I have been thinking a lot lately about what a loaf of bread should cost. Since opening Grist & Toll, I’ve been lucky enough to meet many budding artisan bread bakers. They all express the same passion: “I want to create something meaningful with my own two hands.” And they all share the same fear, namely: “Will I be able to make any money doing this? I mean, you can only charge so much for a loaf of bread.”
And there it is, that familiar brick wall.
A very excited young baker purchased flour after an evening event at the mill. He was anxious to tell me all about his great new idea: affordable bread for everyone, inexpensive and good for you as every one of us deserves. Bread for the people! Not ridiculously overpriced artisan bread!
He broke my heart. Not because of his sincerity, which was very touching. He broke my heart because I absolutely can’t relate to that perspective anymore and it made me feel sad. We are united in our belief that everyone deserves a delicious, nutritious, hand-crafted loaf of bread, but on how we define that bread and what it should look like and cost, we are completely divided. Also, if I’m honest, he broke my heart from a business standpoint. To be perfectly blunt, you can’t make cheap bread if you buy Grist & Toll flour, so that pretty much ruled out the possibility of Grist & Toll being any part of his new bread revolution. I am definitely a rage-against-the-machine kind of person, so I was ready to take up arms. Sad.
I can’t take up arms to support cheap bread. We’ve had that business model for several decades now. It isn’t working. Cheap bread is the result of cheap, industrial farmed wheat using chemicals and pesticides, using seed owned and controlled by corporate giants, and baked in massive, automated factories. Is that really the bread we want for the people? I think we all know that it isn’t, and yet we hold onto that ideal of cheap industrial bread with something like a death grip.
How much should a loaf of bread cost? You can ask hundreds of people and even if the numbers aren’t exactly the same, experience tells me they’ll all be pretty low. What we see on the grocery store shelves is a consistent $5, but perpetually on sale for $2.99. Bread is something we are all entitled to have on our dinner tables, and as such it is something that should be priced accordingly; translation: cheap. Naturally, because that is the projected expectation, artisan bread bakers worry that they won’t be able to charge a realistic price for their bread, one that reflects the amount of labor involved and the higher quality ingredients they want to use.
It occurs to me that any outrage at a loaf of bread priced above our $5 threshold is incredibly misplaced. I’m pretty certain we should feel much more outrage at the price tag for that white sandwich loaf at the supermarket. I wouldn’t give you a nickel for it, and yet there is very loud resistance to acknowledging that real bread takes real labor, real time, and real flour and therefore should command a price reflecting all of those inputs. I found it interesting that the upper tier grocery store bread shelves were pretty empty when I went in to take photos. It seems we’re already supporting $8 and above for “artisan” bread made from commodity wheat and mass production. We are paying the price, but are we paying attention?
I haven’t been able to get outside of my own head enough to really understand the deeper implications of wheat and why our expectations of it are so narrow. Naively, I make comparisons all the time between wheat, wine, coffee and beer. The latter three have enjoyed a very healthy renaissance with virtually no resistance to the “you get what you pay for” mentality. We are all shaped by our own experiences, right? My time in the wine industry trained me not only to appreciate but to expect the differences between one variety of wheat and another. That understanding makes it easy for me to assign a higher value to wheat, because at the heart of it quality over quantity is what separates any artisan endeavor like mine from big industry. Quality wheat matters just as much to my craft as quality Cabernet grapes matter to wine in Bordeaux. The resistance does not come from comparing the raw commodity, though, it’s in comparing the tangible end product.
The stumbling block comes along when I put bread in the same category as wine, coffee and beer. Bread is the difference. We can’t separate wheat the commodity from bread. And we don’t think of bread at all in the same way we think of wine and coffee. Wine and coffee are social events; they are luxury items. They are easily categorized as a splurge, an indulgence, a treat. Bread is none of those. Bread is a staple; in fact, it’s a right that we have and, perhaps more than any other food, it is a symbol of civilization and survival. Throughout history bread and who made it, how it was made, even how white it was has been linked to class, status, wealth and a host of other sociopolitical indicators.
We may tell ourselves that we really do need that espresso drink at least once a day, or that the impressive meal we just cooked can’t possibly be complete without that bottle of red wine, but I think we can all agree they are not imperative to our survival. Not like bread.
So, how much should a loaf of bread cost? I don’t think you’re going to like my answer.
My answer is that we should pay whatever price keeps it profitable enough for the baker to bake by hand and to use local flour that was milled from wheat purchased at a price that can feed the farmer who went to the effort of growing it responsibly and sustainably, hopefully organically. I hate to be the one to say it out loud, but that definitely isn’t $5 perpetually on sale for $2.99.
I doubt I’ll make many new friends with this post, because I’m asking all of us to change our perspective when it comes to bread and pricing. Given the intense symbolism we have projected onto a loaf of bread, that’s a pretty big thing to ask. I’m also going to ask that we own up to how easily we have accepted the trade-up in price for higher quality coffee, wine and beer, for example, but not bread, and that perhaps we need to think about that too.
I have singled out other artisan products like coffee a lot in this post, but I want to be clear that I am a huge supporter. I love my local baristas who make my day infinitely better with their shakeratos and cortados. I spend $5-$6 daily to support fair trade and small production. Without blinking. Daily. For one serving. How about you? How much is really in my cup, a few tablespoons of ground beans, max? And how long did it take to prepare, about 2-5 minutes? And how long will it last? I can stretch my iced shakerato out to maybe an hour, but that little cortado is gone in less than 15 minutes. Don’t even get me started on wine! With several years in the industry, I can be a bit of a snob. Yeah, I own it.
On the other hand, the naturally leavened, long fermentation bread that I want to purchase every week uses half a pound to a full pound of whole grain flour (give or take, depending on the size of the loaf and the hydration percentage) and takes at least 2 full days to make. Because of the high hydration and sourdough process, it has excellent keeping qualities and can last anywhere from 5 to 7 days. If it’s made with Grist & Toll stone ground flour, it also has exceptional flavor and nutritional value. How much should that loaf of bread cost?
We need to expect more from our bread and those who make it. I believe it’s time to shake off the past and release bread from the tiny, restrictive, unrealistic box we hold it in. Why do we so easily assign high monetary value to great, but technically unnecessary things, while holding something so critical to our diets as bread to a much lower standard and value? Shouldn’t it be the exact opposite? Shouldn’t we assign the higher value to our staple, the food that has the ability to sustain us? Isn’t it time we demand that our bread actually be worthy of being on every dinner table?
Some have suggested to me that all of the artisan food products entering the market are simply creating a new elitist food tier. I couldn’t disagree more. I think we are becoming better educated now on how so much of the food we eat is overprocessed and unhealthy. It’s a natural market reflex to pull back and want more transparency with who’s making what and how. We are kidding ourselves if we think all of the cheap, processed foods at the supermarket don’t in fact have tremendous costs associated with them. We don’t feel the full impact of those costs at the checkout counter, but they are there, taking a toll on our farmland and the health of our bodies. I’m not sure we can even quantify it with a number.
I suppose I am taking up arms in the end, in defense of bread. Please don’t allow industrial bread to remain unchallenged. Support your local artisan bread bakers. Support them even if they aren’t using local wheat or flour. Support them for the critical role they play in our collective attempt at elevating the quality of the bread we eat and reestablishing the level of respect it deserves. I promise you, no matter what price they are charging for their bread, no matter how exorbitant you think it is, they won’t be in danger of becoming millionaires anytime soon. However, making sure you know the hands that made your bread might just offer it the chance to truly become the staff of life again.
Whole Wheat Milk Bread Recipe
Yield = 1 Loaf
Active Time: 15 minutes
Rising Time: 1 hour + 45 minutes
Baking Time: 35-45 minutes
You can raise the quality of your bread too. With the right flour, even a simple recipe can be magical. In addition to supporting local bread bakers, I think it’s important that we also get our hands a little dirty from time to time. Knowing the satisfaction of pulling a delicious loaf out of the oven only increases our appreciation of good bread and those who are devoted to the craft.
This recipe comes together easily and doesn’t take much actual work time at all. I do recommend a blend of two flours. You can absolutely make it using just one or the other, but I love how the hard red wheat adds richness, depth and warmth to the flavor while the hard white wheat keeps the crumb a little lighter and more tender. This is immensely satisfying whole grain bread and yet it will surprise you with its light texture.
1 C Water (8 oz)
1 C Whole Milk (8 oz)
1 Pkg Active Dry Yeast (2 ¼ tsp)
4 Tbsp Honey (2 oz)
2 ½ C Hard White Whole Grain Flour such as G&T Edison (12 oz)
2 C Hard Red Whole Grain Flour, such as Joaquin Oro (9 oz)
1 C Barley Flakes, or rolled oats, plus additional for coating
4 Tbsp Unsalted Butter, melted (2 oz)
1 Tbsp Kosher Salt
1 Large Egg, whisked for egg wash (optional)
Measure your water and milk and warm either in the microwave or on the stovetop to about 100˚F. Pour into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Add yeast and honey, mix around with a spoon or spatula and let stand 10 minutes.
Stir in flours, oats, butter and salt. Knead on medium speed for 6 minutes. The dough should clear the sides of the bowl. If not, add more flour 1 Tbsp at a time to bring the dough together. Transfer to a lightly floured work surface and knead a few times by hand. Place in a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise for 1 hour, or until doubled in size.
Punch down dough, transfer to a work surface. You shouldn’t really need any additional flour. Press out into a square shape, roughly 8×8. Roll up into a log, pinch seams and ends to shape and place in lightly buttered or sprayed 9×5 loaf pan. Loosely cover and rise again for 35–45 minutes, until dough reaches up over edge of pan.
Preheat oven to 375˚F (if using a convection oven, you can decrease the temperature to 350˚F). Gently brush the top of the loaf with the egg wash and sprinkle additional barley flakes on top of loaf if desired. Bake 40–50 minutes, or until loaf is hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove from pan immediately and place on a wire cooling rack.
Our recipes are developed specifically for Grist & Toll flour. We do not guarantee exact results with other brands.
Baked goods made with 100% stone milled whole grain flour tend to brown a little more and a little faster. Brushing with melted butter or egg wash can augment this. Check your bread periodically while it’s in the oven and be ready to tent with foil if it starts to brown more than you’d like.
This recipe also makes great dinner rolls. Instead of shaping the dough for 1 pan loaf, divide into 20-24 equal portions, roll into rounds, place on parchment lined baking sheet for the final rise. If desired, lightly brush with egg wash and sprinkle with additional barley flakes before baking. Reduce baking time to 15-20 minutes.