Artisan bread is exactly what its name suggests: bread that is crafted, rather than mass produced. Baked in small batches rather than on a vast assembly line, artisan bread differs from prepackaged supermarket loaves in a number of ways. Special attention to ingredients, process, and a return to the fundamentals of the age-old bread-making tradition set hand-crafted breads apart from soft, preservative-laden commercial breads.
Whereas a store-bought loaf of mass-produced wheat bread might have nearly twenty ingredients, hand-crafted bread will have closer to five. The basic building blocks of bread are flour, water, yeast, and salt. Sourdough is added for some breads; eggs and sugar for others.
For a more complex, flavored hand-crafted bread, the ingredients list might expand to include various other items, all of them recognizable: sliced onions, cheddar cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil. Bread has been around for centuries. No chemicals were added to the breads baked by ancient Egyptians or those mentioned throughout the Bible, and none are added to artisan breads now.
The process of crafting and baking an artisan bread remains largely the same as then, too. Quality ingredients are mixed, slowly fermented, hand shaped, and baked in small batches in masonry ovens. Often, steam is utilized during the baking process to produce the crispy golden-brown crust characteristic of certain varieties of the artisan loaf.
The texture and flavor of artisan bread are generally superior to those of mass-produced breads because the focus is on selecting high-quality ingredients. Also, acute attention is paid to details of chemistry, resulting in specific crumb and crust textures. Since chemical additives are not used, the flavors of each ingredient are fully developed. Examples of hand-crafted breads include the country French loaf, semolina bread, whole-grain farm-style bread, flavored focaccia, stoneground wheat bread, and ciabatta.
Because this bread is made without chemical additives, it tends to have a much shorter shelf-life than the mass-produced prepackaged store-bought bread. It should be eaten within a day or two of purchase or frozen for extended storage. Leftover artisan bread may be used to make panzanella, an Italian bread salad. Because of its dense texture, hand-crafted bread holds up well in the dressing, and the result is simply delicious.
To make panzanella, dice five or six slices of day-old bread into bite-sized cubes and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Toss to coat. Lay out on a baking sheet and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Toast in a 400 degree F (200 degree C) oven for 7 to 10 minutes, or until lightly browned. Let cool completely.
Assemble the panzanella in a large salad bowl: Combine cooled toasted bread cubes with halved cherry tomatoes, diced mozzarella, chopped fresh basil, thinly sliced red onion, green and/or black olives, minced anchovies, and/or other ingredients as desired. Drizzle all with extra-virgin olive oil and add a few splashes of red wine vinegar, season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper, toss to coat, and let sit for ten minutes before serving.