What is Bread? A Brief History of the World’s Oldest Staple

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Since making my first French loaves, I’ve been on something of a baking whirlwind. I made sourdough loaves using a starter from a friend; a delicious multigrain bread from a recipe by the baker Sarabeth Levine; a gluten-free loaf composed of oats, nuts, and seeds; the famous “no-knead bread” as developed by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery; and an oat soda bread from one of my favorite blogs.

The sourdough loaves unfortunately came out like bricks. My friend had warned me that the dough would be very wet, but I was thoroughly unprepared for just how difficult it would be to mix and proof. I spent ages kneading the dough by hand, and instead of retaining a round shape during the final proofing, the loaves sort of oozed into puddles. They didn’t taste bad- in fact, the flavour was complex and slightly tangy from the starter- but the texture was much too dense and chewy.

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The next bread I made, a yeasted multigrain loaf from the cookbook Sarabeth’s Bakery, came out lovely. It was easy and relatively quick to make (“relatively quick” being 6 hours). I simply combined the ingredients in my Kitchen Aid mixer, kneaded the dough by hand for a few minutes, let it rise twice, and baked it for 40 minutes in a tin pan. The result was a glossy loaf that tasted sweet and nutty.

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The third bread I made was from a food blog I like called My New Roots. The blogger, Sarah Britton, has a couple of bread recipes, one of which is called “The Life-Changing Loaf of Bread.” The title alone was so intriguing that I had to try it! As a gluten-free and vegan loaf, it contained no flour or dairy products but instead sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, oats, flaxseeds, coconut oil, maple syrup, psyllium husks, and more. In the end, my brother and I joked that it looked more like an enormous granola bar than a loaf of bread. I can’t say whether it changed my life, but it was pretty darn good.

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And then, the no-knead bread. I was skeptical of this one. Was it really possible to dump flour, water, yeast, and salt in a Dutch oven and arrive at a scrumptious bread just like that? To add to my skepticism, the dough was more liquid than solid after its initial rising (see first picture below). When I put it in the oven it looked like a gloopy mess, but 45 minutes later I opened the lid to reveal a beautiful loaf. The webbing was irregular and satiny, and the crust golden and crisp. In fact, it turned out so good that I seriously considered ditching all the other breads on my list and spending the remainder of my project making variations of the no-knead bread!

Finally, I made an oat soda bread from another blog I like called 101 Cookbooks. As its name suggests, soda bread uses baking soda instead of yeast as a leavening agent. It originates from Ireland and is a popular alternative to yeasted and sourdough breads. The soda bread I made used oat flour (which I made by putting oats in a food processor), all-purpose flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. I also sprinkled some seeds and brushed buttermilk on the top for a dramatic effect. The loaf came out nice and buttery, with a tight crumb and chewy crust.

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As I made these breads- one of which contained psyllium in place of flour, two of which weren’t kneaded, and another of which used baking soda to rise- I found myself pondering a very essential question: What is bread? If it’s gluten-free, doesn’t contain yeast, or isn’t kneaded, is it still bread? What about quick breads, which resemble more cakes than bread, or packaged bread, with its plethora of preservatives? In other words, would our ancestors have recognized what we today call bread?

To answer these questions, perhaps it’s worth examining the origin and evolution of bread over the last few millennia.

Bread, along with rice and maize, is one of the oldest staples in the world. The earliest breads were flatbreads, or breads made without leavening. In places in which cassava, barley, corn, and oats were the main crops, flatbreads like chapatis, tortillas, pita, and naan emerged.* Flatbreads continue to be the staple food for many cultures in the Middle East, Central America, and India. Indeed, during a school trip I took to northern India a few years ago, every meal we ate was centered around the chapati.

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A woman making chapatis in Rajasthan

While flatbreads kept humans alive for generations, it was the invention of leavened bread that allowed us to advance from a hunter-gatherer society to the sophisticated civilizations we live in today. The Egyptians are credited with discovering the original sourdough culture some 5,000 years ago. It’s believed that a bowl of grains and water was accidentally left to sit out for a few days, and when yeast from the air caused the porridge to ferment and bubble, someone got the idea to bake it over a fire. The result was a lighter and tastier food that could last for several days.

Leavened breads soon spread from the Middle East to Greece, where many varieties of wheat and barley breads were made. It was also in Greece that the prototype for the modern bread oven was conceived. During the Roman Empire, the Romans took bread baking to another level by establishing prestigious baking guilds, applying the Gaulish method of skimmed beer foam to make lighter breads, harnessing water to mill grains into flour, straining out the bran and germ to make white flour, and using horse-powered mixers to knead dough. Village bakeries began popping up in the big cities, with around 300 bakeries in Rome during the time of Christ, and bread became a major symbol in both Judaism and Christianity.

During the Middle Ages, round loaves and “trencher bread” (thick slices of bread used as plates) were a staple part of the medieval diet. While the upper classes enjoyed breads made of white flour, the poorer classes often ate coarser, whole wheat breads. Communal ovens arose during this time, allowing families to shape their dough and bring it to the town’s designated baker to be baked. Bread became a form of currency and credit, and as communal ovens eventually evolved into commercial bakeries, the role of the baker became increasingly important and respectable.

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A medieval baker with his apprentice (Source: Wikipedia)

The Industrial Revolution took bread baking to yet another level as inventions such as the roller mill and commercial yeast allowed bread to be produced on a large scale. Because bread could be made more cheaply and efficiently, the same white bread that was once reserved for the upper classes could now be eaten by all. During the 20th century, chemical additives like emulsifiers and hydrogenated oils were introduced to breads to make them softer and increase their shelf life. Flour was also bleached and fortified with vitamins and minerals that altered both the taste and appearance of bread. Paired with the invention of the bread slicer, bleached flour quickly became the basis for brands such as Sara Lee, Wonder Bread, and Pepperidge Farm. While sliced bread is now a staple food in households all over the world, artisanal bread has also made a comeback in the last few decades among those who wish to eat more wholesome breads using the traditional methods of baking.

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Bread aisle at a grocery store (Source: Mike Mozart, Flickr)

That’s a simplified version of what happened, but I mention it to give you an idea of bread’s roots. To understand what bread is, I think it’s essential to know what bread once was. And as demonstrated throughout history, bread has never been just one thing. Different breads have come and gone thanks to new technologies and resources, and even today bread can mean many things to people of varying ages, backgrounds, and social statuses. Even if modern bread doesn’t resemble the bread our ancestors ate, that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s based off of the original recipe of flour, water, yeast, and salt.

So to conclude, I don’t believe there is a straightforward answer to my question of “what is bread?” Rather, I think the definition of bread will continue to evolve and expand as humanity does. After all, we are the ones who invented it.

*Though pita and naan are technically leavened, they are considered flatbreads because they are baked in flat shapes.

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