Remember when we appreciated bread? We used to tear apart crusty and chewy sourdough loaves and eat them with cheese, salumi, and lots of wine. But then mainstream bread—bleached, sliced, stretchy, and starchy—ruined everything, and suddenly carbs were about as welcome at the dinner table as politics.
Well, no more: Bread is back. Bakeries from coast to coast are reeducating the public on what a good loaf looks and, more important, tastes like. And they’re doing it from the ground up, sourcing ancient grains and milling their own flour to make slow-fermented, heirloom loaves.
Plenty of credit for the rise of bread is owed to Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt of San Francisco’s Tartine. Robertson’s breadmaking has inspired bakers around the world, from Crystal White of Wayfarer Bread in San Diego to the acclaimed chef Christian Puglisi in Denmark. In the carb-centric corners of Instagram, bakers like Sarah Owens post beautiful pictures of perfect boules, brioches, and baguettes (#breadporn is officially a thing) and offer classes that teach the art of bread to their hungry-for-more fans. Indeed, a part of our food system that has been dormant for too long is finally reawakening—and it’s becoming a full-blown obsession.
“The whole movement to use local grains and rebuild the grain economy, build small regional mills so you get fresher flour—all of that stuff—is very new to this country,” says Robertson. “The resurgent spike now is trying to take things back to what they used to be.”
It helps to think of grains like wine grapes or coffee beans: They take on different properties depending on their location and climate. But whereas there were once 10,000 mills across the United States, today there are just 100. So, the onus falls on bakers to source heirloom grains from small-scale mills and promote regional food systems while embracing technology to get their specialty loaves on plates. Fresh-milled flour is also healthier because it contains high-fiber and nutrient-dense bran, which is often discarded from white flour, and bread made with slow fermentation instead of quick-acting yeast is often digestible to those who are gluten intolerant.
All in all, these bakers are reminding us what real bread—like Robertson’s dense and heavy Danish-style rye made with beer and buttermilk and spotted with whole fermented rye berries—actually is.
“When you taste this kind of product—fresh milled and long fermented—it’s like the first time you saw color TV,” says Robertson. “It’s a completely different thing than commercial bread. It’s like you had no idea what you were missing.” And now we’ll never be the same again.