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A ramble through the crusty loaf

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The crusty loaf is an ideal really, often cast as the easy-to-obtain authentic, even vaildating accompaniment to a cheffy recipe, or known as the essential component of a Mediterranean, French or indeed traditional English Pub meal.

The opposite of "crusty"

The opposite of “crusty” is “crumby” and it’s interesting how these words wind their way into many a meaning.  Historically, there is a divide between those who like their bread crusty and those who prefer it crumby.  The latter term hasn’t always had its negative connotations, perhaps this is a result of the crust lovers dominating politics at some stage?

A crumby tradition

Many English and notably many Scots have traditionally favoured a crumby loaf.  Without prejudice, this means a loaf which isn’t covered with a hard well baked exterior (crust).  The technique employed was to push the loaves close together when baking so they “kissed” and during baking did not, could not, form a hard crust as most of the loaf was not directly exposed to the oven heat.  Such loaves easily part along the join when torn revealing four sides which are soft, crumby not crusty, with an upper crust.  These are often referred to as Batch Loaves

The cottage loaf

In clear distinction, the British loaf of ages, almost a cultural marker, is the cottage loaf with its distinctive top-knot, clearly crusty…mostly…as often these loaves were also pushed together when baking and had crumby sides, but a very crusty top piece. Seemingly satisfying all? Somewhere in time there was another crusty English bread, the Bloomer.  Today`s facsimiles usually display the leathery crust or a “solarium-skin” look, which has been the sad fate of the once-were-crusty.  The crusty Cob loaf had a similar demise.

"Proper" bread?

“Crusty bread” is almost a gastronomic signifier of “proper” bread…..In fact the awakening new bread-spirit , apart from being about good/better bread, highlights the crusty artisan loaf as an ideal of much from the hand-made to the idyllic.

Crusts come in many textures and colours, traditional bakers having developed quite a few techniques to ensure a good crust. The home baker faces a few hurdles however ,not having the right oven in particular, which is often the central factor in creating the desirable crusty crust.

Wood-fired

Historically, a good crust is automatically formed in a proper wood-fired bread oven, which had been the only tool before recent times. The advantage of a wood-fired brick oven is that the “solid” heat allows the baker to load a fully fermented bread, slashed and seemingly deflated, which yet balloons and crusts to grail status.

Viennese sophistication and a thin crust

The thin crisp crust seems to be a more modern focus coming from Viennese baking and enabled by excellent Ukraine/Hungarian bread wheats, and developed in Vienna during the 18/19th centuries.  The Viennese even developed a remarkable wood-fired bread oven specifically to bake the thin crisp crust.

The secret is to delay the formation of crust by keeping steam in the oven.  When steam is removed, the crust then formed in the dry heat will be much thinner with a pleasing crispness.

The French loaf

These developments rapidly morphed into “French” bread during the 19th century, with the de rigueur thin crisp crust demanded by the evolving gastronomic culture, this being a large roll really, again with the thin crisp crust which has evolved into the baguette…max crust.

The sponge or poolish

Previously, the crusty loaf had a thick crust, which, while enjoyed, was not quite sophisticated or distinguished enough for the emerging culinary finesse.  This is the loaf usually made from softer wheat of tradition, and having the chewy perhaps hard crust which could be quite thick.  The increased supply of stronger wheat enabled the rise of the thin crisp crust which is easier to achieve with stronger flour and also with the sponge and dough system, which was developed by the Viennese, seconded and called a “poolish” by the French, but which curiously was the commonest method of good bread baking in the British isles since antiquity.

This was also a system which employed the barm, yeast scooped from fermenting ale, now being manufactured.

The older sourdough system tends to develop a less delicate crust, although equally distinguished and preferred by many. If the sourdough is skilfully made from good flour and baked in a brick/stone wood-fired oven, the crust is likely to be as good as crust can get.

Improve your crust

If you're interested in improving your crusts, have a look at our Focus on - A Guide to a Better Crust.

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