Bread - the Staff of Life

Bread in a Bakery WindowCredit: Rachel Ham
Credit: Rachel Ham

Prehistoric times

The beginning of bread - flatbread

Artifacts at Marea (I)Credit: Rachel Ham

Ancient Egyptian millstone Photo Credit: isawnyu, on Flickr

Bread started out as porridge - cooked grain pastes. Prehistoric peoples were grinding grain; a millstone thought to be 7,500 years old has been discovered.[5398] Two important discoveries led the way to bread (not to mention noodles and pastries). The first was turning those simple pastes into flatbreads by cooking on a hot stone. The second was natural fermentation of the grain paste by wild yeast spores.[5390]

Flatbreads were common in the Stone Age. They were cooked directly in the fire, on a stone near the fire, or on a stone that had ben in the fire.[5390] At some stage in the Neolithic era people had learned that if, instead of using ordinary grain, they used grain that had been sprouted and then dried, it made a bread that kept unusually well.[5397] Many of these traditional flatbreads still grace our tables, e.g., Indian chapati, Greek pita, Mexican tortilla, and Ethiopian injera. All types of grains were used - maize, millet, wheat, rye, barley, oat - whatever was available. 

Many historians believe that the discovery of leavening was by making bread with beer instead of water, causing the dough to rise and resulted in bread that was much lighter and palatable.[5397] Others think natural yeast spores found their way into some of the grain pastes, lightening them and inadvertently causing the first leavened breads.[5390]

Egypt and the Fertile Crescent

Yeast production and the first ovens

bronze age bread oven
Credit: Rachel Ham

Bronze Age Oven Photo credit: hans s on Flickr

What we know about foods of Biblical times, including Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, come from Ancient Egyptian tomb drawings, literature, such as poems and religious writings, and archaeological evidence .[5397] A typical meal of Biblical times probably consisted of flat bread, olives, wine, honey, and a small bit of fish. Unleavened flat bread was commonplace and portable.[5412]

We do know that the Egyptians were the first poeple to consistently use leavening in bread. Archaeological remains from 4000 BCE in Egypt include mummified loaves of leavened bread.[5390] By 300 BCE, yeast production was a specific profession.[5390]

In addition to leavening, the Egyptians were the first to manufacture portable ovens. The clay ovens were either beehive or barrel shaped and were divided by a horizontal shelf. Dried wood and animal dung were burned in the lower section. The easily accesible upper section was for baking.[5397] Early Jews used a similarly shaped oven that was made of hollowed out stone. Pieces of dough were thrown onto the sides of the stone oven.  The dough adhered to the side of the oven until it had baked enough to loose its stickiness and fall to the bottomof the oven.[5397]  

Grinding also became easier with the development of stones that could rotate continuously around 800 BCE in Mesopotamia. This continuous milling made it possible to use water, wind, and animal power to grind grains into very fine flours for use in bread baking.[5390]

Ancient Greece and Rome

Bread takes center stage

Barley flatbreads were the norm in Greece. Plato (400 BCE) encouraged the ideal man to eat wholemeal barley bread.[5413] Athenians enjoyed 66 kinds of bread and cakes.[5413] Baked goods were flavored with honey, anise, sesame, and fruit and made into a variety of shapes. The idea that white bread is a sign of purity and status comes from the Greeks. Archestratus, author of Gastronomica, an encyclopedia of ancient Mediterranean eating habits, praised the white, soft barley loaves from the isle of Lesbos.[5390] Interestingly, barley was also the favored bread of the Aryans in the Indus Valley on the other side of the world.[5397]

Romans, on the other hand, valued wheat bread. For example, Pliny, in Natural History, Volume IV, gives a detailed description of the types of grains used in making bread. He speaks favorably of the wheat varieties grown in the Middle East. [5397] Large amounts of bread wheat were imported from northern Africa and other parts of the far flung empire.[5390]

Bread Making in Caput Liberum Credit: Rachel Ham

Photo credit: Tuscanycious on Flickr

Bread was the central feature of life in Ancient Rome.[5390]Ientaculum, breakfast, was eaten just after sunrise and consisted of a little bread and fruit. Prandium, the midday meal, was a modest meal of cold meats or fish, fruit, vegetables, and bread. Cena, dinner, was an hours-long meal with many courses and, naturally, included bread.[5389] Bread was often used as an ingredient in recipes, much like today. Apicius has recipes for pork with bread stuffing, bread salad, and sweet toast, a simple dish resembling French toast.[5389]

Many kitchens had an oven, furnus.[5397] Like the Egyptian ovens from centuries early, a Roman oven was a square or beehive shape made of brick or stone. It had a flat floor made of a heat-resistant stone such as granite. A fire of dry twigs was lit and allowed to die out. The glowing embers were swept aside and at such a high heat, the oven could be used to bake thin breads, like pizzas. Once the oven had cooled a little, large round loaves or meat dishes were put in to bake for an hour. Since the oven was still hot, cakes and pastries were the last to be baked.[5397]

In 168 BCE, the first bakers' guild (Collegium Pistorum) was formed, and baking quickly became a privileged profession. They were the only craftsmen who were freemen of Rome. Slaves conducted the other trades of the city. However, bakers and their children had to stay in the guild and were not allowed change trades.[5398]

Middle Ages and Renaissance

Bakers as specialists

During the Middle Ages, guilds continued to be important for bakers, as well as all other craftsmen.[5390] Baking was a valued profession[5397]; to become a baker, a young man had to serve a seven year long apprenticeship. Bakers liked to keep the "how to" of baking to themselves. The law supported bakers in this secret knowledge, with penalties for unlicensed baking.[5398]  The phrase and practice of "a baker's dozen" also originated from these laws. Because some loaves were lighter than others, bread legally had to be sold by weight. Adding an extra baked good to a standard dozen helped ensure customers were not being shortchanged.[5397]

Medieval bakers made two kinds of daily bread: table bread and trenchers.[5400] Flat bread was used as a "trencher", a dry, dense serving plate. After a meal, trenchers were either given to the poor or thrown away. Table bread, known as pain de mayne, was round and expected to be eaten plain at every meal, even if bread was an ingredient in other dishes. Medieval people ate bread no matter their class or location; bread was truly the staff of life.[5400]

Different grains were baked into bread, although wheat was the most coveted. In northern Europe, rye, barley, and oats were were made into dense loaves.[5390] The RigsPula, a 1oth century poem that describes daily life in Scandanavia, mentions the heavy coarse flatbread made from oats and barley, as well as the white bread of the nobleman.[5397] White bread made from wheat flour was a sign of high social status during the Middle Ages. A pure white leavened bread, sometimes referred to as cake, was considered the best. Physicians insisted on its curative properties, even though the whiter the loaf the lower its nutritional value.[5400]

Several baked goods got their start during this time period. Pastry became popular, particularly as a wrapper for meat pies.[5390] Adding stale bread to soup (think French onion soup) comes from the Medieval practice of serving soup in sops, pieces of stale bread. Brioche was first mentioned in print during the Medieval times. "Pokerounce" was the medieval counterpart of today's cinnamon toast..[5397] Biscuits became popular, especially in England. [5399] Puff pastry and choux pastry were perfected in the Renaissance.[5390]

The main difference between Medieval and Renaissance breadmaking is the regulation of it; the most widespread regulation was the "Assize of Bread". In 1266, this English law attempted to standardize prices and weights of bread. Bakers made a common bread known as a penny loaf. However, the loaf could vary in weight, and thus price, depending on the type of flour used: the white loaf came from fine white flour, "wheaten" from coarser grains and weighed half as much, "household" loaves weighed twice that of white loaves. When grain was in short supply, authorities could "take over" bakers and force them to sell at below-market rates. Bakers were prohibited from raising prices even with more costly ingredients.[5399]


Age of Discovery and Colonization

New ingredients make their way into bread

The Age of Discovery brought spices and new techniques to breadmaking. Cinnamon was introduced to Europe by the returning Crusaders and quickly became the spice of choice for the wealthy. Marco Polo (13th century) is credited for bringing large-scale spice trade to Europe. Spices became so popular, and profitable, they were one of the main reasons for worldwide exploration. Many explorers, including Columbus, were looking for a faster shipping route to spice producing countries in Asia.[5397]

18th Century Bake Oven at Wilderness RoadCredit: Rachel Ham

Colonial Oven Demonstration Photo credit:vastateparksstaff on Flickr

In early America, food was far more plentiful and varied. Except during very early settlement, food shortages were virtually unknown. Almost all colonists (95%) lived in agricultural communities, and food was plentiful. There was plenty of meat, including pigs, chickens, rabbits, and game, and a large variety of vegetables. Consequently, bread was less important than it had been in Europe. [5400]

The composition of bread changed in the American colonies, too. Maize, i.e., corn, was ground into flour and added to breads. Cornmeal by itself, however, made griddle-cooked johnny cakes, rather than a raised loaf. [5400] In early New England, wheat was not available. Bread was made with rye and cornmeal, also known as Indian[5397]. When wheat was eventually imported from England, the colonists adapted and made "thirded bread", made of rye, cornmeal, and wheat. 

Recipes for making bread at home appeared in cookbooks for the emerging middle class. English and American cookbooks published in the 18th century have dozens of recipes for breads, cakes, and cookies.[5390] Baking in a Dutch oven on the hearth was part and parcel of everyday colonial life.

Industrial Revolution

Decline of domestic baking

The Industrial Revolution changed breadmaking in three ways: commercial bakers rose in prominence, equipment for milling and baking improved, and leavening agents became more standardized.

In England, as the population moved to crowded urban centers, communal ovens stopped being used. Commercial bakers took over an increasingly larger share of bread making, sometimes adding unsavory ingredients such as alum, chalk, ground animal bones.[5390]

In 1834. the Swiss steel rollermill was invented. Stonegrinding crushes the grain, whereas rollermilling breaks open the wheat berry and allows easy separation of the germ and bran. In 1865 French-American Edmund LeCroix improved on the process with a middling purifier and fans to clean the wheat as it moved through the mill. The first all-roller flour mill in the US was unveiled at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Gradually, steel rollers replaced the old stone mills that had been powered by wind and water.[5401]  Another scientific advancement that changed breadbaking was the steam oven, which contributes to a good crusty outside and a soft interior. Baguettes, surprisingly, only date to the Industrial Revolution.[5397] 

Leavening changed drastically during this time. In Amelia Simmon's 1796 American Cookery, several recipes call for "pearlash", a version of potash. Pearlash was made by soaking ashes from the fireplace, draining off the liquid, then drying to concentrate whatever was dissolved in it. Pearlash is primarily potassium carbonate, an alkaline substance that reacts with acid ingredients to form carbon dioxide gas. It is the precursor to baking soda and baking powder.[5390] These chemical leaveners were immediately popular since it was possible to leaven instantly instead of waiting for the natural yeasts to grow. Irish soda bread originated at this time, when bicarbonate of soda was first used as a leavening agent.[5397] In the 1860s Charles and Maximillian Fleischmann, patented and sold standardized cakes of compressed yeast which had been manufactured in their factory in Cincinnati. Cookbook recipes were developed for commercial yeast that would leaven a dough in less than two hours. Bread changed in texture, becoming lighter and softer, while its flavor became more bland.[5397] Purified yeast for bread baking became widely available around the turn of the 20th century.[5390]

20th Century and Beyond

Decline and eventual revival of traditional breads

The industrialization of bread became the hallmark of 20th century breadmaking. Continuing innovation and technological change spurred a taste for blander, more processed, easily accessible foods. Additionally, as incomes rose in the early 20th century, bread consumption fell. People were able to afford more meat and more high-fat baked goods like pastries, and therefore bread became less important for the first time in human history.[5390]

slice of breadCredit: Rachel Ham

Sliced Bread Photo Credit: S. Diddy on Flickr

The early decades of the 20th century ushered in several important changes to bread making. First, American wheat flour was bleached to appear white and the wheat germ and other flecks of grain were removed to improve its appearance, but decrease its nutritive value.[5397] Secondly, more than 1900 mechanical aids to bread making were brought to market.[5390] Finally and most significantly, Otto Rohwedder's bread slicing machine was used by the Chillicothe Baking Company in Chillicothe, Missouri in 1928. Sales of the machine to other bakeries increased, and sliced and wrapped bread became available to consumers.By the mid1930s approximately 80% of bread sold in the US was pre-sliced and wrapped. It was so loved, the expression "the best thing since sliced bread" was coined.[5401]

By the mid-20th century manufacturers had devloped entire systems to replace development of the dough and hours of rising and gluten development by yeast. The breads have a soft, cakey interior, an uncrusty crust, and a bland flavor. They are specifically formulated to stay soft in plastic bags for a week or more.[5390]

Bread is made from a small amount of ingredients - flour, yeast, water, a pinch of salt, a small amount of fat.[5388] Looking at an industrial loaf of pre-sliced, pre-packaged bread makes it seems a much more complex affair. In 2008, Sara Lee's Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White contained a whopping 36 ingredients.[5408] Many of those ingredients are added to give the soft, cake-like, almost flavorless bread that many Americans have come to associate with bread.

Five Minutes a Day for Fresh-Baked BreadCredit: Rachel Ham

Fresh-baked Bread Photo credit: rayb777 on Flickr

Today, very little bread is made at home. Most of it is made in commercial bakeries - large central factories, not even small local bakeries. Traditional breadbaking, fortunately, has been on a comeback since the 1980s. Small bakers began to make bread with less refined grains and with long fermentation that build flavor.[5390]

We are returning to the old ways of making bread. Equipment has made it easier to bake good quality bread at home.[5388] Baking stones and clay baking domes mimic those Ancient Egyptian beehive, double-tiered ovens. Food processors and countertop grain mills allow the home baker to grind her own wheat and retain nutrients left behind with steel rollers. More powerful mixers and the bread machine make it easier to have home baked bread, even after a day of work.

Bread, the staff of life, is worth the effort to make a good loaf. If you are interested in trying your hand at bread making, Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Breads is an excellent resource with step by step instructions for more than 200 varieties of bread.