Artisan bread is best described by thinking about the person who makes the bread. An artisan baker is a craftsperson who is trained to the highest ability to mix, ferment, shape and bake a hand-crafted loaf of bread. He or she understand the science behind the chemical reactions of the ingredients and knows how to provide the best environment for the bread to develop.
Compare an artisan baker to other familiar craftspersons. A baker’s work parallels that of jewelers, glass blowers or furniture makers. They all have a palette of preferred, trustworthy materials. They know how to combine their materials to build something strong and at the same time delicate or elegant. Combining the raw materials in different ways will create various shapes, textures or colors. The finished product is something to be proud of when so much thought and creativity went into it.
How do you tell a hand-crafted bread from one that is just called artisan? First look at the ingredients. There shouldn’t be anything in bread besides flour, water, salt and yeast. If the bread is made with a sourdough there may not even be yeast in the ingredients. Flavored breads may list other recognizable ingredients like nuts, garlic, herbs or cheese. A viennoiserie bread, for example a brioche, will include milk, butter and/or eggs. All of the ingredients should sound like familiar foods. Remember you are buying one of the oldest, most basic foods there is. It wasn’t necessary to add chemicals to bread for centuries and it still isn’t.
Next think about the place that the bread was made. In a small artisan bakery the baker will often show you around. If the bread is made in a large factory you might not get past the front gate. An artisan bakery is small enough that it is possible to train each worker to understand the whole process of making bread and to make small enough batches for one or two people to manage. A large factory has more of an assembly-line production where each worker is trained to operate a machine that completes one portion of the process. Each hand-crafted loaf will have its own unique, irregular shape.
Bread is like wine or cheese. Control of the fermentation and the action of natural bacteria can produce anything from a light delicate flavor to a deep, strong, rustic flavor. Just as you might pair wine with food, you can do the same with the large variety of artisan breads available. A sweet baguette is perfect with sweet butter and jam. A rustic, hearty country sourdough makes a great sandwich with meat or is good for sopping up stew. Taste all the different varieties available and take time to appreciate the differences in where they came from, what types of ingredients and fermentation were used, how much time was put into making them and the different characteristics of taste and texture and color, just as you would with wine or cheese. Your effort will not only be educational but deliciously rewarding.