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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
      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.

            2. Simplicity is complicated, isn't it?
              You could actually get the recipe down to milled grain and water. Ethiopian injera can be made with teff and water, left to ferment on its own for awhile, using only a little oil for the pan to cook it, but I guess you could use a dry pan in a pinch. Rural bread in Tuscany omits salt as do bakers in some other areas. Lots of places don't have olive oil, so other shortenings are substituted or omitted.
              I'm not sure you really need to get that basic but I think the thing that I consider important in a quotidian loaf is that it be all-purpose. If I have only one bread in the house, it should be usable for everything - as good for PB&J as mopping up the last bit of gravy from the evening's stew.
              It seems that every place I've ever visited in the world has had some type of ubiquitous bread product that shows up everywhere - in markets, groceries, restaurants, homes - country and city. Sadly, in the US for a long time it was sliced white enriched bread.
              In most of the world, that product is fairly rustic, but it's used for everything, whether it's a baguette, tortilla, injera, or basic sourdough loaf.

              4 Replies
              1. re: MakingSense

                You are right on target. The title of this booklet is "An honest loaf." "Rustic" came up as a possible inclusion in the subtitle. What I want to write about is how to make an extraordinary, everyday loaf of bread without depending on recipes. Natural leaven seems to me the best way to go about it. John Thorne in Outlaw Cook seems to agree. But I have three reasons for focusing on natural leavens: 1) Bacterial fermentation produces enzymes that denature phytases and cut toxic peptides in gluten chains, so that the bread is less likely to produce an allergic reaction. 2) I think the complex flavors caused by long fermentation and its by-products is superior to anything obtainable from yeasted bread, and the nutritional value is improved as well. 3) Yeast costs too darn much unless bought in bulk. Natural leaven costs only a bit of time.
                I also wonder how many home bakers pull out cook books and decide to bake many different breads. I suspect most learn a basic procedure, get the feel of it, and pretty well stick to "their" bread most of the time. I think that with a little understanding, most anyone can develop an exceptional bread that will uniquely fit his or her kitchen and timetable. It could even be a flatbread. (Some other time, maybe we ought to look at cornbread in a similar light.)

                1. re: Father Kitchen

                  I find it interesting that MS defined "rustic bread" by it's use - as an "every day bread." And you also use that term. When you do that, you open up the idea to a much broader range of breads, such as the ones Chowser, MS and you mention.

                  1. re: yayadave

                    As I say, "rustic" isn't a precise term. Neither is "country bread" for that matter, though in many Romance languages, both terms would imply pretty much the same product: a bread made by rural folk.

                    1. re: Father Kitchen

                      Think of just the word "bread." A Jesuit theologian told me once that the translation of the Lord's Prayer used "...our daily bread" because the original word in whatever language meant "sustenance," that which would keep us alive. That's all we asked.
                      Bread has been used as slang for "money." Bread and water - the very basics. Jean Valjean stole bread in Les Misérables. People leave you only the crumbs. Hansel and Gretel left a trail of them. We break bread. Loaves and fishes. Bread images and figures of speech.
                      Pretty basic.

              2. All these comments make my head spin. Don't see why why "rustic bread" is so confusing. What does your instructor want, homemade Wonder Bread?

                If you need something more specific, tryi "traditional European country bread," For great recipes and some fascinating history, I suggest "The Italian Baker," by Carol Field.

                However, as a writer myself, I don't understand the project. Making bread on vague general instructions is like making a computer memory chip based on general principles. Baking, unlike making sauces where you can just add a pinch of this and that, requires reasonablky precise proportions to avoid making a mess. You can't put library paste in the oven and expect bread.

                If all people know is that rustic bread is made of flour, water, salt and yeast, and just throw 'em together and see what happens, if certainly won't fall in the vcategory of "technical writing."

                11 Replies
                1. re: mpalmer6c

                  Yes, but if you understand something about how natural leavens and the enzymes in flour work, if you know approximate ratios of flour and salt to water (based on baker's percentages), and know what dough feels and looks like, you can bake with confidence, you won't have to have your nose in a cookbook, you will be able to understand recipes when you choose to use them, and you will be able to adapt to the unexpected. This is not about vague general instructions. The project is to write precise information in a manner that puts the user in control and does not leave him or her as a blind follower. In cooking we make that transition frequently. For my first soups, I was a blind follower. Now I read many recipes to get ideas. I try to figure out the relationships between ingredients. I often adapt. If something is completely new, I usually follow the recipe to the letter the first time. Once I understand it (and understanding here includes a sensory awareness on many levels), I can be creative if I choose to be the next time around. I think all of us have cooked a recipe we liked but found some way to adapt it to our needs or tastes the next time around. Similarly, if you understand what happens when you make a loaf of sourdough bread, you can adapt--providing you stay within the boundaries of what flour and water and salt can do.

                  1. re: Father Kitchen

                    This sounds like a really fun project and a good way to hone technical writing skills. When you ask about the meaning of "rustic bread," I think a key question is "what do you mean by 'meaning'"? Do you mean what should the term mean? Or what does the word mean in common usage? Because I still maintain that if you are using the latter definition, a key element is the lack of a loaf pan. When people walk into their local supermarket chain (at least the one near me), crap is sold as "rustic bread" but it looks different and good because it looks like a free-form loaf. So people assume it's better whether it is or isn't. So it depends on what meaning you are looking for.

                    1. re: kary

                      So you are suggesting that in common parlance, any loaf that's made as a boule is considered "rustic bread." Which is pretty interesting. So let me suggest that the term "rustic bread" does not occur in common parlance. But that's a narrow view. It may be that people see a boule and think of their view or expectation or definition of true "rustic bread" without using the term.

                      So now Father Kitchen has several definitions that describe the physical make-up of the bread, a definition that describes it by it's use, and now a definition based on a definition that is in common usage.

                      I think he's not going to be able to use the term "rustic bread" in his paper. "Sourdough" we can define.

                      1. re: yayadave

                        "Rustic bread" doesn't seem to be so much part of common usage as "real bread" to distinguish rustic-appearing or actual artisan or homemade breads from supermarket-style sliced breads. The reality is how much of that genre isn't "real," but as kary points out, only appearing so. Some of it is excellent but there are some klunkers.
                        Many supermarkets have in-house "bakeries" that produce bread from parbaked loaves that have the shapes and styles associated with "rustic" or "real" breads but they've been produced elsewhere and finished in-store. They offer them in lovely displays and paper bags. Few have from-scratch bakeries - even in France. The same is true of bread machine loaves or some common home-baked recipes which aren't necessarily great.

                        Appearances can therefore be deceiving.
                        People have a Pavlovian response to a non-square, non-sliced product as superior to the old sliced standard although many of the new "artisan" products aren't that much better. They're awful pretty though.

                    2. re: Father Kitchen

                      "The project is to write precise information in a manner that puts the user in control and does not leave him or her as a blind follower".
                      Now you tell me. For this, bread making is perfect. Most bread recipes give a simple paint-by-the-numbers procedure, but do not tell you what to look for at each step. Instead, you should describe for the baker in painful detail exactly what to look for in the dough and how to judge it, so that indicates you can proceed to the next step, regardless of what the clock or cookbook author says. This way, you do not really need a recipe, but just a technique or method. I make sourdough regularly, and no longer use a recipe and simple listen to what the yeast in the dough is telling me. Of course, this means that the yeast is really in control and not the baker. It also gives the baker a leg up in adapting and changing the recipe.

                      1. re: jerry i h

                        I don't think the baker is in "control" given that the amount of water that will be absorbed by the flour, age of the yeast and lift it will give to the dough, and so on cannot be dictated by the baker, no matter how much he or she would like to pretend to be in control.

                        Have you seen the book "Dough" by Richard Bertinet? He has lots of photos in there and in his DVD he shows his technique for mixing the dough; both give you a feel for how to adapt to the dough you have. Maybe this would help give you some ideas for a way to do a multimedia bread cookbook.

                        1. re: willownt

                          The OP is challenged with a technical writing project. No pictures. That requires much more discipline.

                          Ultimately, the baker is in control. All of the variables change constantly but the baker has the power to intervene. Knowing exactly when to do so gives him control and determines the success of the outcome. That's why "recipe followers" often fail.
                          Being able to express technical details in words with no still photos or film of technique or appearance is a difficult intellectual skill.

                          1. re: MakingSense

                            Agree 100%. That is what makes yeast dough an excellent educational excercise. Almost all baking textbooks that are otherwise excellent written by/for professional bakers will usually fail this aspect of their book. They just wave off the subject of judging dough stages by saying that only experience will teach the baker.

                              1. re: MakingSense

                                I think we differ then in what it means to be "in control." According to your definition, bakers are "in control" because they are able to bring the dough back to where they want it, after the dough may vear off in a different direction. To my mind, the fact that one is reacting makes it seem to me less that the baker is *in* control than that the baker is trying to direct a process over which he or she has a large, but ultimately limited, control over. I am not sure if this is a semantic or conceptual difference of how I see the role of the baker.

                                Be that as it may, I still recommend looking at Bertinet's Dough book for his description of kneading and dough stages. He is more detailed in his explanation of stages and the feel of the dough than most cookbook writers.

                                1. re: willownt

                                  I think we're on the same page. Bread is the most simple and most complex of endeavors. Sort of like raising children. Once you've started, the trick is knowing when and how to intervene.
                                  I think that's the technical writing challenge for the OP. Describing the exact "stages and feel of the dough" as Bertinet does is so incredibly complex because no two will ever be alike, just as no two children will ever be. Successful bakers just "know" but putting that into words is difficult.