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How would you define "rustic bread"?

I'm doing a technical writing course and my class project is to write a small introduction to bread baking with the goal of giving curious amateurs enough information about bread chemistry and procedures to allow them to bake a good loaf of bread without depending on recipes. Since a project of this scope has to be very focused and limited, it is likely to turn into a booklet on basic sourdough bread. However, in the course of discussions with my instructor, I used the term "rustic bread." He's challenged me on that. Is that a term only a bread afficionado would understand? Is it well enough understood to use in a title? What does it really mean?

My own understanding of the term is that it would refer to any everyday bread made from flour, water, salt and leaven (or yeast), with the possible addition also of olive oil. By that I mean to exclude breads made from doughs enriched with dairy products. Is my understanding too narrow? Wrong? Any comments?

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  1. I would think more like craggly and crusty, than just being dairy-free.

    I think that, yes, you'd have a tough time painting, say, a cinnamon bun as "rustic" but you don't want to exclude so-called rustic breads that are chock full of things like olives or rosemary or whatever else people throw in.

    1. I agree with your instructor: the meaning is too mercurial to be meaningful in an educational context. The meaning changes depending on what decade you are talking about, which country, who the cookbook author is, how the baker got his job training, etc. If you were writing a cookbook for sale on Amazon, 'Rustic' is good: it has a homey, warm * fuzzy feeling to it, but what does it really mean?
      I have seen this term used loosely and sloppily many times, and these are just some of the meanings that is implied by the baker or author:
      -anything not leavened with commercial yeast
      -anything that uses flour besides 100% '00' white, wheat flour
      -anything with a non-uniform or untraditional shape or decoration on top of the loaf
      -anything that can found in bakeries outside the major metropolitan areas
      -anything that uses flavors or added bits that can be seen in the bread slices (walnuts; rosemary; extra virgin olive oil; prosciutto; OK, now I am Italian)
      -anything that is unusual or rare

      These definitions are sort of French-centered; American definition of 'rustic' is different still.
      By your definition, Wonder Bread baked by Intercontinental Bakeries qualifies as 'rustic'. Also, I have never heard of the absence or presence dairy as being the defining quality. A 'rustic' bread that has, say butter, milk, sour cream, or yogurt as ingredient, does not violate my sensibilities.
      I get the feeling that you are using Pane Altamura (which is described as 'country bread') or Pagnotta (which is described as 'rustic' in 'The Il Fornaio Baking Book') as your template. OK: so here is a book and a question: what is the difference between 'rustic' and 'country'? Just in the word processor of the author?
      Pick a more clearly defined subject:
      Italian Bread
      Sourdough
      French Country Bread
      Whole Grain Bread

      2 Replies
      1. re: jerry i h

        Dear Jerry,
        You were hitting up against exactly the problem I was trying to grapple with when I decided to focus on sourdough (itself a term I don't like). But as the term "rustic bread" shows up so often in bread books, I thought it might still be a useful term. So I tossed out a description of what I took the term to mean in most books about bread baking. (I forgot to throw in the suggestion that it is baked on the hearth.) I agree with most of what you say, except that Wonder Bread would not be considered rustic by my description. It contains "improvers." Thanks for the insights.

        1. re: Father Kitchen

          Quote: 'Wonder Bread would not be considered rustic by my description. It contains "improvers" '.

          Well, I dunno. According to French law, bread bakers are allowed to add vitamin c (ascorbic acid) to their dough, and this is classified as an 'improver'. So, if a bread made in rural Britanny on a mountain top in a 500 year old brick oven can contain 'improvers' and still be 'rustic' by most definitions, then so can Wonder Bread.

          See how inexact 'rustic' bread can be? Still agree with your instructor.

      2. Though it may be technically incorrect, I find that calling it "French bread" gets the team in gear. I use Julia Child's very lengthy baguette recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume 2 as the hand-out for kids doing their first. I tell them not to stress on some of the technical or equipment stuff, just get with the idea. Usually they turn out kind of dense loaves, but with lots of flavor that work well as toasted in the toaster oven with butter and jam or melted cheese. Maybe not answering your question, but suggest reading her directions and riffing on sound advice.

        1 Reply
        1. re: torty

          Agree 100%. I am always shocked by how many current best-selling baking books with a high reputation and a famous author contains baking recipes that are not correct as written or simply do not work. Make sure you concentrate on recipes that really do work as written, and this means having many people, many of whom should total home duffers, test your recipe to make sure that the average Homer can do them successfully. And BTW, send me a copy when you are done.

        2. This is the picture I have in my mind of "rustic bread." It is round, has a heavy crust, an open texture, and a flavor. It is made with fewest ingredients and a starter, either a renewable starter, such as sourdough, or a "biga." It is a long rise bread. It could have whole grains in it. I don't say this is right, it is what I picture.

          4 Replies
          1. re: yayadave

            Would you consider the no-knead bread to be "rustic" since it doesn't start w/ a sponge? I think that's the problem w/ trying to define it--there are too many exceptions to any definition. And, does it have to be European/American? In my head, I immediatley think of cursty boule-type breads but then started wondering what about naan or man-tou? Maybe rustic is just hand made, minimal ingredients, "Artisan" (to throw out another not easily defined word).

            I don't know about the dairy question, either. Naan can be made w/ dairy or not. Where does it fall? I actually think the opposite of Father Kitchen's advisor--that "rustic bread" is easier to define when you don't bake than when you do. Bread afficianados will likely start parsing. Sorry, yayadave, this wasn't just directed at you as much as a stream of consciousness starting from your ideas...

            1. re: chowser

              What the hey. HeeHee I wasn't posing as the great guru of bread. I was just painting a picture. Kind of stream of consciousness. And after I posted, it did occur to me that the no-knead bread fits. Considering the number of variations we see posted on Chowhound that work and the widespread use, it certainly qualifies as a "rustic" and as a "folk" bread, Mine was an "off the top of my head" response to what I think the OP needs.

              Now that I think about it, Father Kitchen may be wrong when he says "Since a project of this scope has to be very focused and limited, it is likely to turn into a booklet on basic sourdough bread." Maybe he wants to focus on the no-knead bread, in stead. Of course, by this time, it's hard to imagine just a little "booklet" on this bread.

              1. re: yayadave

                I could easily imagine a booklet on the no-knead bread when I read all the creative things chowhounds have done with it. Great idea! I thought I knew what "rustic bread" meant until I read this thread...

                1. re: chowser

                  Yeah, there are a lot of things like that which we take for granted. Take a look at all the threads of people beating the drum of "authentic."

          2. I don't think (off the top of my head) that ingredients really define rustic bread. Here's what I think of: crisp crust, chewy interior usually with holes, and baked freeform, not in a loaf pan. I tend to think of breads that have a long slow rise and are baked on a stone or in a brick oven. Just a few more thoughts.

            1 Reply
            1. re: kary

              Hey everyone, I brought this to writing class on Tuesday evening. Jerry's initial response was seized on by our instructor. The focus of that part of the class was writing definitions. I am enjoying all the contributions, and I can only conclude that "rustic bread" is not a precise term. I would include the no-knead bread as a rustic bread. Actually, the dough is rather like a sponge. Mostly, I am inclined to call a bread rustic when it involves a pre-ferment (or a very long rise), depends mainly on flour, salt, and water for its flavor and character, and is the kind of bread that country people would bake for daily fare. But I am steering away from the term in my booklet. And I am concentrating on sourdough bread made from wheat flour. This is only an exercise in writing, not the last word in baking.