This review kicks off our brand-new, community-driven book tournament, The Big Community Book-Off. With your help, we're finding the best books across categories (from bread to pasta, one-bowl to weeknight-friendly, cake to cookies, to name a few), and putting them through a series of rigorous reviews—considered, tested, and written by none other than you. And so, let's hand it off to our community members Amie, Sara, and Emmie. Here are their reviews (and judgment!) of the best books on bread—and their nail-biting verdict on which one reigns supreme.
There is a special folly in taking part in a book review project in a Shelter-in-Place situation and a flour and yeast shortage, but the thrill of getting an email from Food52 asking for help deciding the Best Bread Book In All the Land can drive three bakers to extremes.
We started by laying out some ground rules for ourselves. With the breadth of the books we were given to work from, it was key that we come up with some ground rules. We gave ourselves the following guidelines:
- Cook as many recipes as possible from each book (we agreed that seven total across the three of us was the magic number for each book).
- At least one common recipe to prove our experiences and results
- Mastery: The book should show some level of mastery of the craft as well as accuracy in the formulas/recipes
- Engagement (& Accessibility): The book should engage us beyond formulas and steps, but that could come either through stories, sidebars, header notes, or deep dives into the subject matter. Furthermore, were the recipes achievable with fairly standard shopping and equipment availability?
- Education: Did we develop our skills? Did we learn something new? Did we come out of our experience with the book as better bakers?
The five best books on bread, as nominated by you (or well, us all!) were: Peter Reinhart's Bread Baker's Apprentice and Artisan Breads Everyday, James Beard's Beard on Bread, Ken Forkish's Flour Water Salt Yeast, and Jessamyn Rodriguez and Julia Turshen's Hot Bread Kitchen.
There were things we truly, deeply loved about each and every book. Peter Reinhart certainly delivers on the technical knowledge and representation of what is classically thought of as bread and pastry. Ken Forkish’s love letter to artisan loaves was thoroughly engaging and delivered that extra “something” we all look for in books on bread—just that bit of knowledge that is more than just a little flirty to serious bread bakers. And what can’t you say about James Beard? Truly larger than life, he turned his expert gaze to all things yeasted (and not), producing a little slip of a book that will live on in our hearts. (Pssst: Knopf—Please don’t discontinue this gem of a delight of a wonder of a book. The world will be a darker, sadder place without it.)
Alas, there's only one that stole our hearts. Only one that decidedly did not get away, but opened the door and said “So glad you’re here! Look what we made for you." But let's not get ahead of ourselves. After a month of reading, baking, writing, and baking some more, here are our reviews of all five books.
Peter Reinhart’s Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread
If you are looking to learn about the whys and hows of bread baking, Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice has you covered. It is an extensive, almost textbook-style treatise on the art and science of bread, and it thoroughly describes the ingredients, equipment, and methods used.
There are comprehensive illustrations and instructions, so even a completely novice baker will feel confident in the process. The 15th-anniversary edition has updated the original with the newer stretch-and-fold technique commonly used in more modern no-knead breads. The recipes are generously sprinkled with margin notes that provide fodder for experimentation and critical thinking, encouraging the baker to spread their wings as they progress in their experience.
The Bread Baker’s Apprentice was the first book we started this challenge with, and we decided we'd bake a communal recipe plus two “baker's choice” recipes. We all made the Pain de Campagne, a French country loaf which uses a preferment (a portion of the flour and yeast in the recipe is fermented ahead of time—use of a preferment helps develop a more complex flavor in the bread). We all created successful loaves from this recipe, though none of us were smitten with them. While the flavor was good from the preferment and addition of wheat and/or rye flours, the low-hydration dough produced a more dense, dry crumb than the three of us tend to prefer. Amie noted that the bread tasted “dated” in comparison to more modern loaves that use high hydration and folding rather than kneading.
But better results were on the horizon! Amie thought the Anadama was a great slicing loaf with a little crunch of cornmeal and a backnote of bittersweet molasses, and it was easy to devour in generously thick slices. Sara found the Potato Rosemary dough made soft and tasty dinner rolls, and the left-overs were perfect in a breakfast strata. Emmie enjoyed both the Poilâne-style miche and the corn bread. The miche was delicious the day it was made, and even better the next. The corn bread (the only non-yeasted recipe in the book) incorporated a pound of corn kernels, and made a moist, corn-pudding-like bread with an incredible crispy crust.
If there is another update to this classic, it would be wonderful to expand past primarily Eurocentric breads. It would have been wonderful to see the Japanese yeast bread technique of using tangzhong in the book. Likewise the addition of masa-based staples would be welcome. If bread is (almost but not quite) universal across cultures, it would be wonderful to see a wider range of techniques, formats, and flavors reflected in the book. Lastly, having instructions for baking loaves in Dutch ovens would be a boon to bakers looking to create bakery level loaves without having to create steam in home ovens.
If you are simply looking for a basic book of recipes and directions for baking bread in the European fashion, this may be more than you bargained for. The formulaic nature of the instruction may be a bit dry and the volume of information is a bit of an overload for anyone not looking to really nerd out. It is a virtual encyclopedia of yeast bread, and is a road map for the beginning bread baker to explore a wide range of forms and formulas. The experienced baker can use this book both for the basics, and as a jumping-off point on the journey into creating a personally perfect loaf of bread. Add this to your shelf, and you’ll have a great start to your bread journey.
It’s a bit hard to know what to make of Artisan Breads Every Day. Like Reinhart’s magnum opus, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, it bills itself as a survey book, but claims to be “[distilled]... down to the basics” and more accessible to the home cook. Thus, while many of the recipes are similar to those in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, photos of chefs in toques have been replaced by people in everyday clothes, and the long sections on bread science are gone. Unfortunately, the latter is what made The Bread Baker’s Apprentice so distinctive. While Artisan Breads Every Day is certainly accessible, it mostly teaches you the recipes it presents in its pages, while The Bread Baker’s Apprentice will teach you to be a baker.
The basic bread recipes are very similar to those in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, which we tested before this. So, since Reinhart very emphatically throws down the gauntlet in the headnotes to “The Best Biscuits Ever,” we chose them as our communal recipe. Unfortunately, we were all disappointed. We found them flat and texturally flawed; certainly not worthy of the hype they are presented with.
The other technical issue we faced was yield: some of the recipes make a perplexingly large amount of bread (four loaves of challah, three coffee cakes—we can consume a lot of carbs, but there is a limit) and depending on where in the biscuit recipe you look, you’ll end up with either 12 or 22 biscuits.
That being said, we were very happy with how the other recipes we tried turned out. In the rustic bread category, Emmie loved that the 100% Whole-Wheat Ciabatta was super airy and had a nice flavor from a three-day fridge fermentation. Sara made this iteration of Reinhart’s famous Struan bread, which was also fantastic. The enriched doughs were also successful; the Coffee Crumb Cake had a wonderful lemon note; Amie thought that the challah was the best she’d ever made (the sheer volume of the recipe meant not only challah toast but also a really delicious quiche-style bread pudding), and the Chocolate Cinnamon Babka is a truly impressive centerpiece.
This is undoubtedly a good and very useful book, and by following the instructions you will end up with good bread (if not biscuits). However, while you’ll know what to do, you won’t necessarily know why. This book misses the nuance of more comprehensive survey books. It’s approachable for those who are just starting out with baking, but those who are hungry for more than just recipes to follow should look elsewhere.
James Beard’s Beard on Bread
This book is a treasure, much like a community cookbook packed full of cherished family recipes, and is one to read from start to finish lest you miss some delightful gem of wisdom. James Beard is a congenial host throughout, and reading his voice is a balm during the trying time we are currently living through. First published in 1973 when commercial breads were “spongy, plasticized, tasteless breads, pre-sliced, doctored with nutrients and preservatives, and with about as much gastronomic importance as cotton wool,” James Beard knew what was good and right, and here he graciously shares his favorite bread recipes with the world, but in a way that feels deeply personal.
The book starts with some basic information about ingredients, then quickly moves into the recipes. Beginning bread makers are advised to start with the first recipe in the book (Basic White Bread) as the most detailed instruction and trouble-shooting is found in this recipe. Most of the other recipes are light on the details, often offering little direction on the process of mixing, shaping or baking the dough. This could be a hurdle for inexperienced bakers, or for bakers who appreciate precision in recipes. It has a wide range of bread formulas, and contains some lesser known methods as well as breads. The book does have a dated feel, as expected from a book published nearly 50 years ago, but it’s a charming detail rather than something that makes it feel passé.
The communal recipe we chose was Parker House Rolls. We used the dough in 2 ways—traditional rolls, and fried as what Beard calls Dough Gobs. Amie and Sara found these to be delightful (Amie: Dough Gobs FOREVER). What's not to love about fried dough? As rolls, the recipe fell short for Emmie and Sara, as while they tasted good hot out of the oven, they quickly lost their appeal after cooling. The rolls are a classic, but newer recipes and techniques definitely make tastier and longer-lasting ones.
For the most part we enjoyed the other recipes we chose, some of which became instant favorites. Jane Grigson's Walnut Bread was amazing, especially with a soft cheese and glass of wine to sooth the rigors of Shelter In Place. Sara thought the Water-Proofed Egg Twists were a revelation, both due to learning a new technique and because the end result was a perfectly not-too-sweet roll with a caramelized bottom. Amie found the Cooked Oatmeal Bread to be delicious, dense, and to have stood very proud in the pan. Emmie tried the Griddled Yeast Buckwheat Cakes, another previously unheard of recipe, which came out quite tasty despite no instruction on whether or not they should be flipped (both ways worked). Emmie and her family did find the coffee aftertaste of the Black Bread a little off-putting, but she was otherwise pleasantly surprised by the depth of flavor it offered.
This book is filled with unusual, potentially otherwise forgotten recipes, and it would make a valuable addition to any kitchen library, but it’s not for the fainthearted. While full of engaging text and a window into the past, like a lot of cookbooks from this era it assumes a lot of knowledge that isn’t necessarily present for today’s bakers who maybe didn’t grow up with bread cooling on the windowsill, or a grandmother who used an actual tea cup to measure cups of flour. That said, it is truly unfortunate and even a little heartbreaking that it is no longer being published as James Beard's love of cooking, baking, and sharing the spoils of the efforts shine clearly throughout this book, and it deserves to be on your shelf and around another 50 years or more.
Don’t be intimidated by the rustic perfection of the loaf on the cover of Flour Water Salt Yeast. While in some books it seems like you need years of practice or a commercial kitchen to achieve the promised results, with Ken Forkish’s help, you can indeed make incredible loaves of artisan bread with little more than the titular four ingredients and a Dutch oven. That being said, if you want to make anything other than rustic boules and Neapolitan pizza, you’ll have to look elsewhere. This book does one thing, but it does it very, very well.
The book opens with an overview of Forkish’s philosophy on artisan bread and his bread-making journey, then dives into his method, which relies on high-hydration doughs, folding instead of kneading, and long fermentation. There’s an accessible explanation of the science behind it, and then a series of photos detailing every aspect of the method from mixing to folding to shaping. Since the method is the same for every recipe (or “formula”), the book can devote significant space to making sure the reader understands exactly what they’re doing and why. It’s then structured so that you can bake through the simpler “straight doughs” using only commercial yeast, then on to preferments (where you make a dough of some of the flour and yeast ahead of time to develop additional flavor), and then finally to naturally-leavened loaves that use just a levain, or sourdough starter.
If desired, you can also dive into his notes on treating temperature as an ingredient and manipulating flour blends, which allows you to branch out from the provided formulas. Furthermore, it was wonderful to see baker’s percentages on the sidebar, and the timing he provides makes even the longest of fermented loaves achievable for those of us with day jobs (even if that day job right now only involves a 10-second commute and folding/proofing/baking in between Zoom calls).
Our common recipe was the Overnight Country Brown, a part-whole-wheat sourdough loaf, as we’ve all baked from this book before and wanted to test one of the more complex recipes across our kitchens. Suffice it to say that no one was disappointed—this loaf is mellow, nutty, airy perfection. Our other adventures in sourdough–Sara tackled the “advanced” double-fed sweet levain and Emmie the hybrid 75 percent whole wheat–were similarly successful. The 50 percent Whole Wheat with Biga, a sort of stiff preferment, resulted in a different but no less delicious loaf, and one more accessible to a baker without a sourdough starter. Amie’s White Bread with Poolish (a looser preferment) also fit that bill.
After 200 pages focusing exclusively on loaves, the section on pizza can seem like an afterthought, but should not be ignored. With Forkish’s at-home pizza method, the levain pizza dough produced leopard-spotted pies that rival, if not what you’ll find in Naples, then at least what you’ll find in most restaurants, and made for an excellent pizza night at Emmie’s house.
This is a book that delivers on its promise of helping you make incredible loaves of artisan bread. It teaches the hows, but perhaps more importantly, it teaches the whys that enable you to branch out and explore within the confines of the subject matter. This book is as close to a definitive text on artisan loaves as exists; a modern classic that has a place on any baker’s shelf.
Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez and Julia Turshen’s Hot Bread Kitchen: Artisanal Baking from Around the World
Sara and Amie both bought this book after it won the Piglet in 2016, and while Emmie joined us a little later, we all thoroughly enjoyed baking from this book that traverses the globe and brings you back home by way of that staple and staff: bread.
Hot Bread Kitchen is an incubator in New York’s East Harlem, and the bakers are all women, mostly immigrants, who bring with them recipes honed by generations of trial and error. This “women’s world baking” is represented in the breadth of recipes: you’ll find everything from Moroccan m’smen to Guyanese coconut buns to internationally-beloved banana bread. Furthermore, the mission behind the Hot Bread Kitchen Bakery is truly inspiring—it provides their bakers with the education and skills they need for management-track positions in the food industry or for starting their own food business.
Our common recipe for this book was the Tortillas de Tiesto, an Ecuadorian flat bread filled with queso fresco, or if you aren’t lucky enough to have a Central American market close by, feta makes a good substitute. The sweet, whole wheat dough (which uses a very respectable half a pound of butter) was pleasantly contrasted by the salty cheese, and when served with a little lime, avocado, and salt makes a delicious lunch. Emmie grilled hers, and this is now the go-to move.
Sara started with the Monkey Bread: Challah dough gets formed into balls that get rolled in a sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg mix. The dough balls are then divided between two loaf pans, and sprinkled with more of the sugar mixture. This might seem like too much, but trust that it is not. The loaf that emerges has caramelized sugar on the bottom and sides, with a sugar spice crust on top. The tear apart bread was delicious and addictive.
The crowning glory in Amie’s experience was the M’smen. HBK is famous for this bread, and the NYC Greenmarket has their own version filled with market vegetables. The process appears intimidating at first, but once you get into it it is super fun to make and would be great for small hands to get involved (it’s messy but hard to mess up). Once the dough is folded and stretched, your favorite cast iron pan is the perfect way to produce a delicately layered flatbread perfect for dipping into soup or folding around your favorite vegetables or protein.
There are a few stumbling blocks in the book, particularly for the serious baker. There is no levain-based bread, the recipes don’t withstand substitution very well, and there are some minor inconsistencies. In the end, you have to go with the spirit of the book and just dive in and try it out, much like how these women have done by moving to a new country, launching a business, and making a go of it. And really, isn’t this one of the great lessons of life as well as bread?
We all absolutely loved baking this book. There is a huge variety of bread recipes, many putting the bread in context with follow-up dishes and accompaniments, and the personal stories highlight the bakers who are so generous with their knowledge. We really appreciated that the average home baker will not be hamstrung by the need for specialty ingredients or a fussy method, and could dive in with realistic expectations of success. These things all combined to make a unique and laudable cookbook that engages bakers of all levels, and while this is not a book to go to for a unified theory of bread, it is one that celebrates the commonality of people via the diversity of breads across the world.
Written by founder and advocate for the rights of women and immigrants, Jesamyn Waldman Rodriguez, and bestselling author Julia Turshen (who also founded Equity At the Table), Hot Bread Kitchen takes you on a journey through the culinary traditions of the featured bakers and around the world. Everything from their famous Moroccan M’smen to Tortillas de Tiesto (of which one recipient of the proceeds of our efforts said “Um, you had me at bread and cheese...”) creates a new window into a tradition and culture that you may not have had the pleasure of enjoying.
Our experience with the recipes was consistently positive and frequently surprising. The Tortillas de Tiesto have become a house favorite with all of us. Sara’s Monkey Bread was “addictive and delicious”, and Amie’s M’smen looked intimidating at first glance but created a light, flaky flatbread that was super fun to make. Emmie dove into the primordial bread section with the Whole Wheat Chapatis, which allowed the flavor of the grain to really shine through. Making these breads was an enlightening experience across the board, encouraging us to try new things and to treat flour and water as the trailhead to something delicious.
There were a few struggles along the way. An inconsistency here in one collaborator’s edition, a use of preferment instead of starter there (which we found surprising and also understandable), but overall the recipes are built from feel and refined by the rigor that a commercial bakery requires. Our suggestion is that learning to roll with it is worth it.
All of this said, the question is always “in comparison to what?”. Why HBK over all the others? When we looked back at our self-selected guidelines of education, engagement, and mastery, this book nailed two of the three (education and engagement). Shouldn’t it be a triple threat to gain the title of Best Bread Book in All the Land? The answer is always, “It depends…”.
Will you get a solid technical survey of the great breads of the world? It depends on what you think of as The Great Breads of the World.
Will you understand the hows and whys of the techniques? You can miss the mastery if you aren’t looking for it, as the book really wants to show you and have you try it rather than explain it. In their own way, these women will lead you to discover the importance of these breads in their lives, and it depends on your willingness to go on this journey with them.
Will you master new techniques? If you put in the effort that they have, the answer is yes, but this isn't a formal breaducation. It will teach you to bake like these women, who have learned from their mothers and grandmothers--organically, from scratch, and deliciously if not technically perfect--which is maybe what we need in these times, and it depends on whether or not you wish to listen to their voices and the tales their food tells.
Hot Bread Kitchen creates equity through energy. They make breadwinners. They also made a truly excellent book for people looking for a way to explore bread as the literal staff of life around the world and, most importantly, at home.