Beautiful Stenciled Breads

Sourdough seems to get all the love — give yeasted bread a turn in the limelight with these stenciled designs.

  • Make a beautiful centerpiece for any meal with stenciled breads.
    Photo by Queren King-Orozco
  • Stencils cut from file folders may not curve to fit the shape of some loaves.
    Photo by Rebecca Martin
  • Experiment with cardstock or thin plastic for your stencils, and try dusting with both flour and cocoa powder for different effects.
    Photo by Rebecca Martin
  • Don’t shy away from delicate designs!
    Photo by William Rubel
  • A little care while lifting the stencil will leave sharp outlines on your loaf.
    Photo by William Rubel
  • Hold the taped edge of the razor to make slashes, keeping your fingers clear of the blade.
    Photo by William Rubel
  • Dust flour over your dough before slashing for a more striking finished loaf.
    Photo by William Rubel
  • Be decisive when you slash! Neat cuts look best after baking.
    Photo by William Rubel

Yeast! The English once called it “godes good,” believing it was a demonstration of God’s kindness. Yeast earned its place of respect because, for thousands of years, it was the invisible workhorse that fermented our fruits and grains to make wine, beer, and sake, and that quickly brought life to an otherwise inert dough of flour and water.

Yeast thrives on sugar, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide as waste products. What good luck is that? Farmers recognized yeast’s usefulness very early in the history of plant domestication and farming. One of the most robust of the wild sugar-loving yeasts, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, became so central to fermenting activities that it migrated from nature into our homes. Like cats, yeast is a semi-domesticated organism. This means that while the yeast that’s around our houses, and in and on our persons, has changed somewhat from its wild ancestor, they’re still very similar. “Yeast” comes from Middle English “yest,” meaning foam or froth. If you add 1 teaspoon of yeast and a similar amount of sugar to 1/4 cup of warm water and leave it for a few minutes, it will begin to foam up. While people didn’t have an accurate scientific understanding of what yeast was until the late 19th century, they knew what it did and how to collect it and use it.

Yeast is good because it’s so easy to use and so easy to manage. If you put creativity and imagination into yeasted breads like many bakers do their sourdough breads, you can be the master of making the bread soft with a sweet, fresh aroma or giving it the chewier texture and tangy flavor of a sourdough bread. You can do this by altering the amount of yeast, the temperature of the dough, and the time and environment in which the dough ripens. By adjusting the amount of water, you can shift from the fine-textured crumb of sandwich bread to the large holes of Italian ciabatta. I want to offer you a recipe with the flour-to-water ratio of many French-style breads, which will give you a nice open crumb and a crisp crust. Make it a couple of times, and then start improvising.

Decorative Bread on the Table

This recipe lends itself to experimentation, and will make a versatile loaf with a smooth crust. I want to introduce you to the idea of personalizing your bread by decorating the crust. All over the world, innovative bakers see the surfaces of their breads as canvases for personal expression. You, too, can do amazing things by using stencils (dusting flour for white and cocoa for dark designs), slashing the dough (either directly into the dough or through a layer of flour dusted over the bread), or with a combination of slashing and stenciling. Whether you bake in a tin or on a baking stone or baking sheet, a few minutes of attention to the crust will take your bread out of the realm of the everyday, and into a space where cooking and art come together.

If you have children, or are baking bread during the holidays when family and friends are around, decorating the surface of breads can itself become an engaging social activity. Creating stencils is an absorbing pursuit for people of all ages, and cutting patterns into the floured surface of the proofed bread with a razor is really exciting. If you’re decorating breads with several people, you may want to have a few breads going at once, or you can make rolls to decorate.

For inspiration, look at the images accompanying this article, go to Downloadable Bread Stencils to download printable stencil templates, or check out my Pinterest boards with images of slashed and stenciled breads and how-to videos ( ). You can purchase ready-made bread stencils from a number of online retailers, or visit your local craft store to find painting or quilting stencils you can repurpose for decorating breads. I think making your own stencils is a fun project in itself!

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