Why I Never Buy Bread from the Supermarket
When I was young, "bagged sliced white" was the bread I ate most. Soft, pliable, and with a long shelf life, it was the most convenient bread for two parents working full time with three fairly hyper children. When I was young, I enjoyed this kind of bread. Whether it was slathered with some butter and honey for breakfast or embracing a layer of peanut butter and jelly, it was on my plate at least 3-4 times a week. But as I grew older and my tastes changed, walking through the bread aisle made me queasy.
After walking through multiple times to determine the cause of my bread-induced nausea, I noticed a distinct and pungent odor. It was one that was overwhelmingly sour, but not the kind of smell one would observe from smelling a sourdough starter or an apple past its prime. It was a kind of manufactured, artificial sourness that was so pungent it was almost bitter, and it was enough to drive me out of the bread section at a breakneck speed.
Bread in its most fundamental form consists of flour, water, yeast, salt, and maybe a little sugar. If one were to smell a loaf from a good quality baker, one would notice a mellow aroma with a hint of sweetness from the fermentation and a distinct caramel scent created from the Maillard reaction on the crust created by the heat of the oven.
Compared to the sliced bagged bread at the supermarket, the difference is striking. It first smells overwhelmingly sour, perhaps even acrid. And looking at the 20-30 ingredients on the back, it is easy to see why. Take the sourness, for example. Many bread companies, in order to bake bread at maximum efficiency, opt for quick leavened recipes which lack the flavor of natural fermentation. To compensate, ascorbic and/or citric acids are often added to give the bread an artificial fermented flavor and smell. These ingredients, coupled with 10s of other preservatives to keep the loaves soft for months, has effectively kept me and my family away from this sort of bread for years. It perplexes me when I see the kinds of ingredients that are being added even to foods as simple as bread. Bread should be treated as a wholesome, substantial food — not as a chemistry experiment.
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One of the biggest controversies in food justice is whether these additives are safe to eat. As I am uneducated in the numerous and ongoing studies revolving around food safety, I cannot declare with integrity that one loaf is ‘healthier’ than the other. However the biggest reason why I no longer eat this bread is because it simply doesn’t taste good.
Finding Good Bread
If you are interested in making the switch from "sliced bagged white" to a more wholesome option but are unsure of where to start, here are a couple suggestions to help you on your way.
If you feel you are too busy to bake your own, you can easily research local artisanal bakers serving your community. Talk to your bakers, ask them how the bread is made, what kind of flour they use, and where the baker was trained. Most bakeries offer a variety of breads and pastries that aren’t possible to duplicate in a home oven, which will help diversify your diet and perhaps allow you to discover new kinds of bread you never dreamed of. In addition, purchasing bread from local bakers helps to support small businesses and the surrounding economy.
Photo via Visual Hunt
If access to local bakeries is limited, there are always guidelines to ensure you are purchasing the highest quality of bread in the supermarket. The most important step is to look at the nutrition labels, in particular, the ingredients list. Some ingredients to look for and to avoid can be found here. If your local supermarket has a bread baked in-house, you can be sure that bread purchased from that section will be fresher and tastier than bread found in the bread aisle. Sometimes supermarkets also have deals with local bakers who will provide the market with bread every morning. These loaves are usually in either paper bags or perforated plastic bags, as sealed plastic bags will trap the humidity of the loaf and make the bread crust soggy.
If you are looking for a hands-on approach and have some time to spare, you can also bake your own bread. This way you know exactly what goes in your bread and how it gets made. Start small with something like dinner rolls and work your way towards more advanced varieties. You can even start culturing and maintaining your own sourdough starter. Should you stick with it, you’ll be baking baguettes and munching on croissants like crazy. You’ll also find your cold and distant neighbors may become more friendly as they simply can’t resist the smell of fresh baked bread wafting from your home.
If you require visual guidance, there are multiple books written by skilled artisanal bakers that are easy to follow with highly detailed pictures and/or video. "Crust" and "Dough" by Richard Bertinet of the Bertinet Kitchen, and "My Bread" by Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery and Street and Co. are two notable examples.