French vs Italian Bread - What's the Difference?
French vs Italian bread is a highly contested topic for bread bakers and bread eaters! France and Italy have arguably the deepest ingrained bread culture in the world, so an article comparing bread from these two nations is long overdue! So French and Italian bread, what is the difference? Well let’s take a look.
Why we should compare Italian and French Breads
Between them, both Italy and France have created many of the world's most popular breads. Baking is a highly regarded job in these countries, largely because it’s people recognise and celebrate the innovations these bakers achieve.
Good quality bread is a celebration, if not there is an expectation to be at least “good” - otherwise locals will simply not buy. This culture of excellence has led these countries to be recognised as the most important in the bread world.
From an outsider, there is a clear competition between the two nations to have the best bread between them. There has been a bit of copying between each nation's famous breads, or improving as I’m sure they would prefer to recognise it!
I’m pretty sure they both think they are the world's leading country of bread bakers! Let's find out.
French bread culture
French supermarket bread is a serious upgrade to supermarket's offerings in the Uk and US. Independent bakers also litter the high streets in France. So many in fact, I’ve seen bakeries selling bread that would get street long queues in other nations close down, largely due to too much competition. Bakeries or “Boulangeries”, as they are named in French offer fantastic bread, nearly always hand made on site.
What’s the difference between Boulangeries and Pâtisseries?
Boulangeries tend to feature a pâtisserie counter as well. These sell beautiful cakes that you would only find in the expensive parts of London in the UK. Most shops labelled as “Boulangeries” provide pâtisserie. While “Pâtisseries” also tend to sell bread as well. If you want to be renowned for your bread, you would class yourself as a Boulangerie and vice versa for Pâtisseries.
Are there more Bakeries In France?
There are over 30,000 boulangeries, that's one for every 2,000 people (credit Quora) in France. To compare, there is 500 in Britain (credit Craft Bakers Association).
The ingredients used by French bread bakers
French bakers do not use much else other than flour, water, salt and yeast in their bread. For sweet breads, sugar and butter are included.
The focus in French bread baking is on the technique and maximisation of flavour from the simple ingredients used. Playing around like a food technologist to develop new flavours by adding chemicals is pretty much unheard of.
Bread in France is eaten at any time of day, for breakfast, lunch, as a sandwich, with a meal, a snack, with coffee, whilst sat on the bus… There is not a time of day when eating bread is not appropriate for a French person.
Here's a selection of the most popular French breads, and what makes them special.
When I think of French bread, first of all, I think of the national bread, the baguette. It’s so prominent in France, a tourist might not believe how one bread can be such a factor of daily life - and yes, the French people really do walk the streets with a baguette tucked under their arm!
The history of the baguette is an interesting topic that covers its origin in post-war Paris and the decades of government support that has been given to preserve the bread. We are familiar with baguettes across the sea, also in the US & Canada. The difference is what we buy in our supermarkets is a long way from what they sell in theirs.
In the US, French bread is a baguette-like vienna roll style of bread. It’s a very poor representation of French bread. To find an authentic French baguette without going to France you have to visit an artisan bakery. Bad as they are, it does prove just how popular the baguette is.
View my authentic french baguette recipe with poolish if you'd like to make your own artisan baguettes.
Another popular French bread is the Pain Brioche, a sweet bread packed with eggs, sugar and butter. They are made with a lot of care and expenses. Shaping Brioche is notoriously difficult and is often left to the head baker to complete.
Though it’s argued they may come under viennoiserie I’m still classing croissants in this piece. Croissants are made from layers of dough that are sandwiched with butter creating a flaky, layered pastry that’s so delicious.
Pain au Levain is the traditional French bread made with a sourdough levain. It uses French flour and can be found in many sizes yet the most popular is the boule shape.
The Pain de Campagne is called the bread of the countryside. It is made using wholemeal flour and a rye sourdough levain.
A lesser well-known bread which is one of my favourites is Campaillou. A rustic French bread made using specialist campaillou flour, similar to the Italians Pane Casericcio.
Ficelle are thinner baguette style breads that are usually made into sandwiches.
Italian breads and bread culture
Bread made in Italy also covers various styles from sweet to savoury like the French. When we look at Italian bread, there are a few angles to compare:
Italians don’t seem to like that the French have popular breads. They have to improve French recipes and make them Italian. French recipes such as Brioche, Baguettes, Pan Rustique, Croissants all have an Italian equivalent.
Like the personality of Italian people, the bread tends to be relaxed and rustic or extravagant and complicated - no in between!
The ingredients used by Italian bakers
Besides flour, water, salt and yeast other ingredients are often added to flavour the breads. These are either added to the dough during mixing or used as toppings. Semolina, olive oil, herbs, potato, tomato, honey, sugar and milk are used in various Italian breads.
How is bread is eaten in Italy?
Italians eat bread as sandwiches or with meals, as an antipasto starter or an accompaniment to a course. Many say that every family meal should be accompanied with bread in Italy.
Let's take a look at a few of Italy’s most popular breads.
Focaccia is made with olive oil and topped with roasted vegetables, cheese and herbs before baking. There are several styles of focaccia that we don’t often see outside Italy.
In Roma, focaccia is thin and crispy, where other regions range from having mighty thick focaccia to a more typical in the US and UK- inch thick bread with generous layers of toppings.
Try my focaccia recipe with biga to make some focaccia yourself.
Ciabatta was designed to rival the baguette for making sandwiches. The Italians were angry of the baguettes' success and wanted a sandwich bread of their own.
Ciabatta is made with large amounts of biga preferment and extra virgin olive oil. It’s unique open, irregular crumb make it perfect for dipping in sauces.
Panetone is a sweet, extravagant bread made for Christmas. It contains dried fruit, alcohol, eggs, butter and more unhealthy ingredients! Panetone are often made with an aged motherdough levain method.
Stirato & Sfilatino
Italian bakers also created their own baguette. These are either Stirato and Sfilatino’s, one is longer than the other.
They also have their own version of French Brioche. These are softer and baked without a case, Instead Sicilian Brioche are proofed on baking sheets.
If you would like to make some of these, try my soft Italian brioche recipe.
Italy’s take on the Croissant, Cornetti are often filled with vanilla cream.
In English, Pane Rustico translates as “peasant bread”. It is a rustic bread that can be made with sourdough or yeast and is popular in many regions of Italy.
A Pane di Matera is an Italian bread made with semolina.
The pane casareccio is one of my favourites and is a rustic bread, popular in the region of Puglia. Try this rustic Italian bread recipe, you won't be disappointed!!
This style of "white" pizza is made without tomato sauce and contains white cheese and usually a vegetable topping.
Possibly the most widespread Italian bread of all is Neapolitan Pizza. This bread is slowly fermented over 2 days and topped with tomato sauce and cheese. The cheese used is mozzarella combined with a pinch of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Other toppings can be added (just not pineapple!). Belonging to the Naples area, this style of pizza has a light, fluffy crust.
Pizza from Roma is more about the toppings than Neapolitan pizza. Roman Pizza makers often sell these per slice, similar to focaccia.
How French and Italian bread compares
Much as there are similarities in the passion, quality and the popularity of each nations bread, there are also many differences between the two. Here's what I believe makes them different:
Differences in bread taste and texture of thee countries
The crusts of the breads from the two countries tend to contain the biggest differences between nations. French bread generally comes with a thick, crunchy crust -with a light crumb.
Italian crusts are more tearable and thick, making bread with a denser, more hearty crumb.
Italian breads often use herbs and olive oil to flavour the bread. These give bread another dimension of flavour and variety. The more ordinary French bread flavours mean their breads focus on quality, and a little less on innovation.
Does French bread keep longer than Italian?
Italian bread contains fat which makes it softer and has a denser crumb. Fat also lowers the acidity of the bread and lubricates the bread which keeps the bread fresher for longer. For this reason Italian breads tend to keep for longer than French.
Baguettes which contain no fat are baked 2-4 times a day so they can be bought fresh. Large French breads will keep for longer, but not as long as the breads that contain fat.
Which bread is softer, French or Italian?
Italian flour is made from softer wheat then French. This makes the dough more soft and subtle. Italian bread often contains fat such as olive oil and sugar or honey. These act to laminate the dough, again helping to create a softer bread. Some Italian breads, such as pizza use hotter ovens to colour the crust before the crumb dries out.
The factors add up to make Italian bread overall softer than French.
The French do have some of the softest bread around though. Brioche and Pan de mie are packed with milk and butter, creating lovely soft bread. French sweet breads are as soft as bread can get.
French vs Italian bread baking methods
Not only is the philosophy and ingredient choice slightly different in both countries, the equipment and methods in baking change too.
When the French make what they class as everyday bread, they stick to flour, water, salt and yeast or sourdough as ingredients. They will not add milk, butter, oil or hydrogenated fats to their dough - unless they are making a style of bread that necessarily requires fats or sweetener
French bread is governed by French law, though it is not as strict as many outsiders believe. The use of natural bread improvers are allowed, providing the bread is labelled with the correct title. The bread is then awarded a title depending on the amount of ingredients it contains and the equipment used to make it.
Only when French bakers make sweet bread, do they use fats and sugar in their bread. They will never use oil in bread baking, unless frying. Butter is always preferred.
But it's not just the ingredients, how the bread is raised and the equipment used to make the bread is different in each country too.
What’s the difference between an Italian biga and a French poolish preferment?
Biga’s and poolishes are types of preferments which are very similar. The poolish originated from Polish bakers and has been adopted by the French. Biga is the Italian preferment. They are both levains which is the name given to an active yeast or raising agent used to make bread rise. For more information about levains, view the what is a levain article.
A poolish has the same amount of flour to water ratio with around 0.25% yeast. Biga’s can contain less water and around 0.5% yeast.
Using preferments adds flour that has been conditioned which creates more structure and organic acids in the dough. This reduces fermentation time and aids flavour and keeping quality.
Preferments also allow yeast to become more active so that less can be used. It's important to use the minimum amount of yeast to raise the bread. This allows the flavour from the flour to develop.
Do both countries make sourdough bread?
Bakers in both countries use sourdough as well as yeast to raise their breads. Though there are different ways in which each country goes about creating one. French bakers follow a refreshment of flour, water and sourdough in equal or roughly equal quantities.
The Italians made it one step better (or complicated) and have an aged mother dough which uses honey to activate it. They also use the lievito madre method to make sourdough.
What is Lievito Madre?
The Italian lievito madre is a dense sourdough starter made from refreshments of flour and water. Like traditional sourdough natural yeasts develop over time to be able to levain bread. A lievito madre is wrapped in cloth and soaked in water between refreshments. Once a week the water is sweetened with sugar or honey, which is called “washing”. It helps to remove acetic acid and raise oxygen levels in the dough.
What is the difference between Lievito and Pasta Madre?
Italian bakers have Lievito Madre or Pasta Madre. They are both the same as each other, just two names to call it. It’s a sourdough that is wrapped in a cloth and soaked in sweetened water.
The ovens used by French and Italian bakers
French bakers use electric stone baked ovens whereas in Italy there are many wood-burning ovens still in use. Wood burners can operate at much higher temperatures than most electric ovens. The higher bread baking temperature is necessary for pizza and some breads that have darker crusts (without over baking the inside of the bread).
The high temperature that wood burners create also helps to create rustic, irregular crusts that appear on several Italian breads. A slight smokiness flavour is added to the bread when using a wood burning ovens. They heat to at least 400C (750F) when making pizza where most electric bread ovens cannot go that high.
How bread is sold in France and Italy
There are a lot of types of bread that are similar to both countries. Particularly the ones that the Italians have copied from France. But not just those, both countries make bread to eat with food, bread to make sandwiches, bread to snack with and sweet breads.
French bread is generally the same across the nation where Italian bread is different in regions across the country. Area’s like Sicily have their own bread style, as does Puglia and Rome.
The size of bread available in bakeries is different in each country. Italian bakers tend to produce larger pieces of bread, priced per kilo instead of per loaf. This way customers can buy a whole bread or smaller portions. Otherwise, bread is sold with a sandwich filling or in focaccia slices. In France, the size of the bread is smaller and sold per loaf.
French vs Italian bread, which do I prefer?
I have to say I do prefer the meaty Italian breads. If it's rustic and chewy, perfect for dipping into sauces then I love it! I do however, love practising the art of French bread. Making a perfect batch of baguettes gives me enormous satisfaction. I could do it all day!
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