Almost as long as we have been consuming grain and cereals there has been bread. Bread is familiar and is the staff of life to which hundreds of generations have used for sustenance. Did you know the words "companion" and "company" are derived from the Italian word companio, which means "one who shares bread"?
Bread is thought to have been part of the human diet for some 12,000 years which makes it one of the oldest subjects in food history. Archaeological evidence from Egypt confirms yeast was used in leavened bread as early as 4000 BCE. A lot has happened in those 12,000 years and there is no way I can elaborate on all of the fascinating details in one day.
In this post I will share with you a basic run-through of the evolution of bread with the intention of revisiting certain topics again in future. And since I am writing a simple overview of bread, it's only fitting that I include a simple recipe for a bread. The simplicity of the recipe is deceiving though; it's taken 6000 years to get here.
The Incredible (Shortened) History of Bread
In prehistoric times man would have mostly consumed cereals in a porridge or paste of crushed grains and water. Instead of being eaten raw or cooked in a pot over embers, the paste could be dropped onto hot stones where it would transform into what we now call flatbreads. Variations in grain, thickness, shape, and texture varied from culture to culture. Regional varieties of flatbreads still exist across the world including pita, johnnycakes, chapati, or tortillas.
Raised breads were most likely the result of leaving the paste to sit for several days before using or storing it in unwashed vessels. The natural yeast spores from the air and the grain would feed on the paste and develop a more flavourful and lighter loaf. Beer making and leavened bread making are thought to be closely intertwined in their beginnings (which came first?) and it's a noted theory that beer making and fermentation might have been what prompted the start of agriculture.
Throughout history innovations in equipment, technology, economic conditions, taste, cultural influences, and ingredients have changed bread and effected how often we eat it. At first bread would have been cooked on stones alongside open fires, then in stone sided or clay ovens, then in large communal ovens. Eventually individual ovens took the place of the village baker and bread was baked at home. Grinding equipment has improved from mortar and pestle to the use of two flat stones and other forms of energy such as animals, wind, and water have lessened the workload for humans to turn the grain into fine flours. While it has been/is the staple of many diets (the ancient Greek food trinity included bread, olives, and wine), wheat bread consumption can go up and down in relation to wealth in some societies. In the early part of the 20th century, it was noticed that as incomes increased, the taste for and availability of luxury goods such as meat and sugar-laden pastries became more desired and affordable and bread consumption decreased.
In modern times, marketing reports claim wheat bread consumption has declined in North America. An increase in purchases of granola bars (aka cookies pretending to be healthy), endless snacking, use of corn products, interest in ethnic cuisines from Latin America and Asia, and a rise in high-quality artisinal baked goods are all suggested reasons for the change. Anti-gluten advocates (out of necessity or by choice), carb-free, and paleo-inspired diets have also shifted eating trends.
Bread making is a time-consuming and laborious task and the job is typically delegated to bakers - or more often now - to large automated factories. To reduce costs (from a time perspective and ingredient perspective), industrial breads are often prepared with dough conditioners to produce cake-like softness and preservatives to extend the shelf life. Bleached flours are sometimes included to keep the bread white as a sign of 'purity'.
The Basics of Preparing a Loaf of Bread
It's actually quite easy to make a great loaf of bread. Mix flour, salt, and yeast with water. Allow the dough to sit. Shape. Sit. Bake. Enjoy.
Really - it's that easy. When the flour and water are mixed, the gluten protein in the flour turns into long, elastic strands. These strands have the strength to hold in gases that are created by yeasts. When heat is applied to the flour/water/yeast mixture, the gluten strands set around those air bubbles which gives bread its characteristic holey and chewy texture. Compare bread to a cake: you don't want large air bubbles in cake. Cakes have a fine-crumbed texture and tunnels or large holes are actually a sign of over-mixing (you stirred too much and developed the gluten strands). If you eat a cake or muffin with large holes or tunnels, chances are it has a slightly chewy texture instead of being tender.
There is also a difference with what type of flour you use. I've mentioned it in previous posts, but this is worth repeating: Bread flour (also called hard flour) contains a higher content of gluten which is a protein. The protein strands can be kinked and unkinked by agitation. Eventually the gluten strands connect and align together to form a network which can be permanently set with the addition of heat. The gluten is what makes it suitable for use in breads, pizza doughs, or choux pastry because you need the structure for strength (like trapping in air or keeping a specific shape). Pastry flour (also called soft flour) contains a lower amount of gluten which makes is suitable for use with cakes, pie pastries, and cookies - any place where tenderness and shortness is desired. All-purpose flour is basically a blend between bread and pastry flours and can be used for either purpose. Often times I use both types of flour in a recipe in different ratios to get different textures. Unbleached flour (both bread and pastry) is my preference as chemical bleaching uses additives that I don't want to ingest or taste. Chemical bleaching is an unnecessary process and is harmful to the environment.
On a unrelated note: It is mandatory in Canada for all flour to be fortified with certain vitamins and minerals to replace what was lost during processing.
Several years ago Mark Bittman shared a recipe in the New York Times based on Jim Lahey's instructions for preparing a perfect loaf of bread: dark, crispy, golden brown on the outside; moist, airy, chewy on the inside.
Jim's method went against what most (not all) bakers practiced and proved that a great loaf of bread does not have to be kneaded for a long period of time. Some bakers pride themselves on hand-kneading dough in order to activate and align all those gluten strands that are essential for holding in gas bubbles but Jim's recipe doesn't. The wet dough is only required to be barely mixed and the yeasts feeding on the natural sugars in the flour are what slowly and efficiently work their way through the dough to create the gluten network. Allowing this process to happen over several days permits flavours to develop at the same time (yay fermentation!).
After fermentation, the dough is gently shaped and allowed to rise over several hours. Once it has proofed (risen), the dough is placed into a pre-heated hot Dutch oven pot with a lid and is baked. The reason for using a Dutch oven is because the thick-walled pan radiates heat more efficiently than what your large oven walls do.
In order to create 'oven spring', which is the last final rise that happens as soon as bread is placed in an oven, intense high heat is necessary to create steam and allow the gases in the dough to expand quickly. The trick is to get the dough to inflate with gases, hold the gases in with the gluten network, then set the gluten network permanently with heat before the gases escape. The high moisture in the dough also helps radiate heat and causes the starches on the surface of the dough to gel which creates a desirable crunch. Halfway through baking the lid is removed and the bread is left to finish cooking. The bread is ready once it is a dark, golden-brown colour, the internal temperature reaches 209°F and/or knocking your knuckles on the bottom of the bread produces a hollow sound. Remove the bread from the pot with tongs and allow it to cool on a rack. You will hear the magical sound of the crust crackling as it cools.
No-Knead Bread - Recipe
Recipe adapted from Serious Eats
Makes one medium loaf (serves 4-6)
300 g (about 2 c) bread flour or all-purpose flour
4.5 g (about 3/4 t) salt
3 g (about 1/2 t) active dry or instant yeast
210 g (about 1 c minus 1 1/2 T) water
More Information and Links
Food and Restaurant Trends 2013
Mark Bittman - New York Times recipe
Food Timeline - Bread
Why Bread is No Longer Rising - Huff Post Canada
Need fresh unbleached flour?
Arva Flour Mills North of London is a great source for flours and other baking essentials.
HOPE Eco Farms located on Walker Side Road East of Aylmer stocks many whole grains and flours.
Eating. Drinking. Sharing.