A Guide to Bread and its Flour
Bread is one of the top three foods I wouldn’t be able to live without. A thin and caramelized crust with a soft, bubbly inside is everything I want in a good loaf. The simplest slice of a good quality bread smeared with butter or a stinky cheese is enough to satisfy my needs. I bake three loaves of bread every other week. We go through one loaf a week, and give one to our neighbor. But as a global population, we consume an astronomical amount of bread: around 125 million tons in 2011 alone!
Bread, in its simplest form, consists of 4-5 ingredients. Flour is mixed with water, salt, yeast, and an optional pinch of sugar to form dough. A dough is formed from the flour and water, and it is kneaded to develop the glutens. The yeast initiates fermentation, a slow process in which yeast cells consume the starches in the flour to create CO2, sugar, and alcohol. The CO2 gives the bread its bubbles, which are held inside by the glutens of the bread. The sugar and alcohol gives the bread a sweet and sour flavor and also aids in the browning of the crust.
For any current or aspiring home bakers, one of the vital ingredients that will always be found in the fridge is dry active yeast. However, this wasn’t always the case. Historically, all breads were made from starters that would be continuously used and regenerated for generations. The starter is a mix of flour and water that was left to ferment, making it the perfect medium for trapping wild yeasts in our environment. In the days before packaged yeast, this humble paste was the foundation for every household’s bread as it was their only way to leaven their bread. In fact, sourdough is still made with a starter. My personal starter is nearly 2 years old and is aptly named “Crumblina.” It is not uncommon for established local bakeries to have starters that are decades or even centuries old, as they were passed down from generation to generation.
Below is a guide to several basic breads categorized by flour and/or method. However, bread can also be differentiated by shape and culture. The French have many different kinds of breads which have the same dough but are shaped differently. French bread and most other European breads differ from breads from India, which are usually flat, and sometimes even unleavened. The guide below barely scratches the surface of how diverse and vibrant bread culture truly is.
Sourdough gets its name from it’s taste…sour! But in addition to sour, a good sourdough will also taste sweet, caramelized on the outside, and will have hints of the wheat (or combination of wheat) used in the flour. A sourdough will often times have “blisters” on the crust, as it is a testament to a well maintained starter with active yeast cultures. Out of all bread, sourdough is most definitely my favorite
White bread is made from wheat that has had nearly all of the brown husk and bran removed. Before the industrialization of wheat, white bread was also the most difficult and expensive of breads to make. Being reserved for the wealthy and the aristocracy, wheat needed to be manually hulled and ground to make as white a product as possible. It was believed that the digestive systems of the rich were too sophisticated for whole wheat bread. Ironically, the extreme intake of white bread and the lack of fiber from the husk and bran caused havoc, as their digestive systems eventually became…blocked.
Gross facts aside, white bread has a mellow flavor and a very smooth and soft crumb. But compared to the other varieties of bread, it pales in comparison both in flavor and in health benefits. In fact, the only variation of white bread I’ll willingly eat is sourdough, as the flavor of the starter and the fermentation makes it more exciting.
Unlike white bread, whole wheat is made from wheat which contains all of the brown husk and bran when it is ground into flour. Whole wheat usually has a light brown color to the crumb and contains more fiber and minerals than any bread made with white flour. Due to the added content, whole wheat tends to be more dense and more filling than white bread. Whole wheat boasts a strong nutty and almost herbaceous flavor.
Rye, Spelt, and other Ancient Grains
The darkest and most nutritious of the bunch, ancient grains offer a robust and dense loaf. Rye, for example, is one of the first domesticated forms of wheat. It tends to have a lower gluten content than conventional wheat, making a much more substantial loaf, and is popular in Scandinavian and Eastern European cultures in particular. The flavor of these grains can vary, but they all have a very nutty base favor with a slight bitterness at the end. Ancient grains have recently gone through a revival among artisan bakers. Prized for their flavor but disadvantageous in their low gluten content, they are usually mixed with regular bread flour in order to make the loaves fluffier and lighter.
- Bread dough is made of flour mixed with water, salt, yeast, and an optional pinch of sugar.
- The dough is kneaded to develop the glutens.
- The yeast initiates fermentation to give bread its structure, flavor and to help with developing its crust.
- A starter is a mix of flour and water that is left to ferment rather than using yeast.
- Sourdough is made from a well-maintained starter and is sour, sweet, and caramelized on the outside with hints of wheat in the flour.
- White bread is made from wheat with nearly all of the brown husk and bran removed and has a mellow flavor but little flavor or dietary fiber.
- Whole wheat is made from wheat containing all of the brown husk and bran, has a light brown color, and contains more fiber and minerals than any bread made with white flour.
- Rye, Spelt and ancient grains have less gluten and bake into dense loaves with a nutty base flavor and bitter finish.