Breaking bread

A decade ago, if you thought of the word “artisan,” images ofcraftspeople and their trades—glassblowing, ceramics or woodwork,perhaps—might come to mind. But the term “artisanal”now, more than ever, applies to the culinary arts, includingbread making. The artisanal trend has been growing for years,with an explosion of self-proclaimed foodies demanding everythingfrom ice cream to soda in a made-from-scratch manner.Similarly, artisanal bread relates to the process of making breadby hand, in small batches, using basic and accessible ingredients.Of course, bread in its purest form is nothing but yeast,flour and water; but it’s the combination of these ingredientsunder the watchful eye and floured hand of a human, ratherthan a machine, that differentiates artisanal bread from itsmass-produced counterparts more often seen in the bread aislesof your local grocery store. In other words, artisanal bread isto bulk-produced loaves what homemade mozzarella is to Kraftsingles—it’s a difference that the customer will notice and, moreimportantly, will set your pizzeria apart.

​Loafing Around

In a period of economic instability and universal penny-pinching,bread remains a dietary mainstay. Human beings,even (and sometimes especially) those on carb-restricted diets,can hardly resist the smell of a freshly baked loaf of bread. Callthis desire primitive or instinctual, but it’s a fact: People lovebread. A basket of homemade bread passed around the tablecan be the perfect catalyst for a memorable meal. Customersalso appreciate having something to snack on while they readthrough the menu or wait for their food. If the bread is homemadedaily, customers also view it as unique and exclusive.

Indeed, customers not only enjoy homemade bread for itstaste, but also for the specialty of the product. Brett executive chef and co-owner of Mafiaoza’s Pizzeria (mafiaozas.com), with two locations in Nashville, Tennessee, and Birmingham,Alabama, knows very well the impact that homemadebread can have on business. “Baking your own bread takes timeand a connection to the product, and that’s something the customerdefinitely takes note of,” he explains.

The bread becomes not just food, but a reflection of thecommitment and authenticity of your restaurant. The loaf ofartisanal bread sitting on the table was made by hand, justbehind the swinging doors to the kitchen—and it’s not availableanywhere else. It has no preservatives or fillers. Customersthink, “That warm, radiating basket of bread was made for me.”Simply put, it’s a nice feeling.

Bringing Home the Bread

Baking your own bread can also be a boon for business. “It canset you apart from you competition,” says Corrieri, and addshow easy it is to market bread to new customers. “We let theproduct speak for itself. The smell of fresh-baked bread is usuallyadvertisement enough.” Mafiaoza’s homemade foccaciabread is served with entrees and on panini sandwiches, butthe most popular bread item is the bruschetta appetizer. For$6.50, customers get 15 slices of bruschetta topped howeverthey like it. Popular toppings include Italian tomato relish,Gorgonzola cheese and white bean hummus. And, at Mafiaoza’s,yesterday’s foccacia becomes today’s bruschetta; so evenin its second life, artisanal bread is profitable and versatile, anddoesn’t promote waste.

Joshua Vanderhoof from Zeffiro Pizzeria Napoletana(popular-zeffiro.com) in Las Cruces, New Mexico, seconds thenotion that serving bread before meals helps set your restaurantapart from other restaurants in town. “Here in Las Cruces, everybodythrows chips and salsa on the table,” Vanderhoof says,“but we use our bread. How can you have good Italian foodwithout good bread?” Zeffiro, which shares a building with itssister bakery, the Popular Artisan Bread Bakery, has becomea staple for great bread in the community. “We’ve had peoplefight over it,” Vanderhoof admits. Zeffiro’s scrap bread rolls,made with leftover ciabatta, sell out so fast that loyal customersare often disappointed when they fi nd out they are already offthe shelves. Take that as a sign: If your bread can cause a rowamong customers, you’re doing something right.

From Oven to Plate

Artisanal bread can be a versatile addition to your menu.Some choose to go simple, offering bread only as an appetizer.Coupled with an infused butter whipped with garlic and chivesor Parmesan and black pepper, a simple loaf of bread can pack awhole lot of flavor when served with antipasto.

However, restaurant owners are divided in their opinionson free bread before a meal. “It’s a quality product with qualityingredients, so why shouldn’t we be compensated for it?” asksCorrieri. His restaurant charges $4 for a bread appetizer.

At Zeffiro, however, free bread before the meal has becomea well-received custom. Vanderhoof succinctly defends the freebread, saying, “It’s bread. It’s supposed to be free.”

Whether you choose to charge or not to charge, there areplenty of ways to show off your artisanal bread by featuring it onyour menu. Of course, there is always the sandwich option, suchas cured meats piled high between two slices of artisanal bread;the finished product not only tastes better, it even sounds betteron the menu when you add a phrase such as “…on our freshlybaked sourdough” to the end of a sandwich description. Meanwhile,soup is simply not complete without good bread. Betteryet, why not combine the two cold-weather staples and make abread bowl as an edible container for your soups?

Appetizers like Mafiaoza’s bruschetta are a great way to incorporatedifferent and unique flavors, with your bread as abackdrop. Extend the life of your artisanal bread even longerby turning unused bread into croutons for salads. And, if yourbread is really a hit, it can be packaged and sold as a takeawayitem. If a customer is smitten with your bread, he can purchasea loaf and take it home to have with lunch tomorrow.

Becoming a Breadhead

Anyone who has ever baked his own bread can tell you thatthe endeavor can be tricky. The process is time consuming andmessy, and often takes a bit of experimentation to get it justhow you like. Once the recipe is perfected, though, it’s likelythat you’ll never go back.

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Zoë François andJeff Hertzberg has become a veritable bread bible for neophyteslooking to make artisanal bread, and the authors givesuggestions on making bread by hand. “We’ve stripped awaythe intimidation, the guesswork—no poking or punching,” saysFrançois. “We’ve gotten it down to the basics.” The foundationof their book is the recipe for the Artisan Free-Form Loaf. Alsocalled “The Master Recipe,” this easy and approachable methodrequires no kneading or special ingredients, and simply callsfor water, yeast, flour and salt—and an oven, of course.

The most appealing part of François and Hertzberg’s masterrecipe is its shelf life. A batch of dough will stay good refrigeratedfor up to two weeks, making it a logical fit for a restaurant.Of course, like any dough, its flavor will mature duringthat period. François and Hertzberg assure restaurateurs whoare looking to incorporate artisanal bread into their menu thatbulk ingredients bought from your restaurant supplier can beused to make the artisan bread, and there are countless breadrecipes available through cookbooks and on the Web.

At Washington’s Pizzeria Paradiso (eatyourpizza.com), makingbread in-house was just a common-sense decision. “If youmake your own pizza dough, you can make your own bread; youhave the ingredients and the tools to do it,” says Ruth Gresser,owner and chef of Pizzeria Paradiso. “The important part isfinding which bread matches your restaurant.”

For those who simply do not have the resources to make theirown bread, you can also fi nd numerous options to purchasepar-baked bread that you can finish baking at your restaurant.Look for a supplier to fit your needs in the sidebar “Show Methe Bread” on page 29.

James Beard, the famous American chef and food writer,once said, “Bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of allfoods.” He had a point: Bread has rightfully earned its tenureas a staple in almost all food cultures. “It’s built into our culturalmemory,” says Corrieri.

Artisanal bread making isn’t accessible to all restaurants,whether due to limited space or manpower, but for those whocan, it’s well worth the effort to hear customers say, “Anotherbasket of bread, please?”

Andrew Ousley is a freelance writer based in Oxford, Mississippi.