A kind of Magic
“you’re the flour, I’m the water
we met each other, we made love
we fought strong, we became one
we went to hell, we came back like that” –A.
I find bread very powerful. It transfers and accepts emotions more than any other food. Think, for instance, how you express and transfer your anger or enthusiasm into it during dough kneading and how depressed or elated you get depending on how good it will rise right after entering the oven. Being able to nourish whole nations throughout the ages and to stand on the base of many food pyramids, it has the power to be as simple as it is complex, going through a whole life cycle during preparation, before ending up sitting proudly baked on the table.
Amazingly, during this life journey, a plethora of physicochemical processes take place, transforming a simple mixture of powder-like material (flour) with water into a wet, coherent mass, that subsequently with the aid of heat, will obtain a crispy, hard crust and a soft, airy interior.
The protagonists on this journey are numerous bacterial and yeast cells that live and propagate in the wet mass, producing flavour molecules and air before dying because of the high heat during baking. Fortunately, before gasping their last breaths, they managed to leave back descendants to do the journey again and again.
Bread-making never gets boring. Even if it’s made from just flour and water, by changing relative amounts, preparation techniques and flour sources, you can end up with a wide selection of bread types, diverse in texture, shape and taste.
Taking into account all the above, I can undoubtedly think of bread as something magical!
When I was younger, I was thinking of flour as a single thing. Whenever I had to use it for cooking, I was getting what is known as “all-purpose flour”, simply meaning a flour type that can be used not only for bread but also for other preparations. But I had no idea whatsoever what its origins where and what classified it as all-purpose. Even nowadays, when you watch a cooking show on TV or read a recipe in a book, you will notice in most cases the cook/author listing the ingredients and referring to flour as just flour. But should he/she be more specific about it? I think yes. Not only because it might be important for the recipe, but mostly so people can become more aware about its diversity. At the end of the day flour is not a single thing but rather a whole world, comprising many different origins and types.
Flour comes from a grain, but grains are of many kinds. Bread is predominantly made of single or combinations of gluten-containing grains, namely wheat, rye and barley, at least as main components. To these, non-gluten grains can be also added, as well as other solid or liquid products, like butter, seeds, dried fruits, milk, oil etc. But also single grains are not quite single. Take wheat as an example, which prevails as a bread ingredient. It’s not a single grain, but rather an entire grain family that comprises several species like common wheat, durum, dinkel, emmer, einkorn etc. Obviously, each one of those species delivers a unique flavour and texture profile to the bread.
Moreover, the grain milling process is coupled with several sieving steps that result in the production of several types of flour originating from the same grain. Initial milling produces what is known as “whole grain flour”, a type of flour that contains all the parts and nutrients of the grain kernel. Subsequent sieving and milling processes gradually remove the hard components of the grain, namely the bran and germ and at the same time further reduce the size of the flour particles. Hence, several flours with varied nutrient composition and particle size can be obtained, starting from a single grain. However, there is not a universal nomenclature to classify those flours since every country uses different letters or numbers for them. This often causes confusion among people and they struggle to understand what all these strange names on flour packages really mean.
Bread is a fermented food. In the form we know it today, it was first made approximately 4000 B.C. in ancient Egypt, when someone just forgot a mixture of flour and water and let it lay around on a warm day. Inside this mixture wild microorganisms started flourishing by metabolizing the flour nutrients. That resulted in the establishment of a symbiotic culture of wild yeasts and bacteria, which today is known as the “mother dough (pasta madre)” or “sourdough” because of its acidic character.
People took that culture and found out that it can be used to leaven bread doughs and thus give rise to breads with noticeable volume rather than something flat that was the norm during those times. During the fermentation process, yeast cells produce carbon dioxide (simply air) that inflates the bread dough and what’s responsible for the soft and chewy texture of the baked product. At the same time bacteria produce acidic compounds that will contribute to the flavour, the long self life and the highly nutritious character of the bread.
But like with flour, the mother dough is not universally the same. Its microbial composition relies on the various species of wild yeast and bacteria that exist in the local environment where it’s being established, and different microorganisms, in different parts of the world, will certainly contribute to producing subtly different flavours.
Unfortunately, traditional bread making using sourdough fermentation has dramatically declined during the 20th century, the main reason being the introduction of single yeast fermentation. Particularly, a single yeast species (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), commonly known as baker’s yeast, started prevailing as a leavening agent in bread making. This is the same species (different strains) that is being used in alcoholic (beer, wine) fermentations. The reason that baker’s yeast gradually substituted sourdough cultures was its rather rapid fermentation speed. Simply speaking, baker’s yeast grows very fast in flour/water mixtures producing a lot of air, thus allowing dough to be leavened and bread to be made in a very short time. This particularly helped professional bakers produce breads more efficiently, reducing workload and increasing production.
Suddenly, bread, instead of being a homemade, artisan food, became an industrial product that lacked any use of bacteria in the fermentation process. That led breads to have inferior nourishing and organoleptic properties. It’s not surprising that back in poor and difficult times, when food was scarce, people could survive sometimes by eating mostly bread. I could additionally remember the bread that my grandmother used to bake. It was staying in good condition without going stale for couple of weeks, not like modern, mainstream breads that after couple of days can be used only as baseball bats.
It’s widely appreciated that the most important ingredient for good and real bread is Time. Just enough time for the sourdough 'animals' to break apart flour components and produce complex aromas, delivering appetising and easy to digest breads. During that time, the baker doesn’t have to do much..he just lets the bacteria and yeast to do the job for him.
In Greece we say that bread is the start and the end (το Α και το Ω). It always comes first and leaves last from the table. Therefore it has to be Real!!