It's difficult to compile a series of guidelines on how to buy the best bread: no one in the world has yet managed to accurately classify the hundreds of different types in existence. For sure, we can identify two main categories: ordinary bread made from wheat flour, water and salt (apart from Tuscan bread in Italy that contains no salt at all) and special bread varieties enhanced by mixed flours, fats of all types and fruit. Other distinctions are based on the type of yeast: beer, chemical or natural yeast. Natural sourdough is the best yeast of all for health reasons and for its flavour.
Despite being one of the simplest and most common foods available, it is not without its hidden pitfalls. The United Kingdom Fedra department, together with the bakers’ association, has published figures relating to 2951 bread samples collected from 2000 to 2013 with the intent of monitoring pesticide residues: while these quantities were below maximum residue level consented by international standards, the research showed just how much the amount of residue depends on the quality of the flour being used. The same research has also demonstrated that the amount of pesticide residue is inferior in wholemeal and organic bread (7% compared to 17%): a figure that immediately points to the first element to take into consideration when out to buy the best bread.
Here is a short list of things to bear in mind and questions to ask when you are standing at your baker’s counter or in the supermarket.
- The best bread is supplied by those who make it themselves and not by retailers. - Very little salt is added to wholemeal bread, unlike white bread: the starch contained in white bread is tasteless and often contains a small amount of sugar to extend its shelf life.
- Wrapped bread normally contains hydrogenated fats, alcohol, preservatives and various types of oil.
- Be wary of bread that is too light: it is almost certainly made from highly refined flour. If the bread becomes rubbery and greyish after a few hours, then the bread is of poor quality.
- Bread made from healthy flour has a fine and abundant honeycomb texture.
- Avoid rolls that are completely empty inside since this is caused by an excessively rapid rising process: a large loaf to be eaten in slices is far preferable.
- If the crust breaks off the loaf when you are cutting it, this means that the bread has been previously frozen. To check that bread has been well baked, try squeezing a slice between your fingers: if it springs back in a few seconds to its original shape, it has been well baked.
When in doubt, you are perfectly entitled to ask your baker what type of flour he uses and where it comes from: when you do so, remember that bakers tend to prefer flour that is as refined as possible (the least healthy) because it rises more rapidly and produces a soft attractive-looking bread. In nearly every country in the world, it is mandatory to declare what type of flour is used, but often its origin is not clearly specified.
- Does the bread contain additives or preservatives?
- Does the bread contain lard? Many vegetarians and vegans do not realise that bread may also contain animal fats.
- What type of oven has the bread been baked in? Wood fired ovens are the best.
Finally, a tip from the past: one of the world’s most celebrated food critics, a Frenchman going under the alias of ‘Curnosky’ used to say: "If you don’t have bread of excellent quality, at least heat it”. This advice is still valid today: bread that is heated to become crisp conceals many of its defects.