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Bread History - Bread Science

The ancient Egyptians are credited with developing the first leavened bread (made of yeast to rise) around 3000 BC. They discovered that mixing flour and water together and leaving it to sit for several days would cause wild yeasts to start fermenting, resulting in a risen dough. In Roman times, finely milled flour of quality wheat would have been for the rich and bran like flour would have been used by a poorer society. 

Bread has been a staple food in many cultures throughout history. Its origins can be traced back to the Neolithic period, around 8000 BC, when people started to cultivate grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. These grains were ground into flour and mixed with water to create a basic form of bread.

The ancient Egyptians are credited with developing the first leavened bread (made of yeast to rise) around 3000 BC. They discovered that mixing flour and water together and leaving it to sit for several days would cause wild yeasts to start fermenting, resulting in a risen dough. The Egyptians also used sourdough as a leavening agent, which is a natural mixture of yeasts and bacteria found in flour and water.

Panis Candidus Roman Bread

During the Roman Empire, bread was a staple food for both the wealthy and the poor. The Romans developed new baking techniques, such as using ovens and adding fats, oils and spices to their dough to make it more palatable. Panis quadratus which was the most common bread that we know of in Roman History from 2 AD as depicted on frescos and through archaeological finds in Pompeii. These were round-shaped "wheel loaves". Not everyone could have the same bread. Black bread was considered for the poor and panis candidus was considered for the rich. Panis Candidus meant candid bread which was a luxury. Certain spices and herbs would have been most likely considered a luxury. Finely milled flour of quality wheat would have been for the rich and bran like flour would have been used by a poorer society. Thyme, Basil, Bay Leaf, Rosemary and Caraway would have been spices that the Romans would have used during baking.

In medieval Europe, bread was a crucial part of the daily diet. It was typically made from rye, barley, or oats, as wheat was a more expensive grain. Bakers were highly respected members of society and were often regulated by guilds to ensure the quality of their bread. Each village or town guilds would determine the price of a loaf. Guilds were associations of artisanal craftsmen or merchants that had considerable power.  

During the Industrial Revolution, bread production became more efficient with the development of steam-powered mills and baking machines. Bread also became more affordable and accessible to the masses. In the 20th century, the invention of sliced bread and the use of preservatives allowed for bread to have a longer shelf life and be more convenient for consumers. Otto Rohwedder an American invented the machine to slice bread in 1912 but a factory fired killed his first protype so it wasn’t until 1928 that sliced bread came into fruition. A full 16 years later.  

Bread making involves a number of scientific principles, from the chemistry of yeast fermentation to the physics of baking. However, there are many bread types where yeast is not needed such as our Buckwheat and Chia Bread or our Buckwheat Banana Bread. 

Here are a few ways in which bread making involves science:

Yeast fermentation:

The process of making bread involves the growth and activity of yeast, which consumes the sugars in the dough and produces carbon dioxide gas. This gas causes the dough to rise, creating a light and airy texture in the finished bread. Understanding the conditions that yeast requires to thrive, such as the right temperature, moisture, and pH levels, is key to successful bread making. Having spoken with many people who have perfected the art of baking bread, we would say that in many instances it needs to be an attitude of practice, tenacity and most importantly discipline.

Gluten formation:

Gluten is a protein found in wheat flour that provides structure and elasticity to the dough. When flour is mixed with water, the gluten proteins begin to form long, elastic strands. Kneading the dough helps to strengthen and align these strands, which is important for creating the desired texture in the finished bread.

Enzymatic reactions:

Enzymes present in the flour and yeast play a role in breaking down complex carbohydrates and proteins into simpler compounds, which can affect the flavour and texture of the bread.

Oven heat:

Get to know your oven. This sounds silly but it is critical. Ovens will often differ from each other. Cold spots, hot spots and putting things on the right shelf. Don’t leave trays you don’t use in the oven that are not in use as these will take the heat away and it is not energy efficient. When bread is baked, the heat of the oven causes the carbon dioxide gas produced by the yeast to expand, creating small air pockets in the bread. The heat also causes chemical reactions to occur in the dough, such as the Maillard reaction (Named after the French Chemist, Louis Camille Milliard), which gives bread its characteristic crust and browned colour.

Bread making is an excellent example of how science can be applied to everyday life and how a basic understanding of scientific principles can lead to better results in the kitchen.

Yeast is a type of microscopic fungus that is widely used in food and beverage production, especially in bread making and beer brewing. Yeast cells are single-celled organisms that are capable of converting sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide through a process called fermentation.

In bread making, yeast is used as a leavening agent, which means that it helps the dough to rise and creates a light and airy texture in the finished bread. Yeast consumes the sugars in the dough and produces carbon dioxide gas, which gets trapped in the gluten network of the dough and causes it to expand. This process is called yeast fermentation.

There are many different strains of yeast, but the most commonly used in bread making is Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This strain is known for its ability to tolerate high sugar concentrations and to produce a consistent and reliable fermentation.

Yeast is available in several forms, including fresh yeast, which is a soft, moist block of yeast cells; active dry yeast, which is a dehydrated form of yeast that needs to be rehydrated before use; and instant yeast, which is a more finely ground form of active dry yeast that can be added directly to the dry ingredients in a recipe without needing to be rehydrated first. Typically, you can buy fresh yeast in a good delicatessen or a European super market or your local Polish shop. Dry yeast in packets can be found in most good supermarkets.

It's important to note that culturing yeast can be a complex process that requires some knowledge and experience. It's recommended to follow a detailed protocol or seek guidance from a knowledgeable source to ensure successful results.

N.B. Should you buy fresh yeast you can carry on cultivating it. However, if you put yeast in a glass jar, you must allow CO2 gas to escape because of a gas build up as a result of the fermentation.

Yeast will go dormant if you do not feed it. As long as you feed it, it will keep growing for months or even years. You can keep it in a refrigerator indefinitely.

To culture yeast for bread making, you can follow these 5 steps:

  • It is recommended to start with a small amount of commercial (shop bought) yeast, such as active dry yeast or instant yeast. This will provide a consistent and reliable source of yeast for your bread making.
  • In a small bowl, mix together a small amount of flour and water with the yeast. The ratio of flour to water should be about 1:1, and the amount of yeast used will depend on the desired quantity of bread.
  • Cover the bowl with a clean towel or plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature for several hours or overnight. This allows the yeast to grow and multiply in the mixture. N.B. Instead of the plastic wrap, use those free hotel shower caps, It's what they were invented for. 
  • After the mixture has sat for a period of time, you can refresh the culture by discarding some of the mixture and adding fresh flour and water. This helps to keep the yeast culture healthy and active.
  • Over time, the yeast culture will become stronger and more active. You can continue to refresh the culture by discarding some of the mixture and feeding with fresh flour and water, and use the yeast culture to make bread as needed.

It's important to note that culturing yeast for bread making may take several attempts to create a strong and healthy culture. Commercial yeast (supermarket bought yeast) is a reliable and convenient option for most home bakers, and culturing yeast may not be necessary unless you are interested in experimenting with different strains or creating a unique flavour profile.

Traditional yeast itself is both vegan and gluten-free, as it does not contain any animal products or gluten.

Some people with gluten intolerance or celiac disease may be sensitive to yeast and should avoid consuming it. In these cases, it's best to consult with a healthcare provider to determine if yeast is safe for you to consume.

Examples of global bread traditions:

Sourdough Bread - Originated in Ancient Egypt, sourdough bread is made from a fermented mixture of flour and water, and is known for its tangy flavour and chewy texture. Globally, it is a very popular bread having had a renaissance through the 2020 pandemic.

Naan - A staple of Indian cuisine, is a flatbread that is typically cooked in a tandoor oven. It is made with flour, water, and yeast, and can be flavoured with a variety of ingredients, such as garlic, onion, or coriander.

Baguette – Translated as stick in French originates in France, is made from wheat flour, water, yeast, and salt. It is typically eaten as a sandwich or with butter, cheese, or jam.

Pita - A flatbread that is popular in the Middle East and Mediterranean, is made with flour, water, yeast, and salt. It is typically filled with baba ganoush, hummus, or other savoury ingredients.

Brioche - A sweet, rich bread that originates from France. Brioche is made with flour, eggs, butter, and sugar. It is often eaten for breakfast, and can be flavoured with raisins, chocolate, or other ingredients.

Focaccia - A flatbread that originated in Italy, focaccia is made with flour, water, yeast, salt, and olive oil. It is typically seasoned with herbs and topped with ingredients such as tomatoes, olives, or onions.

Roti - A type of flatbread that is popular in South Asia and the Caribbean, roti is made from flour, water, and salt. It is typically served with curries or other spicy dishes.

Injera - A sourdough flatbread that is popular in Ethiopia and Eritrea, injera is made with teff flour and water. It has a spongy texture and is typically served with stews and other savoury dishes.

Challah - A braided bread that is popular in Jewish cuisine, challah is made with flour, water, eggs, and sugar. It is typically eaten on Shabbat and other holidays.

Bread with spices is a flavourful and aromatic twist on traditional bread recipes. Depending on your taste preferences, there are many different spices that can be added to bread dough to give it a unique and delicious flavour. 

There are various types of spices you can use in bread.   

Our 13th century mixed herb Baqā, French Quatre Épices, Catalan Sofrito, Roman Vegetō, and Bahārāt Gulf of Arabia all have a history that lends themselves to bread, both sweet and savoury. 

European Spice Mix

Quatre Épices is a warm full bodied sweet spice often used in sweet breads like Swedish rolls, banana bread or raisin bread.

Baqā is a woody, herbaceous spice with garlicky undertones often used in savoury breads such as focaccia and ciabatta. The garlic undertones add a savoury, umami flavour to bread.

Bahārāt Gulf of Arabia could be used in traditional Middle Eastern breads like pita, or breads such as Swedish Rye Bread, or chai spice bread because of its blend of smoky and earthy notes with sweet floral undertones. 

Vegetō would suit Irish soda bread (white) and general Italian white breads. Because we use celery salt (low sodium) in this blend it may disrupt the science when baking a tried and tested recipe. The celery salt in this blend is very unlikely to over salt the bread as it is very minimal, but still worth considering.   

Sofrito would suit breads that use buckwheat flours because of the earthy flavours where the thyme, nutmeg and garlic alchemy cuts through the heavy earthiness of the flour. Pumpernickel or Rye flour would also lend itself to Sofrito. Austrian Rye or European pumpernickel bread which are typically very dense and earthy would pair very well with this blend. 

When adding spices to bread, it's important to use them in moderation, as too much can overpower the flavour of the bread. So much so that when we made the Buckwheat and Chia Bread we had added 2 tea spoons in the beginning but actually it seemed too over powering. Following the recipe and reducing the recipe by 1/2 a teaspoon was just right. Like anything it is all subjective. Always start with a small amount of your chosen spice and adjust to taste as needed. Additionally, it's important to use fresh, high-quality spices for the best flavour. Discover a whole new world of bread baking with our "Spices of the World". The perfect collection of ancient and heritage spice mixes for home baking innovation. A gift to yourself or that keen baker in your life.