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Flour power — Artisan bread is rising in popularity

Although it's supposed to be off-limits for carb-counters, freshly baked bread still has legions of fans. Man may not live by bread alone, but a well-made loaf certainly is a great accompaniment.

"The Atkins thing, it hasn't affected us that much, because our customers are people looking for quality," said Bill Oblock of Crumb Brothers Artisan Bread in Logan. Since opening in March, the bakery's wares have been seen at farmers markets and local upscale restaurants.

"Besides, our bread is pretty substantial; you can get satisfied with one slice."

With today's penchant for brand-name doughnuts, designer salt and boutique chocolate, it's no surprise that one of the world's staples — bread — has also gone gourmet. Upscale sandwich shops no longer simply ask "white or wheat?" It's more like "Focaccia or ciabatta?"

The buzzword for discriminating palates is "artisan," but what exactly does it mean?

"I'm sure every bakery has their own way to define it, but it's a general term used for Old-World, European style bread-baking," said Kurtis Baguley, the pastry chef at the Grand America. Baguley learned the art of bread-baking while working in San Francisco, and he taught these skills at the California Culinary Academy.

"It is an art to make really good bread. The methods that take only three hours from bowl to oven, you don't really develop good bread over that amount of time. Artisan bread is the extreme opposite of rapid-rise yeast. Everything is slow."

"The word, 'artisan,' means hands-on," said Oblock. "So there's a hands-on approach. But there are a lot of myths and romantic notions, such as purists who do everything by hand and will only bake it in a wood-fired oven. While that harks back to a simpler life and enchants people, I personally don't think a wood-fired oven really does much in making a better loaf of bread. It's just a heat source."

Although opinions vary among those who make it, some loosely defining characteristics of artisan bread are that it's leavened with a natural "starter," or a "sponge," rather than simply using commercial yeast. Both the starter and the resulting dough have a long, slow fermentation process. The bread is often hand-shaped and may be baked in a stone hearth oven or something that gives the same effect.

Artisan bread is usually known for its crisp, caramelized crust and chewy crumb, although this can vary. Some breads have a ridge of crust that stick out on the top. When you slice a good focaccia, you find it riddled with air holes — "an irregular crumb structure," is how Oblock describes it.

For those who are used to mass-produced, uniform slices, artisan bread takes some getting used to. But that's how it was made before the advent of packaged yeast and modern production methods.

Artisan breads also use a high-quality flour. Crumb Brothers goes a step further and only uses unbleached organic flour, supplied by Lehi Roller Mills and Central Mill in Logan.

Baguley said his sourdough bread takes three days to make. Actually it takes longer than that, because he spends several days making a "barm" that eventually becomes the starter. This is a living culture of wild yeast and bacteria from the local air that needs days to ferment and build. (Those of you who have ever received a packet of "Amish Friendship Bread" starter will understand.)

"The bacteria in the environment gives it the flavor," said Baguley, who decided when he moved to leave his 10-year-old starter behind in San Francisco and start fresh with Salt Lake atmosphere. "I wanted it to have a Salt Lake characteristic flavor. My breads here are not as acidic and more on the milder side, acid-wise, than in San Francisco."

To capture and grow this wild yeast, he starts out with a cup of whole wheat flour, a tablespoon of diastatic malt (found in specialty cooking stores), a teaspoon of honey and a cup of raisin water. The raisin water is made by soaking organic raisins in a cup of water at room temperature to release the yeast in it.

This mixture ferments at room temperature for 24 hours. For four days, the mix is fed with more flour, water and sometimes honey and malt. Finally on Day 6, it can be made into a "firm starter," which requires an overnight stay in the refrigerator.

A "sponge" is a mixture of flour and water and a little bit of commercial yeast (Baguley only uses 1/4 ounce of yeast per 15 pounds of mixture). It's allowed to ferment, often overnight, before the bubbly, stretchy "pre-ferment" is mixed into the other dough ingredients.

But it's difficult to just follow a recipe and get good results the first time; it's a matter of trial and error and learning to know what the dough should feel like, says Baguley.

"When I would start my students in a five-week program, they want to know exactly how it's done, and I tell them just keep mixing, and keep mixing, so that they realize where the term 'soft as a baby's bottom' comes from."

Another key is baking on a hearth, or something similar to absorb moisture from the bread, such as a pizza stone. "You're evaporating moisture, caramelizing the sugars and developing the crust," said Baguley. At the beginning of the baking process, steam is often injected in the oven to keep the crust from ripping and tearing as the bread rises.

"The whole process is so time-consuming, it would be really hard for home bakers to duplicate it," Oblock said. "And most corporate bakeries can't afford the labor. An artisan bakery should also be pretty local, because the bread usually doesn't have artificial preservatives in it, so it's only going to be good for three or four days. If you have to transport it, then the customer is getting bread that's already a day old."

Another characteristic of artisan bread appears to be the outspoken passion of those who make it.

"Bread has taken me for all I'm worth," said Baguley. "But it's an inspiration almost every day. I learn new stuff every time I make it."

Baguette: Long and thin French bread with a crisp brown crust. In France, it's mandated to have seven cuts on the top.

Sourdough: Leavened with a starter, it has an irregular, open-hole crumb and a little acidic bite to it.

Striato or ciabatta: These two similar breads have a tender, thin, floury crust and a fine-grained crumb. Striato means "stretched" in Italian, and both use stretched dough. Ciabatta, usually about eight inches long, comes from the Italian word meaning "slipper."

Batarde: A traditional loaf of white bread, oval-shaped and lightweight with a smooth, airy texture.

Focaccia: An Italian thick flat bread with a dimpled crust and irregular air holes inside. It is usually brushed or drizzled with olive oil.