Wednesday 24 February 2016

Lessons in Loaf: How to Buy Better Bread and Know What You are Getting

As another supermarket loaf collapses in crumbs on the bread board as you try to spread butter on it, you can be forgiven for wanting better bread. Many of us simply trade up and look at the 'Finest' or 'Taste the Difference' premium ranges of breads on offer in the supermarkets, because they must be better, mustn't they?

Yet, as Chris Young of the Real Bread Campaign points out, the law on product labelling seems intent on getting in the way of us knowing what we're getting: 

'...any retailer selling loaves that are not prepacked...doesn't have to label or otherwise declare ingredients other than allergens. Even when there is a listing, so-called processing aids don't have to be declared...' 

What do we mean by better though? I guess fit for purpose and digestible would be a start. I want to be able to spread stuff on my bread that hasn't had to be made 'spreadable' by adding stuff to it. I also want it to be easy to digest and not sit like a lump in my guts. 

Much factory made bread fails in this respect because it's been processed quickly with lots of yeast and additives to try to hurry along the process. 

But you can't cheat nature. I asked bakers what they thought was meant by better bread. Joe Fitzmaurice is probably Ireland's leading artisan baker, he creates amazing loaves in his wood fired bakehouse oven in Cloughjordan. I asked him how he would make supermarket bread better, he says: 'I'd make sure it was properly fermented and had more wholemeal in it'. And that answer chimes with the science of what makes a good loaf. Good ingredients and time to develop flavour and structure.  

My original question: how do you know what you are getting? To answer that allow me to introduce the Squeeze Test. In the video below one of these loaves is a generic factory 'toaster' loaf, the other is a sourdough loaf with the Real Bread label showing it has been baked with time and care.

Watch what happens when we subject them to the Squeeze Test. One of these pieces went in the bin afterwards the other was quickly eaten with butter. Can you guess which is which. 

The Real Bread loaf has a good gluten structure which means it bounces back. The factory loaf reveals its true colours and stubbornly remains as a stodgy doughy lump (explaining why it is so hard to digest).

So is that what makes premium branded supermarket loaves, is the bread made better by making it better? Well it seems not. When I asked Sainsbury's what made the difference in their Taste the Difference range they told me it was solely the ingredients that are of higher quality. So the bread is no better but the ingredients are. 

I also asked Tesco about their Finest range but they didn't reply; so I asked in store, they didn't really know other than to say it was better quality. 

It seems we cannot rely on the premium branding to ensure we are getting better bread, nor can we speak to knowledgeable in store staff to help us out. 

There is a way though. This is Alexandra. She runs the Village Bakery in Lees near where I live. It's a retail bakery, she doesn't bake herself but has bread from a range of bakeries, like Martin's in Manchester where the lovely Real Bread sourdough in the test was made. She cares about what she sells and knows about it too. 

Locally to us, you can also get bread from the amazing Handmade Bakery at Toast in Delph, and at Mossley Organic and Fine Foods. 

Incidentally, the Real Bread Mark, is a brand you can rely on. Bakers using that mark guarantee their bread meets the criteria of the Real Bread Campaign - it is additive free and baked properly with care. You can track down Real Bread bakers by using the Real Bread Finder here.  

There are lots of people like Alexandra who will talk to you about why the food they make and sell is great. If you are thinking about buying better bread this weekend squeeze what you are already buying and then trade up to something properly better. 


  1. This is precisely why I bake the majority of our own bread. One week I went to get a slice out of a supermarket bought loaf & it smelled so much of chemicals that I simply cannot buy it again. I bake bread, rolls, hot cross buns etc. I use a bread maker or stand mixer to do the hard work for me, due to my health, but each batch is hand finished then baked in the oven. In fact we had homemade pizza tonight, along with the breads I make it only contains, flour (I prefer Organic), yeast water and sea salt, plus a little oil or butter. Even our youngest son 13yrs can make pizza from scratch & I have baked with our children since they were little. Great post and I really enjoyed your writing style. Sammie.

  2. Thanks Sammie, that's kind of you. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it, I'm equally pleased that you love making your own bread.
    I confess making my own is my first choice, up until a year ago I made all our bread for me and my family and friends. Having a period when I can't bake as much has had the side effect of making me a bread tourist so not all bad!