The Food Sage Question of the Week: Is boutique bread worth the dough? certainly got a rise out of bakers. To be upfront, i buy ‘boutique’ bread — you know, that pricey, posh stuff. To me it’s worth buying a top-notch loaf (I usually pay between $7 and $8) because i don’t kid myself for a second that i’m capable of achieving the end result that true artisans are capable of. To me, the Sonoma soy and linseed loaf that i buy for about $7 is worth every cent.
Plus — and this is an important point — we’re a two-person household and one of us (me) doesn’t eat much bread. So forking out the extra dough for a well crafted, crusty, flour-dusted loaf isn’t going to break the bank. One loaf will get us through the best part of a week, easy — supplemented with a few exceptionally crusty bread rolls from our local Vietnamese baker, Nam Viet Hot Bread (read more about them here). So is boutique bread worth the dough? It was an unequivocal yes from The Food Sage readers — and here’s why.
A number of respondents agreed that a loaf of bread could be made at home for a fraction of the cost of the artisanal kind that is turning up with increasing regularity on grocery shop shelves — often with rustic brown paper packaging and well-crafted marketing messages in tow.
Celia from food blog Fig Jam and Lime Cordial blog, who has baked her own sourdough bread for the last six years, estimates that each loaf costs her about 65 cents — which makes them cheaper than many sliced white loaves sold by supermarkets.
Photography blogger Sophia, who also bakes her own sourdough, agrees: “it doesn’t cost the price they are asking,” she says.
But that’s just where the basic ingredients are concerned. Sophia points out that “it’s a big headache to find a good, unprocessed, unbleached flour and generally any natural ingredient without additives”.
A follower of The Food Sage on Twitter, and food business operator @spreadjampickle, points out that as well as raw ingredients, other costs must be taken into account, including organic flour —“which is double the price of plain white flour” — and business costs including gas, electricity, wages, rent, packaging, machinery costs, rates, fuel, and insurance.
Time is another important factor: “it can take up to nine hours for a starter to break down the natural sugars in the flour,” says @speadjampickle, who usually pays around $7 a loaf.
Ally, who goes by @_ally_ on Twitter, says “true artisan breads do take a lot more time”. They often use better quality products, including organic ingredients.
“These doughs need a lot more care and time than your basic, white, fluffy bread which is cheap and comparatively quick to produce,” she says.
Others factors should also be taken into consideration if you are weighing up whether or not to pay the extra money asked for artisanal bread.
If she wasn’t a die-hard home baker, Celia says she’d happily pay for a boutique loaf, for two reasons:
“Firstly, we need to support artisan producers, and the cost of the loaf extends beyond merely the cost of its ingredients – it also pays for informed staff, organic produce, years of training, and small scale production. The last point is very important – if we want to be able to buy from more than just supermarkets in the future, we need to support our small specialist producers, or they won’t stay in business.”
“Secondly, mass produced white bread is full of additives that I’m not happy to feed my sons … which is why I started baking in the first place. Oh, and supermarket bread tastes pretty ordinary too.”
On average, respondents are prepared to pay between $6 and $8 for a good loaf of hand-crafted bread. Jeanne-Vida Douglas is “more than happy” to pay $10 a loaf “so long as I have the time to savour it. In fact the challenge is more finding the time and peace to have a slow delicious breakfast – so if I can find the time, the extra on the bread is a no brainer.”
“If it makes you happy – buy the expensive bread …”
On that note, Ambra, from The Good, The Bad and The Italian, points out that it “comes down to priorities really and where you’re prepared to spend your money”.
Of course, a boutique loaf is a luxury that many can’t afford, and those same people may not have the time, desire, or aptitude to bake at home. Mass produced, highly processed supermarket loaves are then the only option. Perhaps by encouraging the boutique bread movement, those consumers who can afford it will help bring prices down to an affordable level for more consumers.
Tia Ingle provided more food for thought, pointing out that in France and Finland buying bread by weight is an everyday occurrence.
“That way you buy bread in the quantities you require. A $10 fixed price loaf could be of any size and not necessarily be value for money, whereas if it were priced by [the] kg, then the consumer can judge whether the cost of a loaf is reasonable or not.”
“In France I have often bought only half a loaf, particularly when those rustic ones can be ginormous! and paid for it by its weight.”
I love that concept. We often don’t finish a loaf in our house
Gareth Grierson sums up the debate quite nicely:
“as the saying goes, you get what you pay for — processed junk, or hand-made quality.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Postscript: The Question of the Week took an interesting — and unexpected turn — when Celia offered me some of her sourdough starter, Priscilla. Over an email exchange we realised we lived just a suburb away from one another and within a couple of hours we were sitting at a local coffee shop getting on like a house on fire. Celia sent me home with some starter, a loaf of her own bread and some baker’s flour. The next day i started making my first sourdough loaf, feeding the starter up during the day, making a dough that night, leaving it to prove overnight, than baking the next day. I live blogged the experience. The time, thought and preparation that went into that sourdough only served to reinforce for the money paid to artisanal producers is money well spent.