What Is The Difference Between French Bread and Italian Bread

July 16, 2014 20 Comments

What Is the Difference Between Italian Bread and French Bread

What Is The Difference Between French Bread and Italian Bread?

Both Italy and France are countries that specialize in bread making. Sure, when we sit down to eat at a restaurant in the US we are given a bread basket to start off our dinner. But bread is essential to almost every meal in Italy and France.

If bread supply ran out in either of these countries, you can expect riots in the streets. However, the two countries approach bread-making quite differently from one another.

Baguettes, focaccia, brioche— all of these breads differ vastly in size, shape, and how they are served. Regardless of differences, as Americans, we enjoy these breads on a daily basis.

If you want to know a little more about how these breads are created in their native countries and what sets them apart, take a look at what I have come up with below.

The Basics

When we think of French bread, the “the French stick” usually comes to mind. It is a long, thin crusty loaf that is typically referred to as a “baguette,” which directly translates into “a stick.”

The Baguette may be the most popular type of bread in France—it is eaten throughout almost every province in the country—but it is certainly not the only kind made.

Other types of ordinary French white bread include the couronne, which is bread in the shape of a ring, or “country bread” (pain de campagne) that often incorporates whole wheat or rye flour in its ingredients.

In terms of Italian bread making, the paesanos are known to allow the yeast to fully rise over the course of a few hours, resulting in a very thin-crusted loaf. The interior of Italian bread is typically extremely moist and absorbent—the better to soak up olive oil and tomatoes from caprese.

Types of Italian bread include ciabatta— made of wheat flour and yeast—piadina, made of flour, lard and slat—and panettone, a bread that is native to Milan. Both countries make delicious loaves, but the similarities between Italian and French bread end the moment you compare the two side by side.

Italian Bread

Shape and Size

The first way to distinguish Italian from French bread is to simply eyeball the two. French and Italian breads come in all shapes and sizes. However, to broadly generalize, while French bread is long with rounded edges, Italian bread comes in a more overall circular shape.

French bread is typically baked in a long, thin shape and has become the major food symbol of the country. The baguette can be baked as long as 30 inches and is a staple in almost every region.

On the other hand, Italian bread is known to be baked in more a flat and round shape. Italian loaves are also shorter and typically thicker than their French counterparts. Although it is possible to get baguette-type looking bread in an Italian bakery, on average, most Italian bread is shaped into larger rounds.

There are endless variations in size and shape for bread in each country, but these are the major indicators that will distinguish the two.

How to Serve

Because bread comes with every French and Italian meal, you might think they are served for the same reasons. However, In France, breads are usually given as a starter. French brioche, a sweet bread, is even eaten in the morning with breakfast meals. The French also employ the baguette as a multipurpose bread, used for sandwiches and as the base for canapés

Italian breads, on the other hand, are usually served as a supplement to pasta or other main courses. A side dish, if you will. Italians eat bread to absorb the flavors of olive oils or the thick sauces in a rich meal.

Ingredients

Although there are vast differences, classic French and Italian breads are, for the most part, made with the same ingredients in a similar fashion. However, one major difference in ingredients is that bread making in France is more tightly controlled than in Italy.

By law in France, bread cannot have added oil or fat. French baguettes, for instance, must be made from water, flour, yeast and salt, with a very little amounts of dough improver allowed.

Italian bread often contains a little bit more milk, olive oil, and sometimes sugar in its contents. Thus, Italians seem to be working with wetter dough as their base than the French.

Baking Methods

Like their pizzas, Italian breads are often baked in a flat stone oven. Pane di Genzano, for instance, is a fragrant bread from Lazio, a region located in the central peninsular section of the country, that is usually cooked in a wood-fire or stone oven. This particular style of baking gives the bread a signature smoky flavor and pungent aroma.

Conversely, the French are known for using electric convection deck ovens. This method of baking gives the loaf an overall softer texture. They bake their breads usually at the same temperatures as the Italians.

Sweet vs. Savory

France is famous for its brioche, a sweet bread that is made with unsalted butter and eggs that are added to the dough to give it a”sugary sweet” taste. There are all types of breads in France, but typically, they make sweeter loaves than the Italians—just think of French toast!

Italy is famed for its savory breads. One in particular is focaccia, a flat oven-baked product that is similar to pizza dough in texture. Typically focaccia is topped with herbs and other savory ingredients such as olive oil or salt. Another exquisite savory Italian bread is Pane Casareccio, a popular rustic stuffed bread.

While the French usually stick to the sweets, Italians embrace the savories.

Baguettes vs French Bread

French Baguettes

Not all French bread falls under the category of the baguette. Take a look.

Baguettes are long, thin loaves of white bread made from a basic dough. Incisions are cut into the top of the loaf to allow it to expand and give the bread its trademark appearance. As stated earlier, the dough for baguettes is defined by French law and only small variations are allowed in terms of ingredients.

Two types of baguette are generally available in France: traditional and commercial. The traditional baguette is made of only wheat flour, water, salt and yeast.

Commercial baguettes are sold in supermarkets and often found in restaurants. In addition to the main ingredients used in traditional baguettes, commercial baguettes also contain additives. The yeast typically used in commercial baguettes is “levure” instead of the “levain.”

Levure yeast allows the bread to rise much faster for commercial purposes. Without additives, baguettes do not keep well because they contain no fat.

But French bread does not stop with baguettes.

In the U.S., the term “French bread” refers to a loaf of a certain shape, i.e., a long and thin stick. But outside the United States, “French bread” can refer to all different types of loaf, including, but not limited to the standard baguette.

Other types of French bread include ficelle (a small, thin baguette), or pain de champagne which is a rounded loaf containing sourdough. Each region in France has its own specialty bread, some of the most notable being fig and walnut that is characteristic of the south, and milk bread in the northern region.

Last modified on Wed 2 November 2016 5:33 pm

Comments (20)

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  1. What a great article. Thank you for explaining this.

  2. Nina says:

    Thanks fort this, it was an interesting read! I think you’ve hit on some distinct differences that still remain, in spite of centuries of cultural and culinary exchange between these two countries – funny how they’ve stuck around!

    Perhaps you could do a special on rye bread some time?

    Most of the rye bread in America is (I think) of the Scandinavian variety, which is very different from the Eastern European rye bread. The “black” or rye bread I remember from my childhood had a distinct sour, malty flavor, but the ones I’ve seen in U.S. grocery shops usually taste almost sweet, and – to me – a little flat. I’d be curious to know what the different bread making methods actually are (I bet the Eastern European version involves sourdough).

    It’s always a pleasure reading your articles, and you’ve got a great site!

    • Julie Dixon says:

      Try a Russian deli; I don’t know where they all might be but in San Francisco, there used to be one on Church off 28th. My late mother-in-law used to get the kind of black bread you are talking about…

      • Cindy says:

        S. Rosen is a Chicago baking company that sells to delis and grocery store deli departments. They make several styles of European rye breads, as well as the poppyseed buns for Chicago style hot dogs. You can also buy on their website. Their rye breads have a chewy crust and substantial textures. Hope this helps!

  3. DMS says:

    Thanks a bunch for this article. I always wonder what the differences were, now I know.

  4. Bob says:

    Hi, nice article. But I don’t think you really meant ” … signature saccharine taste …” Because saccharine tastes terrible. Did you just mean very sweet? As in Sugary Sweet?

  5. Tom says:

    I’d be curious to know more about the baguette version of Italian bread that I grew up with. I love the hard crunchy crust and air light dough and sesame seeds. Also, lard bread and semolina. All my favorites to soak up that Sunday sauce!

    • F. Matthew Fagan says:

      Hey Tom I totally know what you mean about the Italian bread with the crunchy crust and moist airy interior. I can’t imagine a pasta dinner without a fresh loaf to enjoy with butter or to absorb the remaining yummy goodness of my grandmas sauce still left in my bowl! One thing though, the term baguette specifically refers to French bread no? Either way take care.

    • Cindy says:

      In my hometown, Rockford, Illinois, there is a bakery called piemonte bakery. They bake just a couple of kinds of bread. Their Italian bread has a very hard, thin, dry crust, and a nice soft center, but it’s only good for one day, because there’s nothing in it except flour, water, salt and yeast. It comes in an open paper sleeve, but the grocers who carry it, have to have it in a plastic bag, which completely ruins the crust. On any day of the week, you can drive right up to the bakery doors, which are big garage type doors, hand them your money, (was $1 for years) and take a fresh loaf off the commercial racks. VERY low tech, and VERY special.

  6. lynn says:

    hi what is the length of an Italian bread?

    • Interesting question Lynn. There are many different sizes and shapes of bread available in Italy. If you are referring to the classic long loaf we here in America associate with Italian bread, I don’t know if there is a standard size. Does anyone more familiar with this subject know if there is or not?

  7. Giulia says:

    Hello, your article is very cute, panettone isn’t bread, though. It’s a dessert we Italians eat at Christmas holidays. Piadina isn’t really bread…although it’s like a panino, you don’t put a piadina on the table and eat it with, say, a main course. It’s like pizza. Italian bread we eat at lunch or dinner doesn’t have neither milk, nor sugar, our bread with milk is sweet and we eat it in the morning at breakfast with butter and sugar or jam, some kids eat it in the afternoon as a snack.If we make a comparison, is with French brioche.
    Have you ever had ferrarese bread? Its name is coppia ferrarese (ciopeta in local language), it’s my favorite Italian bread, is to die for.
    Ciao

  8. Diane says:

    Do you think it makes a difference in a bread pudding though? Would the baguette absorb more of the custard because it is a dryer bread? But should the crusts be trimmed off first I wonder?

  9. Bruce says:

    What a great read, thanks so much!

    I was in my local supermarket this morning just after the breads were put out, and the “French” and “Italian” breads were next to each other. Since they looked and felt basically the same, I asked the bakery worker to explain the difference — with a smile on her face, she said, “One is baked by a Frenchman, and one is baked by an Italian man!” She chuckled as I realized she meant there was no difference (at least not in this store).

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