Four years ago, I walked into Oat Bakery in Santa Barbara, California, and tried fresh bread for what felt like the first time. I will never forget that bite—the pull of the crust, then the soft, slightly chewy interior with just enough give; a bit salty; somehow buttery, though there was no butter in sight. I was overwhelmed with flavor and texture. I asked for a list of ingredients because I could not believe that this was what bread could be. To my surprise, there were no gimmicks or tricks, just a few quality ingredients and attention to detail. This was my first foray into the bread world, and my first experience of bread at the bakery that soon became my second home.
A lot has changed since that first taste. For one, the experience of sampling before you buy is often nonexistent (thanks, COVID.) Plus, now it seems that practically everyone I meet is at least somewhat well versed in the art of bread making. (Remember the shelter-in-place sourdough craze of early 2020?) Not to mention that bread bakeries, old and new, are quickly becoming household names: People will go out of their way to hit Tartine while vacationing in San Francisco; Los Angeles’s La Brea can be found in supermarkets from coast to coast; New York’s Bread Alone now stocks loaves in supermarkets and grocery delivery services around the tristate area. It seems that the not-at-all-novel concept of enjoying fresh bread regularly has taken the world by storm these past few years. Yet I still find myself surrounded by underwhelming bread.