French Bread vs Italian Bread - Which One Is Best?
French bread vs Italian bread is highly contested topic for bread bakers and bread eaters! France and Italy have probably the most ingrained bread culture in the world, so an article comparing bread from these two nations is long overdue! Both nations have created the worlds most widespread breads. Both countries breed bakers that are very passionate about bread baking it has lead them to be recognised as the most important countries in the bread world.
Living in the south of the UK, France is about 3 hours away if I take the channel tunnel. I’ve popped over quite a few times over the past couple of years so I know a bit about French bread.
It’s great, my partner thinks these trips are romantic, but really that’s just a bonus, the trip across the water is really for the bread. Italy is a little further away and I have not been, I had planned to visit this year but with the virus... Definitely I will make the journey next year. To write this article I've spoke to a few Italians that I know and watched loads of food related programs to get an accurate representation.
Anyway, enough of me yapping, let's look at the differences of French and Italian bread.
From an outsider, there is a clear competition between the two nations to have the best bread between the them. I’m pretty sure they both think they are the world's leading country of bread bakers! Let's find out.
Bread from France
French bread culture
French supermarket bread is a serious upgrade to our supermarket's offerings but independent and chain bakers litter the high streets in France. These bakeries or boulangeries, as they are called offer fantastic bread, hand made on site. Boulangeries tend to feature a pâtisserie counter as well. These sell beautiful cakes that you would only find in the expensive parts of London if looking in the UK.
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).
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.
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 - yes the French people do walk the streets with a baguette tucked under their arm like the movies!
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 U.S. all French bread is regarded as a baguette like bread. This is a poor representation of how many different types of bread that are made in France. Though it does go to prove just how popular the baguette is across the world.
Other popular French bread includes Brioche, a sweet bread, packed with butter. These are made with a lot of care as shaping them is notoriously difficult.
Though it’s argued they may come under viennoiserie I’m still classing croissants as bread. Croissants are made from layers of dough that are sandwiched with butter.
A Pain au Levain is a traditional French bread made with a sourdough levain.
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 also one of my favourites is Campaillou, a rustic French bread made using specialist campaillou flour.
Ficelle are thinner baguette style breads and are often made into sandwiches.
Bread from Italy
Italian 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:
- They don’t like that the French have popular breads, they have to improve French recipes and make them more 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.
- They use other ingredients besides flour, water, salt and yeast. Semolina, olive oil, herbs such as rosemary, honey, sugar and milk are used in various bread in small and large ratios.
- Italians eat bread as sandwiches or with meals, as an antipasto starter or an accompaniment to a course.
Focaccia is one of the most popular breads. It 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 see outside Italy. In Roma, focaccia is thin and crispy, where other regions range from having mighty thick focaccia to a more typical, inch thick bread with a generous layer of toppings in other areas.
Ciabatta was designed to rival the baguette for making sandwiches. A ciabatta is made with large amounts of biga preferment and has an open, irregular crumb. The word Ciabatta translates to "slipper" in English.
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 a motherdough levain.
Stirato & Sfilatino
Italian bakers created their own breads to rival the french baguette. These are either Stirato and Sfilatino’s.
They also have their own version of French Brioche. These a softer and baked without a case, instead they proof on a baking sheet.
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.
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.
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 other Pizzas. Roman Pizza makers often sell these per slice, similar to focaccia.
How French and Italian bread compares
How bread culture in both countries compares
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 there own bread, as does Puglia and Rome.
Differences in bread taste and texture of French and Italian bread
The crusts of the breads from the two countries tend have different characteristics. French bread generally has a thick, crunchy crust. This helps create a light crumb. Italian bread crusts are more tearable and thick, making bread that has a more dense crumb.
Italian breads often use herbs and olive oil to flavour the bread. These give bread another dimension of flavour, taking away from the more ordinary French bread flavours.
How bread is sold in France and Italy
The size of the breads available in bakeries is different. 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 usually sold per loaf.
Does French bread keep longer than Italian?
Italian bread contains fat which makes it softer and have a denser crumb. These bread tend to keep for longer than French bread. Baguettes which contain no fat are often baked 2-4 times a day as they have such a short period before the bread starts to go stale. Large French breads will keep for longer, but not as long as the breads that have had fat introduced.
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.
The factors add up to make Italian bread 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.
In conclusion, savoury breads are generally softer in Italy though the French make some of the softest bread in the world.
Baking methods in French bread vs Italian bread
Not only is the philosophy and ingredient choice slightly different in both countries, the equipment and methods in baking change too. Next we are going to cover how the bakers operate differently in each country to create different styles of bread.
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 doughs unless they are making a style of bread that necessarily requires fats or sweetener They also only allow certain natural improvers in their bread.
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.
When French bakers make sweet bread, only then do they use fats and sugar in their bread. They will not use oil in bread baking, unless for frying.
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 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. Wood burning ovens also adds a slight smokiness flavour to the bread. They usually heat to around 400C (750F) when making pizza where else electric ovens cannot get that hot.
Preferments: Biga vs Poolish
Biga’s and poolishes are types of preferments which are very similar. The poolish originated from Poolish bakers and has been adopted by the French. Biga is the Italian preferment.
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.
Sourdough vs Motherdough & Lievito Madre
Bakers in both countries use sourdough to raise their breads as well as yeast. Though there are different ways that the countries go about creating them. French bakers follow a refreshment of flour, water and sourdough, often in equal quantities. This technique is common in many other countries.
The Italians made it one step better (or complicated). They have a mother dough which is the same as French sourdough, only they often use honey to activate it at the start.
Italian bakers also have Lievito Madre or Pasta Madre. From what I can research, they are both the same as each other, just two names to call it. This is a dense sourdough starter that after refreshing with flour and water is wrapped in cloth and dropped in water. The Lievito Madre is left in the water to ferment till the following day. The process is repeated.
Once a week the water is sweetened with sugar or honey, this is called washing. It is done to remove acetic acid and bring oxygen to the dough.
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!