I am a baker. I make bread for family, for friends, for breakfast and for dinner.
Several days each week, I am
drawn into my kitchen to begin again a process that feels ancient as earth. There
are reasons for this. Bread is history— for people who find their roots in
Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa, there are also roots in bread making.
As I go through the process, mixing and kneading, rising and baking, leaning in
with my eyes closed to inhale that warm sweet yeasty smell, I imagine I can
feel those roots stretching down into the ground and back into time. Bread is
elemental— as a parent, when I have bread in the kitchen, I have food for my
children. Bread is human— as I make my loaves I feel how in bread, since before
we can remember, we people have found sustenance, holiness, magic. Bread is alive:
to be a bread baker is to understand this – the deep mystery of it, and also
the simple scientific truth.
Baguette or soda bread, challah or naan, pita or Wonderbread: you can get ersatz versions at any Whole Foods, but their origins are global and their homelands are devoted. Many countries and cultures might claim to have created this most basic food. Attempting to pin down the date when bread was actually invented is one of the best ways to glimpse the science behind making it. First, there came the invention of bread made out of crushed cereal grains mixed with water. This paste was baked in holes in the ground, which were dug next to fire pits. The hard lumps that came out of those holes were the first bread, and were being made 25,000 and maybe even 30,000 years ago. Finely ground grains – that is, flour – became more widely available as humans made the shift from foraging to farming: agriculture could supply grains on a much larger and more dependable scale. Unleavened bread made from these finer flours became a mainstay in Egypt and the Middle East about 5,000 years ago, as humans established permanent agricultural settlements and domesticated wheat and other cereal crops.
So how did we make the jump to leavened bread? Today, we can leaven bread with yeast, with chemical leavening agents like baking powder, even (when we have the right equipment) with steam. Primitive yeast leavening probably dates to prehistoric times. Dough that was left to sit out longer than usual would have developed a yeast culture and baked up into bread that was lighter and more digestible than other loaves. Figuring out the secrets of yeast, and using them in bread baking and beer brewing, was a process that took thousands of years. By around 50 A.D. yeast was widespread. Pliny the Elder reported to the Roman emperor that the Iberians used the dregs of their beer to produce “a lighter kind of bread than other people.” Archaeological evidence definitively dates the earliest yeast in both baking and brewing to around 4,000 years ago, in the kitchens of ancient Egypt. The Egyptian bakers (or perhaps brewers) discovered the secret of controlling and cultivating yeast, and the science of leavened bread began to emerge. Through learning to control the yeast, and manipulate it along with the flour and the baking temperature, the ancient Egyptians developed the bread making system that, fundamentally, we still use today.
Yeast, and its unrivaled ability to leaven dough, was almost undoubtedly an accidental discovery. It might seem impossibly farfetched, but many bakers still use this “accidental” (or what we call wild) yeast. To make a loaf of bread without commercial (or bakers) yeast, you begin with a starter: a colony of wild yeast that you develop over days or weeks. While today home bread bakers often rely on commercially packaged yeast, until the late 1800s all yeast used in bread baking was wild, gathered (with virtually no effort) out of thin air. Mix flour with water, leave it to sit, and yeast will find their way into it. Eventually, some such “starters” have a big enough yeast concentration that a single tablespoon can leaven multiple loaves of bread. It is easy to imagine how yeast would have found their way into the dough in those ancient Egyptian kitchens, as beer was being fermented nearby. My guess is that a curious (or tipsy) brewer/baker used beer instead of water in making their dough. (So-called beer bread is still a reliable shortcut when you don’t have time to let dough rise!)
However it happened, the Egyptians knew they were onto something with their yeast-leavened loaves. Bread, which had been a simple staple meant to preserve and store wheat, became prized and revered. Bread baking was elevated to an art form: archeological evidence shows that the Egyptians developed ovens to bake multiple loaves at once, experimented with different grains for their flours, learned how to add things like dried fruits and nuts to their loaves, and developed elaborate loaves shaped like fish, birds, and other animals. Miniature stone replicas of granaries and bakeries have been unearthed in pyramids, along with ancient grinding stones, baking chambers, and detailed paintings of the dead with bakeries, bakers, and vast stores of bread. In perhaps the ultimate show of reverence, beginning around 4,000 years ago mummies were entombed with loaves of leavened bread, to sustain them on their journey to the next world.
Eventually sailors and merchants brought the secrets of yeast from Egypt to the Greek isles, and after Roman conquest the secrets of bread making spread through the world. As yeasted bread travelled, it developed a spectacular mystique. The mummies had their bread for the afterlife, and soon the world had special Sabbath baking rituals, elaborate feast-day breads, breads of love and death and chance, even biblically sanctified loaves for Holy Communion. Bread became near synonymous with wellbeing, with sustenance, with life. While they could not see the science behind it, bakers could certainly see that something had happened, turning their dough into lofty, crisp-crusted, soft-crumbed loaves. Until 1857, when Louis Pasteur “discovered” yeast, its effect was experienced as nothing short of magical. And baking yeast-leavened bread is magical, in its way, even when you understand what is making the magic happen.
So what is making it happen? The science of bread making is pretty simple, actually – and while techniques and technology have made some advances since ancient Egypt, the fundamentals remain the same. Basic, or lean, dough is made with flour and water, yeast and salt. Kneading develops gluten to aid fermentation, and then the fermenting yeast makes the dough rise, after which the dough is baked. All yeast-leavened bread follows the same basic flour-yeast formula, so strictly that the so-called Baker’s Ratio (100 flour, 60 water, 3 yeast, 2 salt) is identical across cultures, languages, and continents. But how can flour, water, and yeast combine to make something so fundamentally different from each of its parts – and so fundamentally different, loaf to loaf? Are sticky-sweet cinnamon bread and crusty sourdough and crisp-light baguette and fluffy challah really all the same thing? Well, yes and no. To get all those options, you need sugar and spices and butter, bacteria-soured starter, a steamy-hot oven, yellow-yolked eggs. But fundamentally, you need flour and yeast – and four basic, time tested steps.
The first step in making bread is mixing and kneading. Flour and yeast work together to make all yeast-leavened breads, which require wheat gluten. (There are yeast-leavened, gluten-free and wheat-free loaves on the market these days – but they use additional leavening, such as chemical leavening from baking powder.) When we mix flour and water and yeast, we are creating gluten, the combination of two wheat proteins, gliadin and glutenin. Gluten is stretchy, forming long thread-like chains; we increase the gluten in our dough by kneading it. To see whether dough is mixed enough, you perform a windowpane test: stretch a small piece of dough gently between your fingers. When it can be stretched to translucency without tearing, you’ve established a good elastic gluten network.
Elasticity is important because it is what allows your dough to be leavened by yeast during step two, rising. Yeast ferments, meaning it feeds on starch, consumes oxygen (breathes), and releases CO2. (Note: if you let your yeast ferment without oxygen, it will release alcohol instead, and you will end up with beer.) The CO2 expands the gluten proteins; their elasticity is what allows the dough to rise as the gluten expands, developing a complex structure rather than just collapsing like a burst bubble. The tiny holes and airy texture of a good bread’s crumb are the direct result of leavening, which comes through elasticity and fermentation; rising creates the architecture of the final crumb, or inside, of the loaf.
A bread’s rise is the time that it takes the yeast to ferment and leaven the dough before baking – for most breads, in a first rise you want the dough to double in volume. The development of commercial yeast in the 1860s meant that home bakers could suddenly access instant, large colonies of yeast: more yeast in the dough meant quicker rise times. Nowadays, a typical first rise is between one and two hours; prior to commercial yeast most dough would rise for one or two days. The quicker rise time has led to lighter, softer breads, and blander flavored loaves. There has also been what many see as a detrimental health impact to this shortened rise time. Dough that rises over multiple days develops a beautiful gluten network (with its characteristically light and open crumb) but it also develops bacteria, lactobacilli. These bacteria work in symbiosis with the fermenting yeast, creating acetic acid, lactic acid, and ethanol. Lactic acid contributes to digestibility (while also contributing what we experience as the sour in sourdough) by breaking proteins down, while acetic acid acts as a preservative, lowering the bread’s pH and preventing mold growth. Historically, humans have eaten what we now call sourdough, or bread with beneficial acids developed in it. Today, true sourdough breads – those soured with bacteria rather than a manufactured “sour” dough additive – are rare, because they require a wild-yeast starter and a long rise, and depend on the acid-generating bacteria that develop only with time.
Shaping the loaf is the critical third step: you are taking the gluten architecture that has been built through the rise, and putting it into its final order. Whether you are making a long skinny roll of baguette, a perfectly round boule, a top-knotted egg-rich brioche, or a pinch-seamed loaf in a pan, aach shape impacts the gluten-formation process differently. The dough needs to be handled carefully so as not to break the protein chains that have developed during the rising. Once shaped, the dough is proofed, or allowed to do a final (generally about 1/2 to 2/3 increase, rather than a full doubling) rise.
Bread is alive until you cook it. Because of this, arguably the most important step in bread is baking - and the most important variable is temperature. Yeast must be warm to be active, but get them too warm and they will die. You must have warmth for the dough to rise, but if you are going for a long fermentation time you must keep your dough from getting too warm, so it does not ferment and rise too quickly. When it comes time to bake your bread, two things happen: first, when the dough hits the hot oven, the yeast burst into action, generating lots of gas bubbles that expand in the heat. But then at a certain moment (around 125 - 140 F) the heat will kill the yeast; when this happens, the starches and proteins solidify around the gas bubbles, and your crumb structure is formed. This solidification is the point of baking the dough, and it takes different amounts of time with different loaves. Common indicators are the sound of the loaf (a finished loaf sounds hollow when you thump it, as the sound bounces off a solidified crumb but sinks into a not-yet-set one) and temperature (most loaves are between 185 F and 210 F at the center when they are done – this depends on the relative thickness and moisture of any given loaf). Baking is what solidifies the bread’s crumb, but an appreciated side effect is the creation of the crisp outer crust.
Flour and water are all you need to get going on the four steps of bread baking. Perhaps, like me, you will make a basic loaf, and then find that you want to make another, and another, and another. Leaning in to the counter to knead, smelling the yeast-ladden steamy warmth of a fresh loaf, offering this most basic of human sustenance to those you love— there’s a reason it’s called the bread of life. There is a reason that, like the Egyptians and the Romans and the ancient Neolithic people, I am a bread baker.
“I find it always pleasant at the beginning of the day to proof the yeast, to plunge my hands into the dough, to bring it to life.” ~ James Beard
is an avid home cook. Her blog, inheritthespoon.com, considers food in the broader contexts of family, community, and social justice.