Between Artisan and Factory Bread

by Les Saidel - May, 2013

To most people bread is bread. They are not aware of the nuances that differentiate one type of bread from another. When encountering an artisan bread of the kind our bakery supplies, their natural inclination is to compare it with "other health breads" on the market, like the ones found in supermarkets or even health stores.

The purpose of this article is to expose some of the dark secrets of the baking industry and throw some light on what you are really eating, so that the next time you purchase bread you can make an educated choice.

For the purposes of this discussion I am going to divide the baking world into two main groups - the industrial/factory/production-line group and the craft/artisan group.

Until about 150 years ago there was only one group, the so-called artisan or craft bakers. Such bakers were usually village bakers, supplying the population in the close vicinity. They made bread using centuries-old methods and had little to help them aside from their experience, powers of observation, brute strength and instincts.

At the beginning of the 1900's a shift began to take place in the food industry in general and in the baking industry in particular. This shift resulted in a smaller number of large producers, each manufacturing larger volumes of product and supplying greater geographical areas. With advances in mechanization, the mass food industry was born and has persisted to this day. This shift also resulted in the ever diminishing number of artisan bakers.

An industrial/factory/production-line bakery operates in a fundamentally different way to an artisan/craft bakery and has a completely different prime-motivating factor. In a factory bakery the emphasis is on automation and mechanization and the prime motivator - reducing cost. While artisan bakeries are also concerned with reducing cost, they rely less on mechanization and more on the skill and knowledge of the baker and the prime motivator - creating an authentic, healthy product.

Aside from the mechanization aspect, the difference between these two types of bakeries may seem subtle and have some overlap. Obviously both are interested in creating a quality product and both are interested in reducing costs and maximizing profit, the only difference is - at the expense of what?

For the purposes of this discussion I am assuming a 'true' artisan baker - a person who is idealistically motivated and not only economically motivated.

The bottom line difference between them is the Red Line - where does each one draw the red line. For factory bakeries the red line is the letter of the law. They will do anything and everything to achieve their prime motivation within the confines of the law. The artisan baker also operates within the confines of the law, but raises the bar a few steps higher and places greater constraints on himself and his product.

Factory based bakeries will use any chemicals or additives that are legally at their disposal (and even lobby for legislation of additional chemicals that further their purpose) that reduce cost and increase profit. Reducing cost means reducing the time it takes to manufacture bread - mixing, rising, shaping, baking, cooling, packaging etc. It also means reducing logistics costs by increasing shelf life etc.

Highly accelerated mixers are used to mix the dough in as short a time as is possible. The most common method is the Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP), invented in the UK and used also in Israel in the major bakery chains. Because the dough that comes out of such mixers has a highly developed gluten structure and is very tight, chemicals and other additives are added to 'loosen' the dough so that it can go directly from the mixer to the shaper to shape the rolls or loaves. Because of the highly accelerated mixing time, almost no rising time is necessary and other additives are included to further accelerate the rising process and shorten the time between shaping and baking. To increase shelf life other chemicals are added to retard staling and the buildup of microorganisms.

If you have ever visited a factory bakery you will notice the emphasis on mechanization, how every parameter is controlled to the 'n'th degree, temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, time, volume etc. etc. A participant in this process cannot really be called a baker. He is more like a bread technician.

To be sure, a lot of the science of baking has been discovered and resulted from research into factory production of bread, much the same as the scientific discovery and progress that has been the byproduct of development of sophisticated weapons systems by military powers. We owe a lot of our knowledge, the science of baking and cereal chemistry to the study of production line baking. The only question is how do we apply that science and to what basic end.

On the other end of the spectrum, the artisan baker does not try to 'conquer' the natural process and 'bend' it to his will. He is much more of an observer and a companion to the processes. He respects the time it takes to naturally ferment the bread, the time it takes for the dough to loosen before shaping etc. and he blends in with this natural process, making adjustments for changes in temperature, humidity etc. using his instincts and experience. When you respect the process, you do not need to add all those chemicals to 'force' the bread to behave like you want it to. You respect the natural process and interfere as little as possible.

Both the factory and the artisan bakers end up with bread as the end result, but oh how different that bread is! The factory baker has no concern for what that chemical additive will do to the health of the end consumer. He is only concerned with abiding by regulations and maximizing his own profit. The health of the consumer is not his concern.

To me it is quite shocking to read current industry books written by cereal chemists and dough rheologists lamenting the fact that potassium bromate can no longer be used as an oxidizer in the dough (to make white bread whiter) because regulations no longer allow. They praise its efficiency in the process and lament the fact that the replacement (ascorbic acid) is not as effective in achieving the result required. What they do not mention is the reason potassium bromate was banned, because it was found, after decades of use, that it was a carcinogen. These scientists are not concerned with your health Mr. Consumer, they are concerned only with maximizing profitability.

It is actually quite sickening to read the list of 'common' chemical additives present in factory bread eaten every day by the masses. How many of them will be discovered in ten years or more, to be equally harmful to the human organism. The FDA and similar regulatory bodies around the world were already in existence when potassium bromate was legal, how did they miss that? The answer is they didn't, they simply lacked the knowledge and technology to fully understand the ramifications of it. Do they fully understand the ramifications today of all these chemicals being added? Do you want to be the guinea pig of their 'experiment'?

A true artisan baker has a different red line. He is not content with regulations alone. He raises the bar, making the health of his customer his primary concern and acts beyond the letter of the law to ensure that. As a result he cannot 'pump out ' thousands of loaves an hour, he will never be able to match the economic clout of a factory bakery or its political power in changing legislation to suit his needs. In fact the factory bakeries are doing their level best to stamp out the artisan baker and wipe him off the face of the earth. They are doing this by lobbying for legislation that so restricts the options of such an artisan entrepreneur that it makes it almost impossible for him to survive, if he succeeds in opening a bakery at all.

That is the ugly picture of today's society and the mass-produced food industry in general, not just the baking industry.

Fortunately there are still a few intrepid die-hards (like the author) who fly in the face of such obstacles in the belief that one day the whole artificial 'house of cards' of such criminally careless behaviour will all come crashing down. But at what cost?

A loaf baked by an artisan baker can never compete in price with a factory loaf, because the emphasis on an artisan loaf is on YOU, the consumer and your well being and health. The emphasis on a factory loaf is not on you but on the factory owner's bottom line.

The next time you judge a bread by the price tag alone think about this. Everything has a price, you don't get nothin' for nothin'! You may be saving a few shekels per loaf but that will be nothing compared to the medical costs you will probably have to dole out to repair the accumulated damage caused by that misplaced frugality.

I am not saying that mass produced supermarket bread is poison and will kill you instantly. Regulations will not allow that. What it will do however is gradually degrade your health in unnoticeable increments until thirty (or less) years down the road it becomes noticeable and a major concern. Go try prove then that it was the factory product that caused it and not some other facet of your lifestyle. It would never stand up in court. That is why these conglomerates continue to exist and thrive, they are crafty and devious and you are the one who will ultimately suffer the consequences.

So how can you tell a true artisan baker? I'll give you a clue - I don't know any millionaire artisan bakers!

Les Saidel


© Copyright. All rights in the above articles are reserved to the author Les Saidel.
No part of this website or the above articles may be transmitted in any form or by any
means without permission in writing from the author.

Click here to change code - Please enter the code displayed in the box below
Processing request....