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Baking bread: the story behind every style, from sourdough to focaccia

From sourdough to challah, every style of bread has a story to tell. Toronto's best bakers share their secrets to the perfect loaf.

This was bread's year. When borders closed and restaurants shuttered, people opened up their hearts and their Instagram feeds for the love of gluten. While we watched the number of daily COVID cases rise, so did precious loaves all over the world as we took to baking our own. Global flour market sales sky rocketed by 238 per cent by the end of April.

Flour rivalled toilet paper as the hardest item to get – even Robin Hood Flour couldn't find enough of its iconic bright yellow bags to keep up with the demand. A bread renaissance had begun… But why? It's not like bread is new. In fact, it's so old there's no written record of its discovery.

The closest researchers have been able to trace it to is Ancient Egypt 6,000 years ago, when a bowl of powdered grain with water was left neglected. Yeast from the air got into the mixture, then someone had the genius idea of putting it in an oven and voilà! Bread was born and it's been giving life to civilization ever since – it's not called the "staff of life" for nothing.

So it makes sense that when the grain of our daily life was disrupted by an unknown virus, we would return to our roots. It may have started with sourdough (we're still not over it) and banana bread, but that's not all we knead.

We break down a few different types of bread with some of Toronto's best local independent bakeries, and find out what makes each loaf so much more than flour, water, yeast and salt.

Focaccia

Focaccia at Forno Cultura

This salty flatbread is anything but flat. It's thick and textured without being dense and can have toppings like tomatoes, olives or just glistening salt crystals. Focaccia shares its origin with many ancient Mediterranean nations, but it's the Italians who are responsible for its popularity, and for the generous pours of olive oil.

"It's literally drenched in olive oil," says Andrea Mastrandrea, owner of Italian bakery Forno Cultura where they specialize in focaccia barese – a thick yet airy style from Italy's Puglia region. "The particular pans that we have are quite deep so you get a bake and a fry at the same time for this oily, crispy, deep focaccia. When people say 'I love your focaccia, but can you use less oil?' My response is, 'that's why you like our focaccia!' That saturated olive oil is the character of a true focaccia barese. Some people think we're out of our minds when they see how much olive oil we use."

The name for this cherished, oily bread comes from the Roman words 'panis' and 'focacius' which translates to 'fireplace bread', where the dough was traditionally baked. A fireplace was the central part of a family home as is focaccia to Italian daily life. "I eat focaccia for breakfast," says Mastrandrea. "When it's hot from the oven, you can see the olive oil bubbling, soft pools of tomatoes or olives and these crusty edges. I just cut right into it or stuff it with fresh mortadella and prosciutto for a sandwich. It's the one thing I don't ever get tired of."

Challah

Challah, pronounced "haa-luh" with a hard 'H' from the back of your throat (yeah, you got it), is often distinguished by its intricate, deliciously sweet, squishy dough-braids, but not all challahs are made the same. The name "challah" refers to any bread that is made for Jewish rituals like Shabbat or Rosh Hashanah. Challah evolved regionally as Jews migrated and the fluffy, eggy, sugary sweet braided loaf influenced by Eastern European baking just happened to get all the attention.

"We shape six rounds of dough and bake them into a tin for a loaf style that you can pull apart instead of a braided one," says Gerry Mclellan, director of kitchen operations at Mabel's Bakery, as well as Fresh City and the Healthy Butcher. "We use honey instead of sugar so you get a softer, deeper flavour with more of that rich colour. Challah is one of the simpler breads to make, but it's also one of the most delicious types and can be easily shared with a lot of people. We make challah every day because it's so popular. On Fridays, we make 75 to 100 loaves for the Sabbath and they always sell out, and on holidays we make as much as we can handle," Mclellan says.

Challah is a celebratory bread, but that doesn't mean you have to save its soft, shiny puffs for special occasions only. "It's the best kind of French toast," he says. "It's got that sweet flavour, nice brown crust and the perfect texture inside for soaking up eggs, cinnamon and milk – that's our Friday morning." That's one heck of a ritual.

Naan

Naan & Kabob making their naan bread

The first recorded mention of naan was found in the notes of Indo-Persian poet Amir Khusrau dating this oven-baked, bubbly flatbread to 1300 C.E. Originally considered a delicacy, naan was cooked for the Imperial Court in Delhi, India and was typically accompanied by kabob. Naan eventually trickled down to the masses and spread to other cultures who went on to develop their own versions.

"The most significant part of the bread is the crust," says Fahim Ahmadi, co-owner of family-run business Naan & Kabob which specializes in Afghani-style naan… And kabob. "The crust can't be maintained by a regular oven, the crust needs to come from the stone that the naan is baked on. We use a pizza oven with a special stone." The stone creates a similar effect to a traditional clay tandoor oven where naan is baked by sticking the dough directly to the oven's hot, inside walls, resulting in a crisp crust and a soft, chewy inside.

"Our bread is basic, it doesn't have a secret recipe or ingredients, it's very simple. Most of our flavours are very subtle," says Ahmadi. The subtlety makes naan the ideal vessel for dipping and pairing with bolder flavours like a thick garlic sauce. "Naan is something that we grew up with. It is an important item of our table which we call 'sofra.' Whenever we put up our dining table we make sure that the naan is always there," says Ahmadi. "The smell of fresh naan baking brings you back home."

Brioche

Brioche at Bonjour Brioche

There's bread and then there's brioche. You know the quote, "let them eat cake," that Marie-Antoinette was wrongly accused of saying after she was told that starving people didn't have bread? Well, "cake" was translated from the French word "brioche."

And while brioche didn't directly cause the French Revolution, the price of bread and bread shortages for the people of France certainly played a role. And who could blame them? This decadent, pillowy pastry is more baked-good than bread, with its revolutionary amount of eggs, butter and sugar, and a reputation for being rich in more ways than one.

"You don't want to know how much butter we use," says Lori Allen-Feasson who owns Bonjour Brioche with her husband. Their French bakery has been serving Toronto's east end since 1997. "There's more butter in a brioche than a croissant. With baking, everything is a balance. If we used too much butter then it wouldn't work, so I guess it's just my husband's recipe that's good. The perfect balance of flour, yeast, sugar and salt," says Allen-Feasson.

All that butter gives brioche its soft, smooth texture; while the eggs give it that golden-brown colour; and sugar provides a sweetness that's definitely present, but not overpowering.

"The French pretty much eat it every day," says Allen-Feasson. "It's just light and fluffy. I love our blueberry brioche with custard. It's my favourite – it's full of blueberries in the middle and it's like a little cloud of fluffiness. It's just so lovely."

A sourdough starter is like a little living thing – it feels like magic

Sourdough

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Who would have thought that sourdough would be 2020's breakout social media sensation? Sure it's no cat video, but its delicious, chewy air pockets; crisp, crackly crust; and that characteristic tangy, umami flavour are just as captivating.

"Sourdough is special because it's naturally leavened, which means that it has no commercial yeast – it's pure fermentation that causes it to rise," says Emilie Richardson-Dupuis, baker at urban mill and bakery Brodflour. "We also use fresh-milled flour from our own facility which has a pretty big impact on the flavour as well as the nutritional content because it's fresh and not treated with anything," says Richardson-Dupuis. Sourdough's humble ingredients make it approachable, but it's the starter (a fermented mix of flour, water and yeast from the air – which helps the bread rise and develop its sour flavour) that makes this process so unique and also a little complicated.

"A starter is a lot simpler than it may seem. If you want to make it at home, you just mix flour and water together and then you add to it for a few days. Start with 50 grams of flour and 50 grams of water, let it sit at room temperature for a day, then add that same amount for three days. You have to discard a little bit, so you discard 20 per cent and add a bit more," instructs Richardson-Dupuis. "After a while it should be bubbly and happy. It's like a little living thing that you're nurturing – it feels like magic."

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