The basics about bread

January 3, 2020

My original plan for this column was to comment about the relative absence of bread baskets on restaurant tables. I changed my approach when I considered that many places don’t serve a traditional selection of rolls (like the artfully arranged one in the photo) but offer slices of artisanal loaves with specialty olive oil or compound butter.

Of course, once I was down that path, on our most recent visit to an upscale restaurant we were served a lovely basket of still-warm rolls with soft pats of rich butter. So much for theory. Instead I’ll tell you some of the fun facts that make up the history of our oldest and most important foods - bread.

According to historians, the earliest bread appeared in Egypt around 8000 BC.

Grains like corn, millet or wheat would have been dried and then crushed using a “quern.” This primitive milling device consisted of two flattened, circular stones. The upper stone was rotated to grind the grain on the stone below. The resulting “flour” would be mixed with liquid and baked on hot rocks. 

The earliest of these “loaves” would be relatively flat and coarse (closer in shape and texture to a corn tortilla), not soft and fluffy like the commercial white bread of our childhood. There were a few key ingredients and techniques that led to the evolution of bread into the forms we enjoy today. Most important of these is leavening.

Before the invention of baking powder and baking soda, we relied on wild yeast to make bread dough rise. The same organism essential to a delicious pint of beer is the key to bread. Yeast naturally floats around in the air, and the first leavened bread was probably the result of yeast falling into a bowl of gruel. As yeast consume the sugars in grain, they excrete carbon dioxide, which creates bubbles in the dough, resulting in lighter-textured bread.

The next important change in the production of bread was the ability to mill the grains to a finer consistency. This was followed by the practice of sifting out the bran and germ for softer, lighter flour. Eventually, commercial flour was bleached to become completely whitened, for impossibly airy, fluffy loaves.

Originally, families baked their own bread, often in a large communal oven shared by all the residents of a village or town. As more sophisticated hearths and fireplaces were constructed, they were designed to have a built-in nook that could be used specifically for baking bread. 

The final development that changed bread was the invention of a mechanized slicer in 1917. The practice of selling pre-sliced loaves of bread took another 10 years to become the standard, but persists today. And, at the same time as home appliances became more sophisticated, commercially produced bread gained in popularity.

If we look back at the stages in bread’s history, we can see a return to earlier practices. We no longer remove the bran and germ, but keep as much fiber as possible in the dough. We don’t bleach the flour; white bread has fallen out of favor, largely replaced by whole-grain and mixed-grain options. A handful of purists have turned away from the convenience of store-bought loaves, baking bread at home once again.

For those who would like to bake a loaf or dinner rolls, I’ve included recipes for three simple breads that require minimal kneading for success: rosemary focaccia, sesame bread sticks and dinner rolls to bake in a muffin tin. If you’d prefer to have someone else do the baking, be sure to visit Keith Irwin’s Old World Breads for an excellent loaf of whole-grain, rustic wheat bread or a perfect sourdough boule – you can even have them sliced.

Rosemary Focaccia

1 1/3 C warm water (about 110 F)
2 t honey
1 pkg active dry yeast
3 1/2 C flour
1/4 C olive oil
2 t salt
1 T olive oil
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
flaked sea salt

Combine water and honey in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Sprinkle the yeast over the water and stir quickly to mix. Allow to sit until the yeast is foamy, about 5 minutes. Turn on the mixer to low and gradually add flour, olive oil and salt. Increase speed to medium-low, and continue mixing the dough for 5 minutes. Remove dough from the mixing bowl and shape it into a ball. Coat the inside of a large bowl with olive oil. Place the dough ball in the bowl and turn so all sides are coated with olive oil. Cover with a damp towel and set in a warm location. Allow to rise util the dough is doubled in size, about 1 hour. Turn the dough onto a floured surface; roll it out into a rectangle about 1/2-inch thick. Place the dough on a baking sheet and cover with an oiled piece of plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise for about 20 minutes.  Preheat oven to 400 F.  Use your fingers to poke deep dents over the surface of the dough. Drizzle evenly with olive oil and sprinkle with rosemary leaves and sea salt. Bake until the dough is slightly golden and cooked through, about 20 minutes. Yield: 8 servings.

Sesame breadsticks

1 1/4 C flour
2 t sugar
1 1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
2/3 C whole milk
3 T melted butter
2 t sesame seeds

Preheat oven to 450 F. In a mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Gradually add milk and stir to form a soft dough. Turn onto a floured surface and knead gently 3 or 4 times. Roll into a 5-by-10-inch rectangle, about 1/2-inch thick. Cut the dough lengthwise into 12 pieces. Pour butter in a 13-by-9-inch baking pan. Arrange breadsticks in a single layer, turning them to coat with butter on all sides. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Yield: 12 breadsticks.

Dinner Rolls

1/4 C warm water (110-115 F)
1 pkg instant yeast
3/4 C sour cream
2 T sugar
2 T olive oil
1 t salt
1 egg
2 C flour
1 egg
1 t water 

Combine water and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add sour cream, sugar, oil, salt, 1 egg and 3/4 C flour. Beat 2 minutes at medium speed. Add remaining 1 1/4 C flour and mix until all the flour is incorporated, scraping down sides of the bowl. Cover and let rise in the same bowl until doubled. Coat the wells of a 12-cup muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray. Scoop the dough into the cups, filling halfway. Cover and let rise until doubled. Preheat oven to 350 F. degrees. Whisk together egg and water, and brush over rolls. Bake until lightly browned. about 25 minutes. Turn rolls out of the pan and cool on a wire rack. Yield: 12 rolls.

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