Chapter OneThe History of Bread Making
* Identify the many critical junctures in world history related to society's need for bread.
* Describe the evolution of bread from its primitive origins through its modern-day form.
* Identify the key role wheat plays in the development of leavened bread.
* Define fermentation.
* Understand the evolution of the short, intensive, and improved mixing methods.
* Discuss how artisan bread baking evolved as a reaction to misguided baking techniques.
Bread's Impact on Basic Survival
Bread used to be so important to everyday existence that its scarcity or abundance could affect the history of kingdoms and empires. You've probably read about epic struggles for existence, wars of succession, and the overthrow of governments in your high school or college history classes. A surprising number of these events illustrate the historical and cultural importance of bread. This chapter demonstrates that the bread we take for granted today was once not only an accompaniment to dinner-bread was power.
A Cornerstone of Civilization
The Sumerians, for instance, who 10,000 years ago ruled over an area in what is now Iraq, could lay claim to being the world's first true nation because they devised more efficient methods of organized agriculture. Better organization meant more grain for bread produced by fewer people. Nomadic life gave way to settled agrarianism, which allowed for the development of skilled artisans, bureaucrats, and a professional military. Villages grew into towns and then cities. All this happened because wheat for bread was plentiful and more time was available to accomplish things of greater magnitude within their civilization.
The evolution of specialized trades and businesses would have been critical before the Sumerians could establish a strong central government. As far as we can tell from archaeological records, they used their prosperity to expand their power all over the area known as the Fertile Crescent (today's Middle East) and established what came to be viewed as the world's first true empire.
From Ancient Rome to the French Revolution
The Roman rulers of antiquity (200 B.C.-A.D. 400) famously kept their citizens content and supportive by providing "bread and circuses"-that is, free bread and gladiatorial entertainment. King Louis XVI of France should have studied that lesson before the French Revolution (1789-1799), when a period of famine made bread both expensive and difficult to obtain. France's starving population eventually was so outraged that revolutionaries overthrew the thousand-year-old monarchy. It's been said that King Louis XVI's wife, Marie Antoinette, on hearing that mobs in Paris were incensed by the scarcity of bread, commented, "Then let them eat brioche"(later mistranslated as "cake"). Her iconic words were remembered as a symbol of the disparity between the suffering peasants and the indifferent royals.
Bread Affects Politics Today
Bread has affected politics more recently in Russia and Eastern Europe. Former communist governments in these regions sometimes put a hold on bread prices, or even rolled them back, to keep their citizens from revolting. The Soviet Union became defunct for a number of reasons, but long lines for bread in government bakeries didn't generate sympathy for the party in power.
As we examine the past, then, it isn't an exaggeration to say that bread is central to the development of civilization. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine life without it.
How Bread Began
The evolution of bread is tied to the evolution of human life. Multiple species of yeast and bacteria were among the first plants and animals to appear on Earth. When larger species evolved and moved to land three billion years later, the yeast and bacteria fed on them when they died. Those single-celled organisms were hard at work degrading large pieces of organic matter before wheat or any other grain appeared. So fermentation was certainly around by then and was essentially a process of decomposition. We define fermentation, then, as the breakdown of organic substances by yeast and bacteria.
Roasted Grains = Roasted Grass Seeds
In the Stone Age, people gathered grasses from the wild and probably first consumed their seeds by roasting them over a fire. They eventually learned to distinguish one grass from another and selected only those with the biggest seeds or the best flavor. Among those chosen were the early varieties of barley, oats, and, possibly, einkorn and emmer.
Bread: An Accidental Creation
We can only speculate about when the first breads were made, but it is believed they resulted from people accidentally spilling bits of porridge onto the hot stones of a hearth. They wouldn't have thrown away the results; food was hard to find. They probably ate the crisped little disks and found they liked them enough to continue making them. It's likely these first breads were coarse, dense pancakes. If you made them and baked them dry, you could carry them with you to work or to hunt, with no need to start a fire or boil water to make them palatable.
These first pancakes almost certainly didn't rise as they baked. Fermentation was well established throughout nature, and pots of porridge that had been kept too long must have occasionally gone over. But, as far as archaeologists can tell, the sort of grain mush that captured gas from wild yeasts was not yet commonly made. The fermentation of porridge also produced alcohol, of course, and people must have discovered its inebriating effects at some point. Archaeologists believe fermentation was used to make grain-based beverages, like beer or ale, before leavened bread was common. In truth, the mash for brewing beer and the porridge for making bread were nearly the same thing, with the beer mash just being a lot wetter.
Bread That Rises
By 4000-3500 B.C., though, evidence suggests Egyptian slaves were working with bread made from grains that acted differently than barley or oats. If a batch of porridge made with this grain was left out a few days, it would grow in size. When it was baked on hot stones, it grew even further, billowing into short, pillow-shaped loaves. Those grains were the early ancestors of today's bread wheat. It is thought they are related to einkorn or emmer, which can still be found growing in the same areas today.
The critical difference between the flour made from early wheat and that made from grains like barley or oats was that wheat contained some unique proteins that could combine with water to form a more complex protein called gluten. Gluten had the ability to capture the gas produced during fermentation, and it could stretch to accommodate the gas as it accumulated. Other grains didn't contain enough of the right proteins to form gluten, so, while they could be used to make flour for bread, their flours would not make dough that could capture gas.
It is quite possible, even probable, that other societies within the Fertile Crescent were using similar forms of wheat by this time (see the Sumerians, above). This doesn't mean other grains for bread were no longer used. The Egyptians, we know, continued to use barley for bread well into the Roman era, and the Greeks, who learned of leavened bread from the Egyptians, left written records of how much they loved the taste of barley bread, just as they enjoyed the taste and texture of the newer wheat loaves.
The Roman Guilds
Ruins from the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum (see Figure 1.2) show that, in the year A.D. 79, Roman cities featured combination bakery/milling shops, where wheat (possibly a type of durum) was ground into flour and used to make bread for everyday consumption. At this time, those who practiced the craft of bread baking formed a guild, which was a legally sanctioned group of professional craftsmen. Their mills were still made of stone but were fairly large, and they were turned by two or more men (probably slaves). Then, as before, the possession of bread-making wheat was what really gave power to both emperors and their bureaucrats. When rulers were challenged in ancient Rome, the usurpers sometimes attempted to capture the fields where wheat was grown-it was the harvest that sustained life and bestowed title upon the rulers.
A Bastion of Slow Change
It may be difficult to believe, but from the fall of the Roman Empire to almost the start of World War I-about 1,400 years-bread making didn't change as much as you might expect. Some advances in the numbers of water-powered and wind-powered mills occurred, but wheat flour was still milled by means of chiseled, closely fitting stones. To get anything like white flour, you needed to pass the milled whole wheat through a progressively finer set of mesh or silken screens-a process only the wealthy could afford. Even then, the actual flour color would have been light tan or gray.
Ovens were still wood- or coal-fired and completely hand-loaded. No refrigeration was commonly available, so, although commercial yeast was produced by the late nineteenth century, there was no reliable way to distribute it very far from the yeast factory. Naturally leavened starters-levain to the French, sourdough to the English-remained the most common means of leavening bread in bakeries throughout Europe.
The Apprenticeship System in France
The guild of bakers in France continued to use the same apprenticeship system it had devised centuries before. When a boy was in his early teens, his family arranged for a master baker to take him on for training. He lived in the baker's home, usually located above the bakery itself, where he was housed and fed, with little or no wages, as he learned how to knead dough in large troughs. More experienced men then shaped the loaves and watched the ovens. After a few years, the apprentice was either promoted within the ranks of that bakery and made real wages, or he would move on as a journeyman baker for another employer.
Workdays were quite long-12 hours or more-and the typical bakery was a basement hovel where a wood-fired oven, a wooden bench, and a dough trough competed for space with the bakers themselves. Wonderful aromas surrounded the baker during his shift, but the work was hard, the wages were low, and the profits for the owners were marginal at best, given the government price controls since the Middle Ages.
Mechanized Bread Making
By the end of the nineteenth century, attempts were made to bring the baking profession into the industrial age. team-powered dough mixers were displayed at a technology exposition in Paris in 1889, but they were never widely adopted-possibly because they were judged by bakery owners as impractical or too revolutionary. Because electricity was not available for use in refrigeration, it was also not commonly available for powering mixers.
Electric Mixers Finally Appear: The Short Mix Method
A good deal changed after World War I. Electrical service became available in most large towns and cities, creating a market for mixers powered by electric motors. Early electric mixer models were fairly slow. They worked only on one speed, and the dough they created was not much different in consistency from that mixed and developed by hand. The chief advantage in these early machines was that they saved a huge amount of manual labor. They may have also saved a bit of time, but the entire process from mixer to oven wasn't remarkably shorter. It still took 4-5 hours of bulk fermentation until bread dough was mature and strong enough to shape at the bench. This was the only option available to bakers then, and the technique had no name at the time, but it was later called the short mix or traditional method.
Powered Mixers Meet Better Ingredients
In the early 1920s, the advent of powered mixers was accompanied by the introduction of better-quality commercial yeast and white flours that were stronger and more affordable. While stone mills weren't completely discarded, steel roller mills ground most of the flour used in French bakeries. The baguette and the Parisian croissant had made their debut in Paris by this time. The Parisian croissant married the technique of butter-laminated puff pastry with what had been merely a sweetened, yeasted crescent roll. Baguettes probably were related to pain viennoise or Viennese bread, which featured a technique of boosting the power of manufactured yeast by placing it in a slurry of equal amounts of water and flour. This method was associated with bakers who had immigrated to France, some of whom had worked in Vienna. This slurry, a type of pre-ferment, sat for 5 hours or more and was later added to any remaining flour and water to complete the mixing of the actual bread dough. Because many of the Viennese who worked with French bakers were originally of Polish descent, this wet pre-ferment came to be called a poolish.
Direct Mixing Method
By the 1930s, many bakers were taking advantage of the stronger yeast strains available by eliminating the step of creating a pre-ferment for baguette dough. This came to be known as the direct method, because bakers were able to avoid the trouble of feeding a levain or mixing a poolish ahead of time (for more information on the subject of pre-ferments, see Chapter 5). Even with these changes, the time necessary for making baguettes was really not less than before, so direct mixing might actually be seen as a variation on the short mix or traditional method. The convenience of not making a poolish still required an extended bulk or primary fermentation. The yeast produced gas faster, but the dough still had to gain strength through long fermentation and a series of folds.
World War II and Its Aftermath
Virtually the entire European continent was consumed by war from 1939 to 1945. White flour became less and less available. Bread bakers in France and elsewhere had to use higher-extraction wheat flour (nearly whole wheat) and added barley, rye, and other flours to make their supply of flour go farther. By the time the war ended, the scarcity of flour for bread was so acute that bakers sometimes added sawdust to make enough dough for their customers.
While the postwar economic boom did not happen overnight, some prosperity was returning to France, and the bakery profession was on its way to recovery by the early 1950s. During the rebuilding that occurred in this decade, electricity became available even in parts of the countryside that had never had it before. Bakeries in the countryside began to acquire the same types of mixer used by bakers in the cities and larger towns. Making bread dough completely by hand became less and less common, but the quality of bread was as good as ever because the dough was still fermented for long periods.
France and French Bread Become "Modern"
By the mid-1950s,a new type of mixer featuring both low and high speeds made its appearance in the French bread baking community. This new type of mixer allowed bakers to combine ingredients on the lower speed and then change to the higher one to develop the gluten faster than before. When using the high speed option for 8-12 minutes or more, this mixer could produce dough that was lighter in texture than any previously made, and its loaves had impressive volume. The loaves also had a much whiter crumb, and, though few people seemed to notice at the time, their taste was much blander than bread made by hand or with the older, slower mixers. The increase in gluten strength obtained using this new mixer before the dough even left the mixing bowl was a persuasive consideration. Bakers liked how dough mixed for a long time on high speed could gain maturity quickly-in as little as 30 minutes. Bakery owners embraced the prospect of making two or three times as much bread in about the same amount of production time as before.