French bread versus Italian bread, what are the differences between these two beloved staples? They’re far more than just bread made in France or Italy.
Before we can get into the differences, we need to fully understand each type of bread, its typical uses, and what makes it stand out. Once we can define these two types of bread, we can dissect the differences and similarities between these two culinary staples.
What Is French Bread?
French bread exists today because of tradition. The recipes are classic and rarely made with anything more than four common ingredients most people have at home:
The French take their bread seriously, and since 1993 the French Bread Law has been put in place to guide the bakers of France in delivering the appropriate goods. This law determines details like the label must state that it has additional ingredients whenever bread contains anything more than those four things.
The decree also sets out the rules for naming the bread, whether the bakery can freeze it before baking (it’s not allowed), and what areas a bakery can sell in.
Since French bread doesn’t have preservatives or flavor additives, the focus instead is on the flour. Bakers choose high-quality flour milled as locally as possible, often a mix of rye and wheat. The blend and sourcing of flour ensure large granules that result in a hard crust and airy interior.
Due to its practically nonexistent fat content, French bread is at its freshest for a few hours before it starts to dry and eventually becomes stale within 24 hours.
This short expiration date encouraged daily shops for bread and has lessened the need for preservatives as buying bread has become an everyday tradition for the French population.
Types of French Bread
There are many types of French bread divided up into different forms, like baguettes and loaves.
Baguettes and ficelle are long and skinny loaves, with ficelles being the slimmer of the two. They’re perhaps the most recognizable french bread eaten in torn pieces, usually only costing one euro.
Loaves of French bread are oblong, while pain de Campagne (country bread) and pain complet are large round loaves.
These differences are from various processes and ingredients, often involving the proofing and baking process or the addition of different flour. Pain Complet, for example, is made of all wholemeal flour.
What Is Italian Bread?
On the other hand, Italian bread can range from rustic with straightforward flavors to elaborate designs and experimental ingredients. Adding new components to the most traditional Italian bread is encouraged.
Traditional Italian bread tends to include ingredients like semolina, olive oil, vegetables, herbs, sweeteners, fat, and spices. Due to the optional additives, Italian dough tends to be wetter with smaller flour granules than French dough.
Types of Italian Bread
There is a wide range of traditional Italian bread thanks to their loose view of what ingredients bread can have and the creativity that bakers are encouraged to have.
Like the French, Italians have a few bread-y desserts like a panettone, but these aren’t really Italian bread, just as a croissant is a pastry and not bread. Instead, people tend to think of dimply focaccia and dense ciabatta. Italian bread shapes are flat, round, as well as loaves.
One type of Italian bread that people don’t think of is pizza crust. It’s just a type of flatbread. Some people even consider a fully made and dressed pizza to be Italian bread, but that changes depending on the region and chef. Pizza dough recipes tend to use semolina or “OO” flour. The amount of water and proofing time varies based on the region.
Now that we’ve defined French and Italian bread, how do they stack up side-by-side?
- French bread: Styles tend to be available nationally
- Italian bread: Regional varieties may be found primarily in their place of origin
At one time, French bread varied greatly between regions, with some preferring baguettes and others prioritizing country-style loaves. As time went on, bakeries started baking more styles until now, when you can find most types of French bread in all French bakeries.
Italian bread, like much of Italian cuisine, varies significantly by region. Bakers use local ingredients like anchovies or types of cheese, which differentiates their bread from loaves in others. If you want to find a specific regional loaf, you may have to go to that area to find it.
- French bread: Light and airy with a hard outer crust
- Italian bread: Dense with less of a contrast between crust and inner texture
The most significant difference between these two types of bread is their texture. French bread has a more delicate crumb, and although the outside crust is harder than Italian bread, the inside is airy with holes and pockets. The interior of Italian bread, on the other hand, tends to be denser since it has a higher fat content.
Italian flour plays a part in this difference, too. After milling, it’s softer and this, combined with the lamination of ingredients and high-fat content, results in a denser but softer crumb.
Many of these differences were designed that way for a reason. Bread fills a different role in different cuisines. Italian bread was created to be eaten alongside other dishes and more readily absorb oil and sauces. French bread, instead, tends to be eaten alone or with ingredients placed on top of it.
- Italian bread: Fast on high heat in a wood-burning oven
- French bread: Slower with added moisture from the steam
Usually, Italian bread is cooked at higher temperatures, especially for thin bread such as focaccia and pizza dough, so the crust burns quickly without drying everything else.
Italians do this by cooking their bread on wood-burning ovens like the traditional pizza oven, while French bakers prefer more modern electric or gas ovens.
While these rules tend to be true for traditional French and Italian bread, some types of French bread are very soft with less of a crust.
These soft French bread tend to include milk and butter in the dough, and while they’re not traditional bread, they are usually sweet desserts such as brioche or pain de mie.
- Italian bread: Experimentation and local additions
- French bread: Classic four-ingredient loaf with some additions
A significant contributing factor to the difference in texture between these two is the ingredients. French law does allow additives in French bread, but it requires the label to notify buyers of any added ingredients beyond the classics: flour, yeast, water, and salt.
This information has the benefit of allowing traditional bakers to stand out when they don’t need to add anything to their labels.
Italian bread, on the other hand, tends to be more experimental. It usually includes olive oil, milk, sugar, or other additives for flavor and preservation. It also changes the texture and properties of the loaf.
Additives include classics like honey, olive oil, and semolina but can also have more non-traditional spices like turmeric and cayenne.
Adding fat and moisture to bread causes it to be less acidic and more lubricated. This makes the bread stay fresh for longer, so French bakeries tend to cook 2-4 batches of bread each day compared to the Italian one; baguettes are meant to be consumed fresh.
While baguettes stale quickly, different types of French bread dry out at different times. Larger French bread loaves tend to last longer, but they’ll still dry out faster than bread containing fat.
Despite their differences, there are many things that Italian and French bread have in common other than both being delicious.
For starters, gluten in both types of bread is sensitive to spices, so if a baker adds too many spices regardless of the fat content, the bread will become tougher and less flexible as the gluten dies out.
The crust, whether thin or thick on bread, is dependent on the humidity in the oven while the bread is baking. Add a tray full of water to the oven while your bread bakes to achieve this effect at home. Both types of bread contain high levels of flour and need sources of hydration from water or fats along with time to rest and rise properly.
There are also similar types of bread in both cultures, and each culture puts its spin on the bread of others.
Often, Italian bakers will make the Italian version of French bread by adding a twist to a traditional recipe. For example, the Italian version of a baguette is called a Stirato, and Sicilians have also created a pastry called the Sicilian brioche. French cuisine inspires both. They look similar, but Italian bakers include more fat and other additives.
When it comes to French bread versus Italian bread, there are differences, but it’s just because bakers developed them in different cultures for different purposes.
Both Italian bread and French bread are delicious, and they play their role well. If you want to snack on bread with cheese and meat, French bread will probably satisfy your craving. Or, for bread that soaks up ingredients well, like olive oil or tomato sauce, choose a dense Italian bread with a thin crust.
French bread with its light and airy with a chewy crust or Italian bread with a dense without a crust, why not try both?