Houston's Best Bread

The best bread ever: Five loaves that will make you rise up in joy

The best bread ever: 5 loaves that will make you rise up in joy

Central Market Irish Soda Bread
Central Market’s Irish soda bread Photo by Paul Galvani
Heath Wendell., owner of Slow Dough Bread Co., holding a slow-dough Pugliese loaf
Heath Wendell, owner of Slow Dough Bread Co., holds a slow-dough Pugliese loaf. Photo by Paul Galvani
Vincent Mandola of Nino’s and Vincent’s, holding the Grand Prize, the Ciabatta loaf.
Vincent Mandola of Nino’s and Vincent’s shows his Grand Prize, the Ciabatta loaf. Photo by Paul Galvani
Whole Foods Golden Age Boule
Whole Foods Market's Golden Age boule Photo by Paul Galvani
Kraftsmen Bakery’s Sourdough Oblong looks more oval then oblong.
Kraftsmen Bakery’s sourdough oblong looks more oval then oblong. Photo by Paul Galvani
Central Market Irish Soda Bread
Heath Wendell., owner of Slow Dough Bread Co., holding a slow-dough Pugliese loaf
Vincent Mandola of Nino’s and Vincent’s, holding the Grand Prize, the Ciabatta loaf.
Whole Foods Golden Age Boule
Kraftsmen Bakery’s Sourdough Oblong looks more oval then oblong.

America has gone through a bread awakening. We have moved so far beyond lifeless loaves packaged in plastic that we can never turn back. We have discovered what good bread tastes like and have created demand for artisan breads made in small batches by people who care.  

Whenever I visit a restaurant, while others are perusing the menu, taking in the decor or people watching, I am busy studying the bread basket. Some restaurants are so proud of their bread basket that they’re charging for it.

 One word of advice: Don’t buy or keep your bread in plastic, it makes if soft and limp. Use a paper bag if you must use one at all. 

For me, a great loaf of bread first has a crust and it better be crunchy. So crunchy that it will likely leave sores in your mouth after you eat it. This means it needs more crust than doughy interior. If you’ve ever had a Banh Mi, the traditional Vietnamese sandwich, you’ll notice that they always remove the doughy interior, what the French call the mie, from the roll, ending up with virtually nothing but a crusty, crunchy exterior — my idea of bread nirvana. 

Next, the loaf needs large holes in the interior made by the expansion of the yeast. Lastly, the bread should make great toast.

One word of advice: Don’t buy or keep your bread in plastic, it makes if soft and limp. Use a paper bag if you must use one at all.

Houston now boasts a number of great loaves of bread. Here are my top five:

1. Ciabatta loaf from Nino’s

It might seem strange that what I consider to be one of the best comes not from a traditional bakery, nor from a market, but is baked at a restaurant. It is the Ciabatta loaf from Nino’s restaurant. Vincent Mandola sells this loaf from a small store in the middle of the piazza he created between Nino’s and Vincent’s.

It is a large, flat and generally misshapen loaf that gets its name from the Italian word for slipper. Crispy on the outside, with an interior that is full of large holes, it is fabulous with just butter and even better toasted. It has a noticeable amount of salt, which gives this bread its excellent taste.

2.  Slow Dough Bread Co. Pane Pugliese

When you’re a fifth generation baker whose family has been in the baking business since 1886, you have quite a tradition to upkeep and Heath Wendell, the founder of Slow Dough Bread Co., is arguably the best baker in town. He makes a Pane Pugliese (from the Puglia region in southern Italy) that has all the characteristics of an outstanding loaf of bread.

It is a large, oval loaf that has a crispy and crunchy exterior and an interior with lots of holes. It can be found at Revival Market and at almost every good Italian restaurant in town.

3. Whole Foods Golden Age Boule

Golden Age Boule is a seeded, multigrain, round loaf with a fascinating mix of thin crust and spongy, chewy, dense interior. It is made with a “Bible Mix,”which includes spelt, barley and wheat flours, honey and lots of poppy seeds on top. It’s great for sandwiches, especially a panini and for eating with nothing more than butter and good jam.

4. Central Market Irish Soda Bread

Soda bread gets its name from the baking soda used instead of yeast as the leavening agent. This particular loaf has the perfect balance of sweet and salty. It is a dense, small, round loaf made with buttermilk, which gives it a slight tangy flavor and is chock full of raisins. The addition of caraway seeds may turn some people off but it is precisely that taste which appeals to me.

The best way to eat it is to break off a chunk (it’s conveniently baked with a cross on the top to make this easy to do) and cover it in good butter.

5. Kraftsmen Bakery Sour Dough Oblong

When Kraftsmen first opened, Scott Tycer used a sourdough starter from a bakery in San Francisco. Hurricane Ike wiped out all their starters so they had to start over.

This medium-sized loaf, more oval than oblong, has the characteristically sour taste of a good sourdough but it is milder than many other versions, giving it the perfect flavor. The interior is particularly dense while the exterior has a thin crust.

The best way to eat it is to just break off a piece. It is particularly good with just butter but the addition of some good, local honey perfectly counteracts the sour flavor.

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Paul Galvani is a Houston food writer and the author of Houston's Top 100 Food Trucks.