Over the millennia that bread has occupied a central role in mankind’s life and diet, it’s had some rough spots. One particular low point: the demonic rise of ultra-refined industrial bread in the middle of the last century, to be followed in quick, pitiless succession by the bread boycott sanctioned by Dr. Atkins and his low-carb comrades. (These events weren’t related, but they should have been.) Even while calorie counters were eschewing the staff of life in the eighties and nineties, real bread—in its naturally leavened, long-fermented, hearth-baked form—was enjoying a bit of a comeback hereabouts, thanks to pioneers like Bread Alone’s Dan Leader, Rock Hill Bakehouse’s Michael London, Tom Cat’s Noel Labat-Comess, and the indefatigable Eli Zabar, whose skinny sourdough ficelles flooded Manhattan gourmet stores and corner delis, reeducating the crust-deprived populace on how to chew.
Those bread avengers, and such like-minded successors as Amy’s Bread, Sullivan St Bakery, and Balthazar Bakery, looked to France and Italy. Now, a quarter-century later, a new wave of small-scale artisanal bakers are finding inspiration closer to home—specifically in upstate New York, where a nascent network of farmers and millers are reviving the region’s moribund wheat and flour industry, a development that’s manna for locavore chefs. You might trace this new bread movement back to the appearance of the Wild Hive Farm and Cayuga Pure Organics stands at Union Square Greenmarket, with their baker-bait arrays of flours and “ancient” grains, like emmer and spelt, that give multigrain (another current trend) new meaning. And then there’s the prevailing DIY spirit of a certain category of (primarily Brooklyn) establishment: Not only do they make the bread; they churn the butter, too.
On the following pages, you’ll find the definitive list (says us) of the city’s best new loaves and more on the state of baking in New York. We also check in with the godfather of today’s artisan bread, Jim Lahey, whose no-knead method revolutionized home baking, and who intends to do the same for the retail side of things at the new Chelsea outpost he plans to open next month. Like any perfectionist, Lahey casts a critical eye over the local breadscape. But after our thorough investigation of the subject, we have to say, the notion of living on bread alone? Not so terrible.
The city's top-thirteen new-wave breads.
Roberta’s City White Loaf
Why would a nice young woman like Melissa Weller leave the cozy confines of the Per Se kitchen to toil practically outdoors like a longshoreman, baking bread in a converted shipping container in Roberta’s razor-wire backyard? Three words: Wood. Fired. Oven. That’s what’s inside the shipping container. And nothing, you see, can match the quality of bread baked in a domed-roof wood-fired brick oven. Weller’s City White is proof. Its crust is dark and crackling; its crumb pearlescent and moist as cake. “Rustic” doesn’t begin to describe this craggy loaf’s good looks: It’s like time-machine bread from some nineteenth-century communal oven outside of Rome or Paris.
261 Moore St., nr. Bogart St., Bushwick; 718-417-1118.
Nordic Breads’ Finnish Ruis
There’s more to rye bread than what you get at Carnegie Deli. Take, for instance, this Nordic newcomer. It’s a dark, dense, whole-grain triumph, flat as a Frisbee and with a distinctive tang that gains in complexity the more you chew. It is a bread of substance, of depth, and (as the packaging asserts) of such high fiber you can practically feel your constitution improve as you munch away. Concocted from organic New York State rye meal and a sourdough starter baker Simo Kuusisto smuggled in from Finland, the Ruis has expanded its retail presence from a New Amsterdam Market kiosk to Whole Foods shelves.
Hot Bread Kitchen’s M’smen
It’s a rare bakery whose repertoire ranges from freshly ground corn tortillas to Sephardic challah, but that multiethnicism embodies the mission of Hot Bread Kitchen: to train immigrant women to parlay their native expertise into management positions in the industry. Of all the breads produced at its East Harlem headquarters, the most exotic and delicious is the m’smen, a rough-textured, butter-and-oil-enriched North African flatbread that’s rolled, slicked, and folded into a delicious envelope of dough. Combining the rich flakiness of a croissant with the tender-crisp chew of paratha, the m’smen is griddled golden-brown and traditionally encountered at breakfast time in Marrakech. Here, find it tucked into the bread basket at Boulud Sud or stacked high at Hot Bread Kitchen’s Greenmarket stands.
Runner and Stone’s Buckwheat and Pear
Technically precise, ingredient-restricted: That sums up Peter Endriss’s daily output as onetime head baker at Per Se and Bouchon Bakery, where the breads couldn’t contradict the food. So, for the most part, no nuts, no fruit, no cracked pepper, no onions, no experimental zaniness. Judging from his solo debut at New Amsterdam Market this fall, Endriss is compensating for years of flavor deprivation with assertive combinations like a Cheddar-and-hard-cider loaf, a sourdough whole-wheat walnut with dried sausage and red wine, and blockbuster pain au chocolat encasing port-infused figs. But his biggest evolution in style, which will be on full display at his forthcoming Brooklyn bakery, is a gravitation to local grains, natural leavening, and long fermentation. All three conspire to make his squarish buckwheat pear loaf a thing of crusty, nutty beauty, its speckled crumb a triple-grained canvas (there’s rye and spelt, too) for nuggets of sweet poached fruit.
Opening in 2012 at 285 Third Ave., nr. Carroll St., Gowanus; no phone yet.