other reasons such as lower yields, etc....dunno.  Now Canadian prairie wheat growers have come up with a wheat suitable to their growing conditions, and that wheat duplicates French wheat.  What's the difference?  Less protein.  Here's a link:  http://www.cwb.ca/public/en/library/research/popups/wheat_Prarie_Spring.jsp  It would be interesting to see if some of our bakers out there have access to this type of grain and could report back on their findings.

What do you think?

Cliff. Johnston

crumb bum's picture
crumb bum

Hey Cliff

I have a theory about french bread.  I give them all the credit in the world for their contribution to not only the bread world but the food world in general.  Now that that is out of the way here it is.  I think French bread is like Russian vodka and like Coors beer used to be in Oregon.  All overrated because of the difficulty in obtaining the genuine article.  We want what we can't easily have.  Isn't it a hoot KA makes a flour to mimic what by all reports is weak flour and we buy it?  Lesson here is great bread does not need great flour, just great technique.  I think the French would have drooled at the thought of having our flour.  I also think that part of the greatness of French bread has to do with consuming it in France.  The atmosphere makes it taste better. It's like that sandwich your wife makes, it tastes better when she makes it instead of you.  I don't know this for a fact but I would venture to guess that the bread made by the vast majority of the breadophiles on this site is every bit as good as the French bread we hold up as the holy grail.  Sometimes I think we look back too much for our inspiration instead of forward.

Da Crumb Bum

Cliff Johnston's picture
Cliff Johnston

Hey, Bummer, you hit the nail right on the head.  The pasture always looks greener on the other side of the fence.

Cliff. Johnston
"May the best you've ever seen,
 Be the worst you'll ever see;"
from A Scots Toast by Allan Ramsay

breadnerd's picture
breadnerd

It's really not a matter of "better" or "worse" it's just that American wheat strains were developed over the previous 50 or so years for the industrial-type baking of white sandwich breads. The higher protein contect helped the dough hold together when mixed in this setting--the baking process for wonder-type breads involved intense mixing and very little proof time, it's very unlike the way you make bread at home (or in an artisanal bakery).

This flour was great flour for it's purposes, but when people tried to make bread with different techniques it just didn't work as well. So a lot of earlier bread books either talk about looking for different types of flour, OR they altered their techniques to adapt to the flour that 90% of people had access to at the grocery store. If you want to make breads with longer rises and wetter doughs, then a lower-protein flour just works better.

Nowadays there definitely are a lot more options out there. The artisan bakers are working with agriculture to create different types--there are even seed-saving organizations for breeding ancient wheat strains from egypt etc. Just like the latest guidelines for whole-grain nutrition is encouraging the popularity of white-whole wheat flours etc.

 

I do think the idea you can't make french bread here as good as in france is a little over-stated. Of course there are regional differences on all sorts of food, that's what makes it fun, but I suspect if you used similar flours and techniques you would be hard-pressed to have an average french or american citizen tell the difference :)

 

Now, the question is, can you make NYC bagels outside of NYC? :)

 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

I think it has more to do with what you eat and the way one eats the bread.  How often does the average American sit with down to a meal of cheese, smoked meat, bread and wine? Or just bread and cheese served on the cutting board with a sharp knife?  The shape of the loaf is ideal for this kind of "cut off as you eat" way of eating.  Americans are hooked on the sandwhich (just look at the bread available) assembled in the kitchen, the Art of eating elegantly on a board, awkward.   Mini Oven

fthec's picture
fthec

The first question is why would one want to make NYC bagels anyway?   Montreal bagels are much better.  Nevertheless, I digress.

Have any of the above posters actually been to France to try "French Bread"?  Yes the ambiance and nostalgia are contributing factors to the whole experience.  But, there is no question, that in general French bread is better.  Not to say that some bread in North America isn't excellent--  it is, and it's getting better all the time.  The difference is that in Europe, France in particular, bread commands a great deal more respect than it does here.

My next point concerns flour and protein content.  It irks me to constantly hear the misguided idea that protein content (especially high protein level) is critical to good bread.  This is categorically false, especially for home bakers.  There is a great deal more to bread than protein content alone, too much, in fact, to discuss here. 

brianpink's picture
brianpink

<cite>There is a great deal more to bread than protein content alone, too much, in fact, to discuss here. </cite>
i agree. except there isn't much to bread. 
i have my perfect loaf in my mind. and i keep trying to make it. i'm never and always disappointed with the results. so i keep at it. the flour, the salt, the water, the yeast, these all play a role, but ultimately they are an orchestra that i am conducting to the symphony.

sailorwannab's picture
sailorwannab

I've never tried Montreal bagels but I've sampled hundreds of other bagels outside of NYC and have concluded that the difference is in the kneading.  Have you ever seen the forearms of the women who knead the bagel dough?   Popeye!   The dough is so tough it would break the gears of most industrial kneading machines.  The result? 


A real bagel is compact and hard.  In an emergency it could be used as a weapon of defense when you get mugged.  If you've got bad teeth or weak jaw muscles, these are not for you.  I prefer my bagel split, toasted, and mounded with whole cream cheese.


There is just no comparison with the light, fluffy, cake bagels sold in most chain stores.


 

crumb bum's picture
crumb bum

Hey all

I would like to comment on a few of fthec's points.  First of I have never had the pleasure of eating French bread in France.  I hope to one day be able to cross that one off my list. I know bread is revered in France but I honestly don't think it's held up with any less reverence among the great artisan bakers in the US or the members of this site.  After reading the post about "you know your a bread baker when..." thread, you know the people on this site are certifiably bread insane.

I also don't want to imply that weak flour is bad flour.  What I find cool is how they used this flour to create their bread legacy.  In the old days I imagine that flour came from a very local source.  These bakers of old had to use whatever the field produced and did so with amazing skill.  If they had our flour and distribution capabilities they might not have had to create the techniques they did, or they may have come up with stuff we havent even thought of yet.  Thats what I ment about not looking back, we have all this great product and knowlege.  I think we have it in our hands and minds to push bread to new levels. Kind of fun to think about.

About the NYC bagels I have heard the stories (fables) about the water being the x factor.

Da Crumb Bum 

andrew_l's picture
andrew_l

is a very variable thing! You can get some very average bread from supermarkets and bakers, but most small towns (and some villages) still have at least one good baker. But it amazes me how quickly the baguettes seem to go stale! My home made sourdough lasts much longer.Last time I was in France (quite a short journey from where I live in the South of England) I got some organic bread flour - and was very dissappointed with the results. 
http://www.viamichelin.com/viamichelin/gbr/tpl/mag5/art20060701/htm/gastronomie-croquet.htm
This is a bakery I must try sometime...
Andrew

terrell0402's picture
terrell0402

For those of you who have been commenting on the quality of the baguette in the U.S. vis-a-vis France, one has only to travel to France and try to find the original French baguette.

 

You will find it very scarce if you find it at all.  You see, in France, bakers rarely fool with it any more.  It seems the french population is much more enamored with breads, like ours, that will keep for a few days, not one. 

 

I learned this lesson, with shock, on a trip to Paris a few years ago, when I went to 3 local bakeries near my hotel and did not find one baguette in any of them.  When I asked the concierge what gives, he laughed and told me what I just related above. 

Cliff Johnston's picture
Cliff Johnston

I guess we can sound the death knell for the classic French baguette then.  Too bad.  It wasn't on my list of "things to do", but I do dislike witnessing the passing of a legend in my time;  however, perhaps with this new Canadian grain we can ressurect it on this side of the pond.  Can't you just hear the French news commentators several years from now?..."Mes Amis, another French tradition has been stolen by the Americans!  I call upon all loyal Frenchmen to rise up and..."  ;-)

Cliff. Johnston
"May the best you've ever seen,
 Be the worst you'll ever see;"
from A Scots Toast by Allan Ramsay

LisaPA's picture
LisaPA

Maybe it was the district you were in? I was in Paris in late February of 2005 and had no trouble finding baguettes. From what I recall, they were in every corner bakery I went in. They even had different sizes--big family-sized ones and petite ones for the solo bread-eater.

Even the chain sandwich shops in the rail stations used baguettes for their pre-made sandwiches, which I have to admit I ate a lot. They may not be the best bread ever made, but they had that crisp, hurt-your-mouth crust that I associate with a good baguette.

terrell0402's picture
terrell0402

Congratulations!  I'm glad you were able to find them.  I had no success in July of 2004.

By the way, even Julia Childs, that dear lady, commented on the fact that french bakers simply couldn't sell them so they have quit producing them.  She lamented the fact as I have. 

sourdough-guy's picture
sourdough-guy

Cliff, so correct me if I'm wrong you're saying the French bread is just hyped and no different to American bread? That's implying that all American bread is pony too. I think there are quite a few American bakers that would disagree with you there. I really don't think it's got anything to do with being French or American, I don't think the flour cares where it comes from, it's a shame some people don't have the same lack of prejudice. Great bread is great bread, pony bread is pony bread, it doesn't mater where the flour was grown or who made it. Fill your bread full of pony and don't treat the dough with skill and you'll get pony bread. Put good ingredients in, be they American or whatever, treat the dough properly and allow time to work you'll get fantastic bread. 

 

Sourdough-guy

JMonkey's picture
JMonkey

Is "pony bread" a British-ism or some sort of evil concoction made from the raw materials most often shipped to the glue factory?

sourdough-guy's picture
sourdough-guy

Cockney rhyming slang.  I'll let you use your imagination.

 

Sourdough-guy

JMonkey's picture
JMonkey

I'll take Cockney rhyming slang any day over, "Bizzle me some artizzle brashizzle, my frizzle." ;-)

browndog's picture
browndog

I think I've got the izzle fizzled out, but sour-dough guy, I blush to admit I AM using my imagination and haven't come up with anything better than 'Stalloney'. Tony? Baloney?

browndog's picture
browndog

I think I may have just had a break-through.

Susan's picture
Susan

Pony: Cockney rhyming slang---pony and trap = crap

I looked it up online. Hope no one takes offense at the language.

Susan

Cliff Johnston's picture
Cliff Johnston

Sourdough-Guy, 

How did you come to that conclusion?  There are a lot of differences.  If I inferred anything it was that if the French flour - and that is THE major ingredient - were all that great surely someone on this side of the pond would have recognized that valuable market and started profiting from it.

Like most people I have my share of prejudices, but none of them are associated with flour ;-) 

Cliff. Johnston
"May the best you've ever seen,
 Be the worst you'll ever see;"
from A Scots Toast by Allan Ramsay

sourdough-guy's picture
sourdough-guy

Cliff the difficulty was where to start? I think I wrote about 6 different replies over the last couple of days but deleted them all in favour of the one that said the least. Open your mind to wide world and learn about good bread. Don't label it French or American, flour and water make bread when you bake it.

Sourdough-guy

Cliff Johnston's picture
Cliff Johnston

S-G,

I believe that you're reading more into my post than is there.  Perhaps it's a "language" or "cultural thing".

Cliff. Johnston
"May the best you've ever seen,
 Be the worst you'll ever see;"
from A Scots Toast by Allan Ramsay

sourdough-guy's picture
sourdough-guy

LOL, Yeah, whatever. lol. 

Sourdough-guy

terrell0402's picture
terrell0402

I've noticed in several postings that some of you are not real up-to-date on baguettes and their preparation.

Since I am a chef and have some baking experience I will be pushy and explain the baking of baguettes as compared to the common breads of good ol' USA.

 The major difference is FATS.

 

Our breads last for several days to a week simply because fats are included, such as vegetable oil, butter, olive oil, lard, etc.  That is what gives our bread shelf life.

Whereas french baguettes are simply flour, water, yeast and salt.  No fats of any kind.Thus no shelf life at all.  They are best directly from the oven and remain edible for a matter of hours, not days. The type of flour makes no difference what so ever.  Bleached AP flour off the shelf at the super market makes as good a bread as any flour you can find.

So if you are inclined to try your hand at baguettes, go for it with whatever flour you have on hand.  Don't spend good money on specialty flours. and if you want it to have a shelf life add a couple tablespoons of olive oil or butter and, "voila" it will have shelf life.  It also will be softer and more pliable.

andrew_l's picture
andrew_l

With fats added - even if shelf life and keeping qualities are considered a benefit - the softer, more pliable loaf would, to me, be much less "French". I LIKE going to a bakery and having to eat the food  I buy while it is fresh!!!!  I also have had no trouble buying baguettes - haven't been to Paris for a few years, but , Senlis, Lille, St Fois, Brantôme, St Suliac, Calais, Dijon etc all have them in heaps. Some average - some bad - the best, stunning. 

manxman's picture
manxman

 

Can not imagine a place in France NOT selling baguettes

 From my house in a radius of 5 miles there is at least 15 bakeries selling superb baguettes. More often than not different types. If you need one to be stale in an hour get one from a supermarket.

An artisan loaf is governed by a decree which states flour yeast water and salt only

The flour normally type 55 may contain up to 2 percent bean flour, 0.5 soya flour and 0.3 percent malt four.

The bakers who use poolish finish with a softer sandwich type baguette but will last longer 

 

 

Cliff Johnston's picture
Cliff Johnston

Manxman,

Thanks for the insight.  I'll have to give them a go one of these days soon.

Cliff. Johnston
"May the best you've ever seen,
 Be the worst you'll ever see;"
from A Scots Toast by Allan Ramsay

terrell0402's picture
terrell0402

I have noew read several postings that indicate some of you who travel to France have no problem finding baguettes.  I causes me to wonder what you are buying and eating. Such comments fly in the face of most foodies from the U.S. who have traveled  to France in recent years and lamented the scarcity of good crisp baguettes.

Julia Childs, several years ago, made the comment on TV that it was a real shame that french bakers were no longer producing baguettes because the french populace was buying bread with shelf life and the market for baguettes was vanishing.

Are you sure you were buying the long, thin, crisp loaf or something else? 

sourdough-guy's picture
sourdough-guy

Good bread has been in decline everywhere, probably due to capitalist trends. I know some of you may be offended by the idea that capitalism isn't' the pristine little button on the waistcoat of god but it is nothing but a pathological philosophy, ie a philosophy without morals. Anyway enough of the politics. If you are in a richer area of France of course you can get good bread, I have to say there is more to French bread than the very modern baguette.  

I think it's worth pointing out here since this thread seems to taking on a serious note, there is much more to Artisan bread than France also. This is why I ignored this thread at the start, the whole premise of the thread is utterly flawed. By replying to it I felt as if I was acknowledging it's validity. It has no validity. It is a joke. I think the OP as said as much.

Sourdough-guy

browndog's picture
browndog

and it reminds me once again of how no two people look at the same picture and see the same thing. What politics depends on for its very survival after all. Especially in America's current climate, any topic with an 'ours is better than theirs' approach involving France  can appear suspect, but we're highly territorial animals and it's a hard impulse to direct sometimes. I can tell you this--I will forever cherish -"capitalism isn't the pristine little button on the waistcoat of god etc." Just wish I'd thought of it first, and I will undoubtedly be quoting you. Vive la pain, at any rate. Or is that a rabbit?

sourdough-guy's picture
sourdough-guy

 LOL, yeah, all things of empty of 'quality'. You quote away browndog. 

 

Vive Lapin : -) 

 

Sourdough-guy

Cliff Johnston's picture
Cliff Johnston

Sourdough-Guy,

Shame on you for trying to turn a thread on baking and ingredients into a political discourse.  Please, take your political diatribe elsewhere where it may be better appreciated, and let those of us who are interested in baking continue unmolested. 

Thank you.

Cliff. Johnston
"May the best you've ever seen,
 Be the worst you'll ever see;"
from A Scots Toast by Allan Ramsay

Floydm's picture
Floydm

Sourdough-Guy's comment is a bit off, but they are easy enough to ignore. Please move along rather than pouring gas on the fire.

A little reminder. Not for the easily offended. Arguing on the internet...

ehanner's picture
ehanner

Classic cat dough.

Eric

andrew_l's picture
andrew_l

here has - honestly - NO problem finding good baguettes. Yes, the big super markets are not the place to biuy from. And a lot of small bakers have given in to commercial pressure. But there are still lots of outlets for superb bread. There's a lot of long thin and crisp among the lesser stuff.....
Andrew

terrell0402's picture
terrell0402

Amen Cliff; to your last posting.

What does politics have to do with what we are discussing?  There must be threads that Browndog 5 can find that will give him the forum to discuss his theories. I hope he will find one and go there with his theories.

filbertfood's picture
filbertfood

I lived in France off and on from 2002 until 2004 and never had a problem finding baguettes.  In fact, when I was living in a city in the southeast of France, the most popular boulangerie in the city center was contained a wood burning oven and produced fresh bread everyday.  If I was returning late from work, I couldn't even get a baguette past 4 o' clock.

When I lived in Normandie, it was the same thing.  Sure, many people went to Carrefour and bought the mass-produced baguettes to simplify their lives; however, the neighborhood shops were still out of bread by around 5 or 6.  It's important to note as well that in many French villages they have a local bread that is a specialty of the town or region.

When everyone here was in Paris, did you go to Paul?  Geez, I think they had five varieties of baguettes on any given day--even in the bigger Metro stations!  The point is: the baguette is still a staple.  I visited many families and they almost never ate pain de mie, the equivalent to our Wonderbread, and almost always preferred going to the boulangerie on the corner and getting bread for dinner.

Finally, to say that flour does not make a difference couldn't be any further from the truth.  Over the past 5 years I have been baking towards the perfect baguette and have had reasonable success.  I decided to look into imported flour and lo and behold, I was able to get some type 55(0) Turkish flour and there was no comparison.  This isn't just because I'm selling it.  The whole reason I'm selling it is in order to provide people with a more valid point of comparison.  The flour I imported came from a large company in Turkey that sells to major bakeries in Istanbul and also to Carrefour and Metro.  It is purely flour, no extraneous ingredients, just wheat flour that has been milled with the proper extraction rate thusly giving it 55% relative ash/mineral content.

If you are concerned with your baguettes into swords, place them in a plastic bag from your local grocer.  They will then keep moist and can be refreshed in the oven.

Cliff Johnston's picture
Cliff Johnston

I'll have to get some of your type 55 flour and give it a go.

Cliff. Johnston
"May the best you've ever seen,
 Be the worst you'll ever see;"
from A Scots Toast by Allan Ramsay

filbertfood's picture
filbertfood

Hi Cliff,

You can email me about the flour inquiries@filbertfood.com.  ehanner is doing some test runs, which I hope he posts.

BROTKUNST's picture
BROTKUNST

Filberfood .. I visited your website. The cost for your (5lb) T55 may be 'ok' actually but shipping it for almost $15 tells me that you guys don't have good terms for your shipping, don't you ? I'd be interested to try it out and I think it's great that somebody offers this flour (which may or may not be better) but unfortunately the shipping kills the idea.

 

BROTKUNST

filbertfood's picture
filbertfood

That is straight from the USPS shipping schema.  Email me and I'll see what I can do: inquiries@filbertfood.com

sourdough-guy's picture
sourdough-guy

 Cliff I'm sorry you found my post offensive in some way but I can't help how you see things. The comment you reply to is actually a joke, but nothing I ever say is supposed to be taken so seriously. Anyway. If only we could leave politics and anger towards others in the trash where it belongs, but that isn't going to happen anytime soon as we've all seen. 

 

Be happy.

 

Sourdough-guy

Cliff Johnston's picture
Cliff Johnston

Sometimes the air conditioning just doesn't work too well, friend.

Cliff. Johnston
"May the best you've ever seen,
 Be the worst you'll ever see;"
from A Scots Toast by Allan Ramsay

Oldcampcook's picture
Oldcampcook

I was stationed in Paris some years ago and used to buy my baguettes daily from a little local bakery.

When my wife got pregnant, I had to go every evening to a local cafe and get her a "sandwich jambon" (ham on baguette with french mustard."

As great as the bread was, it seems to me that the baguettes I have been baking for the past several months (I just got into bread baking) are as good as the ones I got in France.

Unless my old memory is fading more rapidly than I thought.

sourdough-guy's picture
sourdough-guy

  • "the baguettes I have been baking for the past several months are as good as the ones I got in France"

Hi Oldcampcook,

I'm sure your baguettes are as good as the ones you bought in France, I think with a little experience and good ingredients why shouldn't you be able to bake great bread.  Of course you should.

 

I think there's a bit of 'throwing the baby out with the bath water' going on in this thread. There's a middle road in all of this guys with no absolute answer. A bit of this and a bit of that. We don't have to start taking sides. 

Sourdough-guy

filbertfood's picture
filbertfood

all depends on the consumer.  If they like it, they like it.

terrell0402's picture
terrell0402

Amen, sourdough-guy!

 One thing I have not seen discussed in all this talk about the quality of the bread, this"type 55 flour" business etc.,etc. is the baking technique itself.  One of the most important things, if not the most, is the subject of steam.  Almost all good baguettes are baked in either commercial ovens which inject steam automatically or the baker spends time injecting it.

I personally think it is the most important technique.  I've had several years experience baking french bread and protein content of the flour is not nearly as important as steam. I generally use King Arthur bread flour in my baking and it is one of the higher protein content flours available at 11.5 to nearly 13%.  It produces great baguettes as long as steam is part of the baking process. A careful reading of nearly all baguette recipes includes instructions to inject steam during the first 10-15 minutes of baking to produce the crisp crust that is vital in this type of bread.  Rarely if ever do these recipes recommend a specific type of flour.

I hope this helps to bring this thread back to the level it deserves, not all of this snappy talk about protein, quality of the flour, Canadian wheat farmers, Type 55 flour, etc.

Chef Terrell 

redivyfarm's picture
redivyfarm

I found a gem in your posting to this very long thread. I think that tastes and aromas can be evocative beyond simple memory. Your delicious bread is nourishing your heart and mind.