In praise of crusts : experts at the table

In praise of crusts: experts at the table

  • Ladies and Gentlemen, We’re here today to talk about crusts. We’re going to talk about bread, but we’ll be concentrating on the crust. All the beautiful crusts we see here on the table. A first simple question for Frédéric Lalos: Why is there a crust on bread?

  • There’s a crust because there is caramelisation and this slightly more crunchy part.

  • Even salt. I say this to provoke the nutritionist next to me. The kneading influences the crust. The duration of the kneading, its intensity, there are a great many factors.

  • And the baking.

  • The baking of course, the heat of the oven floor, the explosive fermentation…

  • To add to what Frédéric is saying, during the baking, the exterior loses water more quickly, so it hardens, it dries.

  • And crusts have completely different thicknesses, depending on the fermentation and the recipe we use. In these two breads we’ll be looking at shortly, this one has almost no crust whereas this one has a beautiful crust. But they don’t have the same ingredients.

  • So each ingredient: flour, salt and water can have an influence, depending on the proportions used.

  • At the risk of provoking Frédéric, I would say that the shaping, the way it’s shaped, can also have an influence. A long bread like a baguette will have a different crust-crumb ratio to a large 2 or 3 kilo bread, where the crust will look different. And the craze for baguettes in Paris in the 20s and 30s developed precisely because people wanted the crust.

  • Here we can see that all these breads have been scored. I imagine that’s also important for the formation of the crust.

  • That’s what allows the dough to develop nicely. If you don’t score the product, it will be slightly restrained and will crack up more or less all over, and most of all, it will develop in a much less interesting way. By scoring the dough, we sort of direct the pressure of the gases.

  • So we don’t have to score it?

  • No, but…

  • I think some people don’t score it…

  • If you don’t score it, that means that the key, you turn over your bread or your baguette, and this is the key to the shaping that opens up naturally, but a bread will inevitably double in volume in the oven, on average. So it’s imperative to assist the pressure of the gases, to direct it a little.

  • So it can’t be purely random?

  • Natural cracking goes back a long way but the complaint we constantly find is that the laceration of the bread is damaged because the natural cracking is random, so we began to score it in a more rational manner, precisely to avoid accidents and to give the bread a more decorative look, but also for technical reasons, to enable the gas to escape during the fermentation.

  • If we go a little further with the history of the crust, do we find an evolution in usage, in the taste of the consumer?

  • Certainly, in the old days, the crust was a guarantee for the consumer, and a thick crust on a large loaf meant that it remained fresh. Besides, people didn’t eat bread straight from the oven. They waited and ate it the next day, if it was good bread.

  • So the crust is a sort of protection, a means of preserving the bread?

  • Of course if the crust is too thin, the crumb will dry out very, very quickly because it will lose its humidity. It will dry up and the bread will be much less pleasant to eat. In the old days, you could keep a bread like this for several days without any difficulty, whereas a long French bread or a baguette, which would have a very very thin crust by default would keep for a much shorter length of time.

  • We were talking about the baking earlier on. You make your bread in the restaurant, Simon, but a restaurant isn’t always equipped, it’s not a bakery, so you have to find alternative ways of producing the kind of crust you want. How to you make your bread?

  • I devised a recipe with a baker friend. The idea was to recreate, to work on the recipe and the salt, the degree of humidity in the bread, in order to produce the kind of crust I wanted, not too thick and not too dark in order to avoid releasing bitter elements, so the difficulty was to have homogeneous baking without having a baker’s oven. Now we can bake the kind of bread we want, in any case with a sufficiently thick crust on the top and slightly thinner on the base. What would make a difference would be a baker showing me what I’m lacking in terms of baking.

  • On the floor of the oven?

  • On the floor of the oven, on the stone.

  • On a hot stone that you heat in the morning?

  • As soon as we arrive, we heat the stones a lot, to get the right temperature so that it can develop immediately.

  • That’s important. The crust mustn’t be too thick or too thin, and it mustn’t be over-baked. For me, eating is a pleasure. So the pleasure is in this balance of things, with lots of lovely aromas, but at the same time not too much, not too burnt. This is the art of the baker, finding this balance.

  • But I think there’s more to it than that. Because I don’t believe in dogmas. I’m not dogmatic but I really believe that bread doesn’t reach its full sensory culmination if there isn’t an exchange of aromas between the crust and the crumb. And if the crust isn’t subjected to the right reaction, if there is no caramelisation, we can’t get this wonderful exchange that produces a voluptuous and truly magical bread. So we get a bread, when there’s no crust, that’s a little dull, lacking in vivacity, charm, a sort of “bun”, which I see as a sort of insidious Americanisation. You Frenchies have to be careful. You’re getting too slack. Slackness is dangerous. Watch out for the slack!

  • Yes, I remember being very impressed when I heard Steven a few years back. What makes French bread so special is its crustiness. Of course there’s the pleasure of the exchange of aromas and the exchanges but there’s also the pleasure of the crunchy texture.

  • This bread is a good example. There are more than forty-eight hours between the beginning and the completion, so that, yes, at this stage it may lack development, but I’m practically certain that my crust will be beautiful and something will happen. But it’s not just the crust. I believe we buy with our eyes too, so we initially buy it for its looks, like lots of other things, and if it’s good, we come back for more. With these breads, we should have, I don’t know if you can see it, but I really like these reddish colours. I’m happy when it turns sort of red. If it turns reddish this means…

  • A sort of sienna.

  • It’s red, it’s caramel, it’s slightly reddish.

  • Yes, we can see reddish lights in it.

  • Sort of like embers, I really like that.

  • Not white.

  • But it’s also one of the rare foods that we eat without any intermediary utensils, so we necessarily touch bread. So there’s this sensuality, this intimacy. It’s a transgression to touch it like this but there’s the sound of the crust, a first singing when it comes from the oven and later at the table, and there’s this drumming sound that reassures us and here the cooking is spot on because we have this slightly hollow sound and we can feel this texture with our fingers, with our tongue, which is a powerful muscle, with our teeth too… so that bread appeals to all our senses. The crust appeals to the sense of touch, hearing, and of course its appearance, to sight, because eighty percent of our sensorial input is through the eyes

  • Just on one particular aspect, deep-freezing, freezing. Can we freeze our bread? Is it better to deep-freeze it? How do we unfreeze it? What’s the best thing to do?

  • When I go to Lalos’s, he’s one of the best bakers in France, I buy my bread. I might buy two or three breads and I might freeze two breads for two or three days. Eight days later I can take them out and put them in the oven at 110° 115° 120°, for seven or eight minutes. Sometimes I might add a little water, very little.

  • And does the crust retain its crunchiness?

  • It’s pretty crusty, though. But I prefer that to having to buy a mediocre bread from a bakery where the baker is indifferent to the quality of things and where freshness isn’t an overriding consideration.

  • Exactly! I do the same thing. I prefer to go a long way to a good baker and then buy a lot of bread, some of which I freeze. I think it’s important to decide about freezing it right away, I mean to freeze the bread while it’s still fresh, as soon as you start eating it, and not to wait until has dried. You get a very, very good result and it’s far preferable to buy a good bread and freeze it rather than buy bad bread simply because it’s just five minutes from your home.

  • What’s in the crust? Does it have qualities? specific nutritional elements.

  • As Steven says, you eat with all your senses and the crust is only the external part of the recipe, so there’s no difference in terms of its make up or nutritional value. From the point of view of its mineral make up there’s no difference. However, there is nevertheless a difference: there is the caramelisation, so that’s really important in terms of aroma. And there’s a difference in terms of the satisfaction it procures and what we call the glycaemic index, the fact that we’re eating something that is not absorbed quickly. Bread with a good crust will take a little longer to digest because the transformation of the starch in the bread isn’t exactly the same for the crust. A bread like this, with a nice crust, will be more satisfying. It will keep us going longer than an all-white bread which the body will interpret as being a very fast sugar that is digested very, very fast.

  • And let’s not forget chewing, because chewing is our first experience of the bread in our mouth. It begins the moment it enters our mouth. If there isn’t enough crust, chewing it will be laborious and tiresome. We can’t form a food ball without great difficulty and this upsets us a little and it’s not very nice and it’s a bad sign for what’s to come. However, when the proportions are right, what we might call a productive balance between the crust and the crumb, then chewing is a real pleasure.

  • Absolutely, and anyway the crust forces us to chew it. Steven is absolutely right. We forget that digestion begins in the mouth, so we need to take the time to chew, to masticate, and there’s saliva in the mouth, all of which prepares the food for digestion. Nowadays we live in a world where we do everything too fast, including eating, and if the bread is all soft, this encourages us to bolt it back very quickly, leading to digestive problems and a total lack of pleasure and taste.

  • Nowadays we can find crustless bread in supermarkets. Is it some other kind of Americanisation?

  • Sort of, I think so. You’re sacrificing your heritage, your gastronomic heritage, when you eat bread like that. I’m not in favour some kind of national preference. I’m cosmopolitan and I even like things to be sort of mixed up, but if we give up completely on crusts, then we’re headed for a sandwich bread in disguise, although there’s a terrible loss of pleasure. We’re talking about pleasure, but I don’t think pleasure is a reflex, it’s something we have to learn to experience. A part of me believes we’ve failed in two ways, technically, in terms of baking, by not teaching the new generation the importance of the crust, and we’ve also failed in terms of transmission, by not educating consumers, explaining to them why they’re going to have a more moving experience when there’s a crust because, in the end of the day, the important thing is the emotion, and that’s registered in the cortex, and that’s what gives us this sort of Proustian experience, when we have something that was wonderful yesterday, or last year, or ten years ago. And the crust acts as an absolute catalyst for this experience.

  • I completely agree with Steven. The texture and the crunchiness of the crust really matter but we really eat with all our senses, so we also smell the bread, but when it’s in our mouth, the crust is full of aromas that come from the caramelisation.

  • The crust is the taste.

  • It’s a large part of the taste!

  • Can we have a little taste perhaps? With everyone describing what they experience.

  • I think sandwich bread should be experienced more as a complement than a pleasure in its own right. People who like sandwich bread may not agree with me, but sandwich bread is a complement that may be easy to eat quickly without particularly thinking about it, but if you want to eat game, a nice terrine, the pleasure is divided equally between the terrine and the bread.

  • You can’t take a sauce, a great béchamel sauce, and remove the egg because there is something inherent in the pleasure of eating bread. I agree with Frédéric, sandwich bread has its uses, but for me, bread with a crust is a real meal. It’s self-sufficient. If it’s well made, you don’t even need any butter or anything else. You can eat something else with it, but it’s impossible to imagine sandwich bread as something complete in itself, if you see what I mean.

  • Let’s have some bread… is there some special way to cut the crust? People sometimes speak of breaking bread, isn’t that right?

  • That’s religious.

  • You can also make a cross on it if you like.

  • But you can also do the blowing test with the crust.

  • What’s this test?

  • You do it with wine to aerate it, to oxygenise it, and it brings out the aromas. Well, it isn’t very hygienic, but if you blow, you immediately pick up all you were saying, all the complexity of the aromas, the smells.

  • It’s interesting to do this. People think it’s not good to smell but you get different scents when you smell like this and when you eat, the smell of the food is an important part of the pleasure of eating. I agree with you that it’s a food that can be eaten without any accompaniment.

  • Then there are people who remove the crust, who throw it away and eat the crumb. Are they insane or what?

  • It’s a contentious issue, between what you might call a permissive approach and, particularly in France where you’re supposed to eat in a particular way. You have to eat this way! And I don’t believe in food police but I invite all those who don’t like the crust to discuss it and to try to understand this rejection. Are they worried about their teeth, their gums? Did they have a traumatic experience in their childhood? I don’t know. When you explain what the crust does for the bread, the balance between the crumb and the crust, when we describe the global sensory experience, people begin to realise that they’re really missing out on something when they remove or throw away the crust. What worries me – because the crust is an essential part of French bread – is if we’re really moving toward softer bread, then we’ll have such bland bread that the whole interest of artisanal bread-baking, of the artisan’s imagination will be much less valued than it is now.

  • For example, Simon, we couldn’t mop up sauce if we had only the crust, so it’s also a balance, we need the crumb to absorb juices. Bread is both the crust and the crumb.

  • Getting back to what Steven was saying a few minutes ago, about bread being a meal in itself. So it’s true when we’re served bread during a meal, when we add it, it gives added value to the dish, in terms of the sauce, in terms of any ingredient. We blend flavours. I really love talking about flavours. We look for something that will enhance them. I mentioned sublimation, something to complement the flavour, something we add to what is presented.

  • It’s a part of the dish.

  • I think that as French people we often have this bread culture and it’s true that at times like this, we tend to forget the crust. The crust, the bitterness, the way the bread is baked and the flavours the crust gives off have an enormous influence on what people are going to eat afterward. When we speak about mopping up a sauce or a vinaigrette, we do so naturally but we could equally well use the flavours that the crust releases. The porous nature of the crumb is what enables us to mop up the sauce.

  • We could also continue to discuss cooking… do you cook also using bread in dishes?

  • This is something we really like to do. The crust really acquires meaning. Depending on the dish and what we wish to create, we balance the bitterness and an acidic aspect. It’s true that we tend to burn bread, really burn it before soaking it in a broth in order to develop the flavours that already exist in the recipe for the bread, in the concentration and fermentation of the bread, and to develop a sort of toasted touch that you can get with a crust and you can’t get from anything else.

  • Bread ice cream, for example?

  • We use bead to make stocks, different sorts of things like that. And it’s true that it really amuses me. At the moment, I have customers who tell me that the bread ice cream we make reminds them of something. For me it really reminds me of the caramel custards of my childhood. We leave the bread to soak for 24 to 48 hours, really well toasted bread, in an ice cream base so that it develops its aromas and matures before we work it like ice cream and it’s true you no longer get the bitterness but instead we find a really interesting caramelised, toasted effect.

  • Nowadays we get lots of crumbles in a great many slightly trendy Parisian restaurants. You always have to have the crunchy effect. Do you use bread crust to create a crunchy effect?

  • We can perfectly well make breadcrumbs. I think the crust is really more interesting because it brings lots of flavours with it, so when we want to make something crunchy, to put on leeks, for example, a bread powder, I would tend to select, to use the crusts of left-over bread rather than the hearts. Here again, there is an exchange of flavours, we can’t separate one from the other, there is an exchange of flavours between the crumb and the crust.

  • One last thing about restaurants, about the service, we can see that the crust makes crumbs. Do you consider the dining area, how to serve bread to avoid having it everywhere and to facilitate the service?

  • I think that’s obviously because no one likes to eat at a table with bread crusts absolutely everywhere. Of course different methods are used. For instance, bread baskets allow the bread to lose crumbs without their going everywhere. And I think you can have things like here, on this table today, it’s all part of the show. People are used to this. We have to take this into consideration, but anyway, we’re not there wiping down the tables every ten minutes.

  • So you get this sort of natural effect…

  • I’d like to add that bread is often seen as an affront in a restaurant, a veritable insult. We are often served up excellent food, enchanting wines and given very ordinary bread. If people are to be educated about bread, then it must be done in shops, of course, but also at the table. If we explain to people what bread is all about, if there is no sommelier for bread (my blog is called sommelier du pain), then we are really missing out on an incredible opportunity to involve people in a global gastronomic experience. As with wine, we need someone to explain what bread is all about, what it can be. It’s an extremely important moment in a meal for me and I invite my restaurateur friends to think about it. And then I promise to give up bringing my own bread to the table in restaurants.

  • On the subject of restaurants, Frédéric, you work with a lot of restaurateurs. It’s an important activity. Is there any particular demand in terms of the crust? Do people ask for white, perhaps slightly less baked crusts or better baked crusts?

  • The crust, when they speak about bread, because the crust is part of the bread, they want a crust because they know that as soon as you look for quality, there is necessarily a crust. No one disputes this. Bread without a crust? Well, you could make a tradition baguette and make it very damp extreme with a very fine crust.

  • A bit like a ciabatta?

  • It would be different though. But mostly there’s a little olive oil so that the crust comes off. You can have very fine crusts on tradition baguettes but we’re not going into technical terms. And it would involve low temperatures. This one spent 24 hours at 10°. Of course there’s a crust, that goes without saying. You can make a tradition baguette a little hotter with finer crusts, but as soon as you have quality, you have a crust. I really believe that.

  • Could we cut off a piece and taste it?

  • We can start here and finish with the one I think has the greatest aromatic power. I deliberately took it to the limit for Steven!

  • I’m moved, and for me that’s magnificent! It’s sublime!

  • Does it sell easily in the shop?

  • But as soon as you taste it, the crust/crumb ratio, people’s eyes light up and they say oh la la!

  • That’s what I look for in a bakery.

  • They’ll say the bread is burnt.

  • Let’s stop talking about bread that’s over baked. Bread is correctly baked and crunchily baked.

  • There really is a question of education with bread, a global education. I’m not talking about nutritional quality. I’m talking about food value, taste value, explaining to people how to eat bread.

  • Magnificent!

  • We could describe…

  • Here we have a slightly different flour because I use a lot of buckwheat, but when we talk about baking bread, this is what we find, but some people don’t like the taste.

  • What can we say about the tastes?

  • The basic flavour is pumpkin-like, a sort of sweet potato. It’s also spicy, with a toasted effect, and a touch of honey.

  • All that essentially in the crust?

  • It’s difficult to hold both together. Bread is a symphony of aromas and tastes. I think it’s a wonderful bread. It’s nice and chewy.

  • That’s also very interesting, having the right thickness in the crust. As Steven says, it’s nice and chewy. If the crust is too thin or too dry, it wouldn’t be so nice. Maybe that’s what people are afraid of, a crust that’s too thick, then it gets difficult to chew. This is very good, it’s very pleasant to eat, plus you have all the aromas.

  • There is a real need to restore the image of crusts. I’ve had this discussion with Frédéric several times. When I come on as the Ayatollah of the crust, people say: Kaplan, you’re an academic. You did a CAP forty years ago and you’ve never run a business… but I have to sell my bread and my customers don’t want crunchily baked bread. And I tell them they have to change their customers’ way of seeing things. That’s the job of the artisan. I know it’s an enormous and very difficult job. Bakers, the ones who are sort of conscious of making correctly baked bread for some and considerably less so for others. I think that’s too much of a concession. It’s a form of populism that we have to resist and nowadays populism can be toxic in terms of baking just as much as it is in politics.

  • I just wanted to finish with this very beautiful quote from Francis Ponge as a reaction to bread, just an extract where he talks about the crust. I think it’s very nice: “The surface of the bread is wonderful, firstly because of the almost panoramic impression we get, as if we had the Alps, the Taurus or the Andes at our fingertips (the Taurus is a complex of mountains in Turkey)” Yes, when we look at it. We were talking about the pleasure of the eyes. Ponge describes the crumb as “the ignoble underlying softness, the slack and cold sublayer known as the spongy part because it resembles spongy tissue”

  • Wonderful! It’s very nice.

  • In any case, I think the people who eat this bread are bread connoisseurs and it’s really what they want.

  • What we notice, is really the fineness of the crust.

  • Looking at the outside, we can say that this mass of crust is really imposing.

  • And we’re also really in a period where people are more sensitive to waste. Moreover a bread like this will keep very, very well because of the thickness of the crust, the crumb won’t dry up too fast. You can freeze bread but you can also keep it for several days.

  • It’s fruity. I can taste black cherries, currants. It’s delicious. And all that as a result of the balance between the crust and the crumb. As a historian I work a lot on the 18th, century, 18th century bread, I imagine was very much like this. This is a Gonesse bread. Gonesse is the best bread in Paris. This bread embodies a very small part of the Ancien Regime.

  • What’s wonderful about bread is that this one, when you think about it, is completely different to the last one. There’s incredible diversity.

  • All three are very different.

  • Water, salt and flour, all kinds of combinations are possible.

  • It’s wonderful!

  • Bread-making is wonderful!