Back to Bread-baking Basics

With thousands of recipes, and as many ingredient combinations, the choice in modern breads can be overwhelming. When looking for something simple to bake, I realized that my favorite recipe book has seven recipes for basic white breads. My kitchen is often overwhelmingly crowded with supplies – especially the bread pantry. I wanted to take things back to their roots today, and decided to do a little digging into the history of bread.

According to History.com, humans were baking bread as early as 30,000 years ago. No wonder we have so many options today! We started making breads by mixing grains and water into a gruel then cooking the mix. Breads like injira, naan, tortillas, and pita numbered among the first that man made. Their recipes remain relatively unchanged – after all, if it tastes great, why change it?
In ancient Egypt, bread and beer were dietary staples. Man can’t live on bread alone, but paired with a little beer, ancient Egyptians came close! They added spices and fruits to their diet – and maybe even their breads – but kept things simple overall. Ancient Egyptians did make one major contribution to bread-baking, however. No one really knows when the first leavened bread appeared or how; maybe an Egyptian baker spilled beer on a batch of dough and a happy accident made modern breads possible – although most historians think that the opposite is true. Making leavened bread may have involved immersing the dough in a liquid that later became beer. What we do know is that they were using yeast as early as 3500-4000BC, and added leavening on a commercial scale in roughly 300BC.

About 500 years before the Egyptians added leavening, the ancient Mesopotamians were smashing their grain into a refined flour that made a smoother, easier to digest bread. The refining process improved quickly, but even in medieval Europe, the idea of milling bread with the help of animal labor was still in active use.

In ancient times, small ovens called tinnurs, furnus, and forax were used to bake bread. They were nothing like today’s ovens – often they were outside of the home, made of clay, lava, or stone, and fueled by fires made from twigs and cut wood.
In medieval times, bread making was still an inexact science. The loaves that were produced often varied in weight or size. In England, public frustration over varying bread size and weight, as well as the popular suspicion that bakers were intentionally short-weighting their breads, led to tight regulations on the weight of breads, muffins, and cakes. In order to reassure customers that they were getting their money’s worth, some bakers would add an extra item to their customers’ orders, free of charge. This may have inspired the phrase “a baker’s dozen,” which is still used today to mean 13 items – one more than a dozen.
Ever wonder why the phrase “the best thing since sliced bread” is so common? Sliced-bread is a new invention. In 1917, a jeweler invented the mechanized bread slicer. In 1928, it was added to factories, and within 2 years, 90% of store-bought bread was pre-sliced.

If you’re interested in trying a very early bread, make a loaf of whole grain pita with home ground flour, not refined. Pita is probably the oldest bread still in production, and is very simple to make. The home ground whole grain flour mimics the flour used in ancient times. For extra authenticity, try using a grill-safe pizza stone on an outdoor grill fueled by charcoal when you bake the bread. Feel free to share your results with me. I’d love to share your stories.

Happy baking!

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