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Bring on the Bread!

Libi Astaire

A freshly baked loaf of bread has been one of life’s pleasures — and necessities — since time immemorial. Some would even say that bread is not only the staff of life, but it’s also the fuel that has powered the growth of many of the world’s civilizations.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

breadsIn ealy times most people were hunters or shepherds who lived a nomadic life. But once people discovered that those hard little kernels of grain that grew from the soil could be ground, mixed with water into a paste, and baked, a new industry was born: agriculture.

After people realized that cereal crops cultivated on a stationary plot of land could feed many more people than could a single clan of wandering hunters and gatherers, the first cities were born. Cities joined into nation states, which later turned into countries. But even though these countries developed different languages and cultural values, when it came to cuisine there was one thing that almost every culture shared: a love of bread.

The earliest breads were flat breads, such as pitas or tortillas, which could be baked quickly and thereby save precious fuel. When did people discover that yeast could be added to the dough to make bread rise? No one knows, although some food historians surmise that it happened when some overworked balabusta left her mixture of flour and water out in the hot sun for too long and the flour’s natural contaminants began to ferment before the loaves were baked.

Once people developed a taste for leavened bread, ingenious bakers figured out that if they took out a lump of fermented dough from a day’s batch, they could use it to jump-start the fermentation process the following day.

As important as the discovery of sourdough was, it paled in comparison to what happened in Ancient Egypt. Again, we don’t know who was responsible, but someone one day poured some ale, a fermented liquid, into the dough, either intentionally or by accident, and the first “high-rise” loaf of bread was born.

Although bakers didn’t understand how the fermentation process worked until Louis Pasteur discovered the secret in 1859 (fermentation causes the breakdown of the dough’s starches until carbon dioxide is produced, which in turn causes the flour’s gluten proteins to expand) that didn’t stop them from using yeast to concoct light and fluffy breads in a variety of shapes and sizes.

And colors. Interestingly enough, the debate over white bread versus brown can be traced as far back as the Greeks, who considered white bread made from wheat to be more refined and cultured than darker breads made from barley or rye, which were reserved for the poor. That prejudice continued until recently, when brown breads made from whole grains have finally been given the respect they deserve.


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