Does your meal deserve better bread?

Tips and advice for buying, storing and serving truly great bread.

The simple joy of breaking bread with loved ones is older than civilization itself. It’s woven—or rather baked—into who we are as people. And it spans all cultures and more than 14,000 years of human history.

Today, there’s a lot of choice—and plenty of confusion—when it comes to bread.

Low- and no-carb diets lead some people to avoid bread. Other times, it’s an afterthought—something added to a grocery list and picked up without much consideration.

But here’s the deal: Bread can be amazing. And some of the best-tasting breads may also be good for you.

Want to re-examine the loaves in your life? Here are five tips to help you find and enjoy the best bread your city has to offer.

1. Search for simple and handmade

“Really good bread—the best bread I’ve had in my life—should be made with just flour, water and salt,” says Evrim Dogu, co-owner of the award-winning Sub Rosa Bakery in Richmond, Virginia. 

Dogu admits it can be difficult to find breads with just these ingredients, but he believes it’s worth the effort.

“Almost any bread that’s made from very few ingredients—and that’s made carefully and thoughtfully—is worth trying because it’s so rare,” he says.

Anthony Egan, owner of Loaf Bakehouse, a micro bakery in Baltimore, Maryland, agrees. “There is no substitute for bread made this way,” he says.

Beyond the ingredients list, Egan believes you can spot great bread by its physical appearance.

“Most of the bread consumers see lining grocery aisles will be carbon copies of one another,” he notes. But when it comes to truly great bread, each loaf is a unique work of art.

2. Look for locally made loaves

The best way to find great bread? Shop local.

“Although the option may not be available to everyone, buying from local bakeries or supermarkets with an on-site bakery is a good way to guarantee fresh, quality bread,” Egan says.

Egan recommends starting a conversation with the owner or baker on hand to learn more about the bread you’re buying.

What does he wish more people knew? “That flour can—and should—have flavor,” he shares.

Egan believes heritage grains pack more flavor than today’s more common, commercial varieties. And a local bakery is a great place to search for breads made with these grains, as they’re often produced by small-scale, local farmers.

If you’re lucky enough to have multiple bakeries to choose from, Dogu suggests researching whether any have their own mill.

“That’s going to be an obvious sign that they have bread with great flavor—because they care enough to go to the trouble to mill their own flour,” Dogu says.

3. Plan for bread to age

There are several key differences between artisan breads and factory-made alternatives. And a big one—besides flavor and texture—is the speed at which the bread will age.

Remember, if you’re buying bread with just 3 ingredients, there aren’t any preservatives.

“It’s going to age like any good food,” Dogu explains. “And there are going to be different ways to use it as it ages.”

“If you can get it fresh, plan to have something saucy or soupy that goes well with fresh bread that first night,” he recommends. “And that second day, you can slice from it and have sandwiches.”

After 2-3 days, the bread will start to harden. Dogu suggests this is a good time to use the bread for toast.

Want to make your loaf last longer? “Keep it out of strong airflow. Keep it cut-side down. And don’t cut from multiple angles,” Dogu advises. Do this and a good bread should last at least a few days, he says.

If you like having bread around all week—and a midweek bakery run is out of the question—you shouldn’t give up on fresh bread entirely.

“It’s hard to change everything all at once,” Dogu admits. “If you’re used to doing one thing and you’re interested in learning more, keep buying what you’re used to—but occasionally buy this other kind as a treat.”

4. Think beyond the sandwich

Here’s another thing about bread: It’s often a supporting character in a meal—but great bread can be the star. And it can be the key ingredient for many meals, including a simple but charming picnic.

“Any bread utilizing freshly milled flours or whole grains may be better suited to be eaten alone or with less reliance on other flavors,” Egan says.

Dogu agrees. “Bread can be so much more than a sandwich,” he says. “It can have so much depth and flavor in and of itself.”

“If you’re really hungry when you get home, just cut off a slice and have it with some cheese and a glass of wine,” he suggests. “If you have 3 really good ingredients, you’ve made yourself a really awesome appetizer.”

5. Gluten free? Don’t blow off all bread

People concerned about gluten often avoid all bread. But some dieticians, researchers and bakers believe that sourdough bread may be an option for the gluten-sensitive.

“Sourdough—or naturally leavened—bread is a style that many Americans may have heard of but don’t fully understand,” Egan says.

“True sourdough bread uses a wild yeast starter—a mixture of aged flour and water—to ferment and subsequently leaven the dough,” he explains. “This is how bread was traditionally made for centuries. And it’s only in the past hundred years or so that we began seeing bakers utilize commercial yeasts and chemicals to help out in the process.”

“You’re taking something and pre-fermenting it, which usually makes it more digestible,” Dogu says. “We’re able to eat these things because they’re being partially eaten, and they have all this beneficial gut flora that’s going to help us out.”

All the breads at Egan’s and Dogu’s bakeries are sourdough. And both bakers have advice for those who are concerned about gluten.

As long as their doctor says it’s OK for them to try, Dogu recommends his rye bread. “It still has gluten, but it’s much, much weaker,” he says. “And if that goes well, then they know they can eat some kinds of gluten but maybe not all. Then I’d tell them to try a whole wheat bread made from 100% stone-ground wheat. The wheat has been fermented properly and for a really long time.”

And for the truly gluten-intolerant? There are options, too.

“Bread made with alternative flours—arrowroot, almond, rice, sorghum, millet—is a good starting point for experimenting with gluten-free varieties,” Egan says.

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