TRIED & TESTED HALF-BAKED NOTION

They're certainly easy, but are part-baked breads any good? Our panel tasted some ciabattas and baguettes
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The Independent Culture
THE ATTRACTION of part-baked breads is to create the illusion that you have just have taken a freshly baked loaf out of the oven to serve to your guests. But instead of the hassle of mixing and kneading dough, you simply pop the loaves into the oven for around 10 minutes. Many part-baked breads are sold in special packaging which gives them a longer shelf life than most shop-bought loaves - useful if you don't know when you may have to rustle something up in a hurry for visitors. So much for convenience - what about quality?

We asked a panel of tasters to try out a selection of part-baked ciabatta loaves and baguettes. Accor-ding to our panellist Linda Collister, author of The Bread Book (Conran Octopus), baguettes should have a crisp, shiny, brittle crust, and a moist, slightly chewy interior, with a good flavour and aroma. A good ciabatta bread has a soft floury crust, a coarse, chewy texture and tastes of olive oil, an essential ingredient.

The part-baked breads conspicuously failed to live up to this ideal, especially the baguettes, for which the panel reserved particular criticism. The baking process may well be to blame. Ranks Hovis McDougall, the manufacturer of Granary part-baked baguettes as well as own-brand versions for Tesco and Waitrose, admitted that loaves which are baked twice won't be as good as a fresh loaf. Judging by this tasting, if you don't have the time or inclination to make your own bread, you would do better to buy a fresh loaf and heat it up in the oven for a couple of minutes before eating.

THE PANEL

Michael Bateman, Independent on Sunday food editor; Linda Collister, food writer, cook and author of The Bread Book; Eric Feuilleaubois, research scientist; Steve Job, health service developments manager.

THE TEST

The panel gave the ciabatta breads marks for the softness and flouriness of the crust, the texture of the crumb (the inside of the bread), the taste and aroma. They gave the baguettes marks for the same criteria, except in the case of the crust, where they marked it on how crisp it was.

SAINSBURY'S HOMEBAKE CIABATTA

82P

A disappointing bread. The olive oil in ciabatta produces its characteristic coarse, chewy texture and redolent aroma. This loaf does have olive oil but the label doesn't say what proportion or if it is extra virgin oil. Michael Bateman, however, thought it was one of the better ones: "a lovely, lumpy, appetising, brown slab," he said, although he added that it had almost no taste. But Linda Collister found it positively unpleasant: "I had to spit out my portion, because of the nasty chemical taste. Is this because of the preservatives or stabilisers needed for the shelf life or used in the baking process?"

***MARKS & SPENCER READY TO BAKE CIABATTA

89P

Marks & Spencer, the first company to popularise ciabatta in the UK, came up with the favourite loaf in this selection. Even so, Linda Collister was disappointed with its quality, particularly compared with Marks & Spencer's own fully cooked version. "The colour and texture were fairly good, but there wasn't any real taste of bread or of olive oil," she said. "It had a nice texture and wasn't too doughy. Fairly successful," commented Steve Job. This ciabatta contains three per cent extra virgin olive oil.

*MARKS & SPENCER READY TO BAKE SUN DRIED TOMATO CIABATTA

£1.49

Opinions were mixed about this loaf, which has bits of sun-dried tomato embedded in it. Steve Job slated it: "It has a mushy texture and indifferent taste. The tomatoes don't do anything for the bread. A dismal failure and overpriced." Linda Collister liked it best of all, though. "Although it's a nasty orangey-brown, the aroma - a faint smell of sun-dried tomatoes - was a plus. The balance of tomatoes to bread dough seemed fine," she said. "This one is OK for an English palate," commented Eric Feuilleaubois.

**TESCO READY TO BAKE

OLIVE CIABATTA

99P

Green olives ensured this loaf tasted and smelt of something. "Good, moist texture, olivey raw flavour and smell," said Michael Bateman. But the olives were a bit overpowering for some. "This loaf has the best smell, but the olives were so salty the taste of the bread was completely overwhelmed," said Linda Collister. Stephen Job agreed, adding that it "has a rather flabby texture". It contains one per cent extra-virgin olive oil, as does the other Tesco ciabatta.

*TESCO READY TO BAKE

CIABATTA

89P

"Taste and texture a bit bland," said Steve Job. "No real flavour - it has no `bread' taste, let alone olive oil," said Linda Collister. "The texture was spongy, and not open enough." It was one of the worst, according to Michael Bateman: "Horrible appearance, loose, wet texture with a gluey, wet taste and no aroma."

SAFEWAY HOMEBAKE WHITE BAGUETTES

99p for 3

This baguette had a crisp crust, but otherwise won little praise. It looked pale with, according to Michael Bateman, "a white, cracked skin". "No aroma of freshly baked bread and no flavour either. Dreadful," said Linda Collister. "The texture is far too wet and pliable," criticised Eric Feuilleaubois.

GRANARY BAGUETTE (RANKS HOVIS MCDOUGALL)

£1.10 for 3 half baguettes

This baguette, which is the only one made with brown flour, also got the thumbs down. "Leathery crust, certainly not crunchy or golden brown. Crumbly, sawdust inside," said Linda Collister. "It tastes just how I imagine a dog biscuit would," commented Eric Feuilleaubois. "It looked and tasted dreary. For health freaks only," said Steve Job.

*TESCO HOME BAKE CRUSTY GARLIC BAGUETTES

£l.29 for 2 half baguettes

This effort-free version of garlic bread comes filled with pats of garlic "butter" (in fact, margarine). It was voted one of the better baguettes by most members of the panel. "This one has a good, fresh aroma and taste, and a nice crispy crust," said Steve Job. "A good colour, the best crust, but doughy inside. Nothing like as good as a loaf filled with homemade garlic butter," commented Linda Collister. But this bread left Michael Bateman speechless: "Too horrible for words."

**MARKS & SPENCER HALF BAGUETTES

99p for 3 half baguettes

This was the pick of the baguette bunch, with a crisper crust and better taste, texture and aroma than the others. Even so, it was still mediocre. "The colour was not bad, but it didn't have much shine. The loaf squashed soggily when cut and didn't spring back," commented Linda Collister. "Fragile skin, very soft dough, floury taste, nil aroma," said Michael Bateman. "The closest to an imitation of a true baguette," was Eric Feuilleaubois' opinion.

WAITROSE READY TO BAKE BAGUETTES

99p for 3 half baguettes

A baguette which, like the Asda and Marks & Spencer ones, is made with French flour. But this supposedly authentic ingredient didn't seem to add much to its quality. "Pale and insipid-looking loaf, with dull rather than shiny crust. Tasteless and flabby," said Linda Hollister. Eric Feuilleaubois thought it looked "as if it is suffering from a skin disease", while Steven Job found it "average - OK, but unexciting".

SAINSBURY'S HOMEBAKE BAGUETTES

89p for 3 half baguettes

This had a distinctly unimpressive flavour and texture, although it was by no means the worst. "The crust is crisp, but horrible. The inside has a sponge-like texture with a raw taste," said Michael Bateman. "Should not be called a baguette. Insipid bland taste, smells disgusting," said Eric Feuilleaubois who, as a Parisian born and bred, should recognise a good baguette when he tastes one. "Floury dry taste, disgusting flavour," commented Linda Collister

ASDA HOME BAKER FRENCH WHITE BAGUETTES

99p for 3 half baguettes

Michael Bateman found this baguette less disagreeable than most: "There was some crispness to the crust, and it had an excellent shape." But he also thought the bread's texture loose and wet, and the taste "doughy". Linda Collister, however, found nothing good to say about it. "Inedible, due to a disgusting chemical aftertaste," she said.

STOCKISTS

Granary Baguette: Safeway, Asda and independent stores; all the other breads - ciabatta and baguettes - are the stores' own-label products.

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