By Justin Chitpin
Flour. Water. Yeast. Bread in its simplest form is made of just three ingredients, yet it is a food eaten all over the world, from Asia to the Old World to the Americas. Whether you’re rich or poor, regardless of your nationality or beliefs, bread is universal.
As a species, we have been eating bread since the Neolithic Era, and archaeological evidence suggests the first records of leavened bread came from the Ancient Egyptians. The discovery of bread, a nutritious, filling, and cheap sustenance, allowed people to develop agriculture and transcend from their nomadic roots into a sedentary society. Settlers and their descendants could live in the same place growing cereals and crops, and, as generations went by, the communities people founded eventually grew into the cities we recognize today. Although I won’t go into the full details on the impact of the agricultural revolution, just remember that bread played a vital role in the development of civilization!
But bread gets a lot of flak these days for being too salty, too sugary, too processed, too low in nutrients, and too chock-filled with additives. Dempster’s white bread is gassy and sickly sweet while the marketed whole grain breads taste as dry as cardboard with globs of seeds that stick into your teeth. And if forced to choose between the two, we would probably choose the unhealthy (but arguably tastier) white bread over the healthy yet disgusting whole grain bread.What’s sad is that no matter which brand of bread we choose, we are not doing justice to both our body and soul. As a home baker and one who has worked at a bakery for almost two years, I find it concerning that industrial bread giants are forcing consumers to choose between two types of equally poor quality bread. Truly, bread is supposed to be a gift: a humble and wholesome food, a symbol of spirituality, and a wonderful transformation of science.
I encourage all of my friends to bake bread because it is an amazing, sacred journey through science and faith. The bread our forefathers baked was made with love, warmth, and devotion, and we sometimes catch a glimpse of this as we pass by bakeries minding our daily lives. The process of bread making is an age-old art, and I hope to demystify its supposed complexity enough for you to try baking your own lovely loaf, marrying what our industrial breads lack: flavour and nutrition.
I may be exaggerating slightly but a baker is the god of his creation. His role is to select the right ingredients to form the basis of every loaf he makes. Every type of wheat and cereal tastes different. Even small changes in ratios of flour to liquids create a radical change in texture (which bakers call the crumb of the bread). Regardless of which factors the baker subtly controls, such as time and temperature, the goal is to develop flavour.
For the most part, people love the taste of bread because it’s slightly sweet, and sweetness comes from sugars or broken down carbohydrates. Therefore, a good baker is able to draw the inherent sugars and flavours from the flour into the bread, and many of these flavours come from a baker’s predough. A predough is a starter dough made of flour and water (and sometimes yeast) which is added to the final dough mixture the next day. The natural enzymes present in the predough break down the starches in the dough into sugar. Gluten, a key protein that allows bread to rise properly, is also developed when flour mixes with water. There are also friendly bacteria as well as both natural (and maybe added) yeasts that work away at the predough producing alcohol, carbon dioxide, and acidic by-products such as acetic and lactic acid which all contribute towards the flavour of the final bread. Once this predough is mixed with the next day’s final dough, the resulting dough is kneaded a bit to add air into the dough, incorporate the two elements together, and further develop gluten.
Many people who try baking breads at home often struggle to determine how much kneading is required. A good way to test the strength and elasticity of your dough is to pinch off a small blob, roll it into a ball, and see if you can stretch it thin enough with your fingers so that when held up to a window or any source of light the dough becomes a shining, translucent membrane. The trick of this windowpane test is not to let the dough break while stretching it because that is a sign that you still need to do a little more kneading!
Just as the predough was left the day before to ferment, so too does the final dough mixture need to ferment to break down more starches, develop gluten, and give flavour to the dough. Fermenting also allows the yeast and good bacteria in the dough to multiply quickly causing the dough to rise and double or even triple in size. After the first fermentation, bread dough is usually divided into small quantities and pre-shaped into rolls or rounds and left covered on the counter to rest or bench. Benching helps relax and develop gluten which makes the dough easier to shape into your final product. We call this process panning after the pan, basket, or even terra cotta pot we usually rest the dough in. The dough now enters its proofing stage or final fermentation where we test whether the yeast and bacteria in our dough are fully alive. The dough is left again to rise in your kitchen until it is doubled in size and has a little bit of a wobble when you gently move it around.
You may be wondering why bakers bother pre-shaping and fermenting their breads multiple times, and the answer is that they don’t always have to. Like I said, the baker is the god of his own creation, and the purpose of the extra pre-shape and ferment is to create a tighter, denser crumb because the air bubbles in the first fermentation are crushed into smaller, more uniform ones in the extra pre-shaping process.
When bread enters the oven, four extraordinary transformations take place. The air in the bread expands because of the intense heat causing the dough to rise tremendously (called oven spring). But bread isn’t a soufflé as the gluten we worked so hard to develop coagulates creating the structure of our loaf. The starches also gelatinize which further supports the crumb of the bread and, last of all, the sugars in the crust of the dough caramelize giving that beautiful brown crust.
Bread is a transformative food because of all of these transformations. What enters in alive as dough comes out in the final stage as loaf of bread. And what is sacred about bread is its cycle from life to death. Raw ingredients, dead ingredients which once were alive are fused together with yeast to form life. That same life is being nurtured constantly throughout the bread-making process, fermenting to prove it is alive all under the watchful gaze of the baker. But all life must come to pass and when the dough reaches an internal temperature of around sixty degrees Celsius in the oven, the yeast die, and, in their sacrifice, give us humanity’s most essential food. From alive to dead, dead back to alive, and through the oven returning our most humble, beloved bread.
Biovette: Italian Bread Rolls (Makes 12)
500g/4 cups strong bread flour, or a mixture of whole wheat and white flour
2.5g/1¼ teaspoon instant yeast
250g/1 cup water
1½ teaspoon honey or sugar
30g/2 tablespoons butter or lard
2/½ tablespoons olive oil
10g/2½ teaspoon salt
1. Put all the ingredients in a big bowl and mix together
2. Tip out onto the counter and knead well for 20-30 minutes until the dough changes from a sticky ragged mess to a silky, stretchy parcel that passes the “windowpane test”. Please don’t be tempted to add more flour because the continuous kneading will help the dough absorb the water.
3. Pop the kneaded dough into a clean, greased bowl and cover well with plastic wrap. Allow to rest for 2 hours until doubled in size.
4. Divide the dough into 12 equal portions using a knife. Pretend each portion is a clock and gently pinch about 1cm of the edge of the dough and pull it up and out, stretching it as far as you can without breaking it. Don’t worry if you do, just try not to. Fold that pinched bit over the portion of dough and gently lay it down. Repeat this action all around the portion of the dough. Roll into a loose ball, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to bench for 10 minutes.
5. Repeat the stretch and fold technique mentioned in step 4. If you are adventurous, you could try shaping the dough into torpedoes or slender lemons.
6. Find the seam of the bread (the area where all the tucked edges converge to) and dust the seam with flour.
7. Place 12 portions on two greased or parchment paper lined baking sheets.
8 Cover with plastic wrap and allow to proof for 1 hour or until doubled in size.
9 Preheat the oven to 220°C (425°F or Gas 7). Do not use convection. For 15-20 minutes until they are deep-golden brown with no white spots showing on the top or sides. If your oven has heat spots, you may need to rotate each tray 180° and/or switch the positions of the trays halfway through the recommended time.