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The Death and Rebirth of Good Bread

Updated: Feb 23

A happy home baker.

The famous French Cordon Bleu Baker Thomas Teffri-Chamberland opened his ‘Sourdough Baking Treatise’ (2021 English pub.), with the words:

“…it is clear that baking expertise is declining in most Countries and that many traditional breads and bread baking techniques are disappearing as our societies become homogenised.”

 

The Rise of Bread.

To understand what is being lost we need to understand what good bread is. Caveat, “Put two bakers in a room to discuss a bread topic and they will argue for the whole day.” In that light good bread is what we each like best to put on our tables. This article is not a romanticised vision. Historically bread has been truly dreadful by modern tastes. I sometimes wonder how it became such a core cultural icon.


From ancient times bakers were restricted by the grain with which they had to bake. If the gluten was poor because of a cloudy wet summer, hard luck, that is what they baked with for the coming year. There were no clever millers blending the grain with imports from across the continents.


Different climates favour different grains. In Ethiopia it’s teff, the Fertile crescent the Caucasus and the central European Steppe, favoured many different varieties of wheat, Durum, Faro, Khorasan, Spelt, Einkorn and more. Rye grain became established in Northern Europe with it’s cold damp climate where it was difficult to grow wheat.


The story of how rye grain reached Northern Europe is an odd one. In ancient times a Black Sea shipping merchant wanted to ship wheat to be used for seed by farmers, but that day none was to be had. So, he bought Rye, an animal feed, When it was landed, on the Western shores of the Black Sea, the farmers baked with it, then planted it. They loved it. Little by little it moved north and west from there. Local bakers adapted their methods to each grain and an expertise grew up for getting the best out of each of them. Similarly, firepits developed into ovens and that knowledge, which might have first developed in Greece, moved south into Egypt and Northeast up into Persia where baking flourished and whose bakers conserved precious wood by developing it into the Tanoor, or Tandoor oven. The Romans caried the oven concept with them North and West into Northern Europe taking with them the idea of the large wood fired oven, the small clay ovens called Cob ovens and the small portable Clibanus (or Testrum), which the soldiers carried to make bread on the march. Portable ceramic versions of the Cob oven were eventually taken to North America by the first English settlers and they are still brought out at re-enactments at Fort Lauderdale to this day.


A modern cob oven. Originally the y were made of straw mixed with clay.


The Clibanus is nothing other than the covered clay domes we now place in our ovens, but which used to be placed in the embers of a wood fire with more embers heaped on top.


A reproduction Roman Clibanus or Testrum the top is sitting on a round pottery base. All very familiar to modern home bakers.

 

Grains, bread and bread technology, have been on a constant migration, accompanying people on their travels down through the ages and on across continents. A more recent example was a diaspora of Russians migrating south on foot who came across a hardy wheat in the mountains south of Russia. They bought some for seed and kept heading south. When they finally arrived in North America they planted it on the plains where it thrived. It became the key ancestor of modern American Red Wheat. And a Scottish farmer who migrated to America with club wheat seed from his wheat breeding friend. That became another key wheat variety in the modern American Red Wheat mix.


Finally, to the bakers and their leavens. There are still books around which talk about how some Egyptian must have added wine must to the unleavened dough and discovered leavened bread. Now, a much more obvious view is being taken by archaeologists, that some dough was left out in the warm and began to ferment.  The ‘discovery’ probably occurred in many places and many times. Just as grapes have grape yeasts on their skins in the fields, so too grains have grain yeasts on them. These yeasts have self selected as the ones most suited to fermenting that grain in that environment. When we make a sourdough starter, more often called a natural leaven in Europe, we are fermenting the yeasts which were on the grain in the field. A natural leaven quickly becomes populated with Lactic Acid Bacteria too. These two microorganisms must have been symbiotic partners for millennia as their chemistry dovetails so perfectly in bread making.


Before we get too carried away with the ancients and their natural leavens making gorgeous bread on Spring mornings we must also recognise the Brewer of Beers. For well over two thousand years Northern European Bakers were using the yeast sediment left over from beer brewing to make yeasted breads. The arguments over yeast versus natural leaven have raged for quite a few millennia. “Och, that wee besom, she’ll be baking her fancy bread with her fancy new fangled beer yeast this morning I expect.” Said Martha, as she left her wattle and daub hut to fetch water from the river. Some 1000 B.C.E, or more?


And, the millers tale. Without going into milling in very great detail, for the tale is long. Wherever grain went the miller went too. Though often, at first, the miller was a servant in a lordly house, or a family member in a cottage, or farm.  In ancient times the saddle quern was used from Egypt to the Middle East and Northern Europe


A Saddle Mill. A tapered rolling pin like stone was pushed back and forth to grind the grain. It was laborious work and the flour produced must have been coarse.


Horizontal stones were then developed. One stone on the ground which was stationary whilst the top stone had a handle which enabled the miller to rotate it whilst feeding grain in through a hole in the middle. The Roman military carried these wherever they went. The technology caught on and it was the household white goods mill of choice for millennia. The stones became larger and further developments included powering them with horses, donkeys or cattle, the water mill and the wind mill soon followed. Though the small hand mills persisted too.


And, here was the first blow to home baking in England and Scotland. Wind and Watermills were the high tech. thing in the medieval period. The Great Houses and the Monasteries built them at great cost. The thing was that everyone had a mill at home and they didn’t want to pay a fee for using the Lord's, or the Monastery's Mill. In England the Church prevailed on the King to make home milling illegal. Soldiers were sent from house to house to break up the mills. In Scotland the Thirlage law was introduced. Every citizen was Thirled to a mill. They had to pay their share of it’s upkeep. In both Scotland and England people then had to pay the Monastery or Lord to have their grain ground in the mill.  Though still some milled at home, out of sight in isolated places.


In the 19th Century roller mills were developed. These ran fast and hot. They have to be cooled or the flour is damaged. Unlike the big slow horizontal grain mills which rubbed the fatty wheat germ into the flour that same germ would gum up the roller mills. We now have roller mills with seven pairs of rollers. At each stage different parts of the grain are separated off. First the wheat is run over different sized grills. Some let the wheat fall through, but not large objects like mice and stones. Then another where the small wild seeds can fall through, but not the wheat. Blowers remove dust and then the wheat falls past magnets which pull out any bits of iron or steel. Next the chaff is removed and it too is separated by side blowers. As the grain progresses through ever tighter rollers and each component is separated off. The bran, the germ, the highly nutritious middelings (or mill feed) and so on, were separated off in their turn. For the first time white flour was affordable for the masses. The bran and nutritious middelings were sold off separately for animal feed and other things. The miller got to sell his grain twice. If a whole grain (whole meal) flour was required all or part of the bran, germ and middelings would be added back to the white flour.

  


The seeds of Bread’s Fall

Like all good plots there is a villain, or unseen circumstances that lead to a calamity. With modern bread it is the calamity version.


Yeast

In the mid 19th Century Louis Pasteur discovered yeast and it wasn’t long before Fresh, or Cake Yeast, was being produced. It was more active than beer barm and natural leavens. Instead of the slow fermented dough, with its brewed in flavours, fast bread was now on the table.

 

The United States had been through the ‘Baking Powder Wars’. The story is fit for a T.V. drama of big powerful houses fighting dirtily to establish themselves as the one baking powder king in North America. Two family companies came to dominate the market and both spent huge sums on advertising saying how baking powder made superior bread to that of yeast. And, how easy it was to make bread with baking powder.

Despite the fact that the bread was markedly inferior to yeast risen bread and despite the fact that the high gluten content of American flour made it the worst possible choice, people became convinced. The use of yeast in homes fell to very low levels. To this day it is only America and to a lesser degree the U.K. and Ireland where we see people still promoting baking powder for bread making. The Farl and the Bannock, the Scofa bread and the Soda Bread, the English Pikelets and Crumpets, were all born out of 19th Century ‘modern baking powder baking’. This was the first big blow to quality bread. American and U.K. home bread making recovered as yeast became more developed and the fashion petered out. France, Germany, Italy and the Scandinavian countries seemed not even to notice.


When the United States was preparing to enter the Second World War there was an extraordinary amount of very sensible planning with the government commissioning various industries to develop particular things that were needed. The government decided that their soldiers should be able to bake fresh bread in the field. Fresh yeast had a short life span and needed to be refrigerated. Fleischman developed the first dried yeast and they won the contract.


 This is a 2lb tin of yeast of the kind sent to the front.


This easy to use bread yeast was now available to the Home Baker.  Later Instant Dry Yeast was developed. Instant Yeast had a much higher yeast viability than active yeast and it could be stored for up to three years. All of this time the microbiologists were busy at their work developing super yeast strains that produced more CO2 more quickly, to rise the bread faster and more reliably.


The Wheat

In the last seventy years there has been an explosion of bread making research and knowledge on all fronts. In the 1960’s we had the Green Revolution, as it has become called. Governments realised that the world population was fast outstripping the amount of wheat being grown. New varieties of wheat were bred which were shallow rooted and which gave much bigger crops if they received nitrates from petrochemical fertiliser. The old varieties were deep rooted and could not tolerate nitrate fertiliser. The problem was that the breeders were focussing on crop yield as their priority, not flavour. The new varieties of wheat now have much poorer flavour than the heirloom varieties.

 

The Technologists, “One ring to rule them all.”

Some of these historical changes lowered the final bread quality, some of them improved it. Bakers and home bakers adapted.


The U.K. had a difficult time with bread in the Second World War. Wheat supplies from Europe were not available. Britain did grow wheat, but the quality was poor for bread and the quantity was insufficient. Wheat had to be shipped from Canada which was difficult given the U-Boat blockade. After the war the British Government funded a large bread baking research program. The goal was to find better ways to make good quality bread, cheaply and at high volume. The contract went to the Chorleywood Research Institute in Chorleywood in the South East of England. They developed the Chorleywood baking process which shot around the world like a brush fire. Essentially, they found ways to greatly increase the amount of water in bread, which made it a lot cheaper. They used full gluten development in high speed mixers which destroys flavour, but which allows bulk fermentation to be skipped and the proofing time was reduced to ‘very little’. They did all of this using large amounts of ‘Functional Ingredients’ a.k.a chemical additives and by using very heavy doses of fast acting yeast. The process has developed and grown and these days a bread can go from flour and into the wrapper in about two hours. This inflated gummy bread like product was cheap. Unable to compete small bakeries shut down enmasse in the years after the industrial scale bakeries became established. At the same time many small mills, losing their customers, shut down too. This pattern repeated itself across the developed world.


Fast yeast, fast milling, cheap nitrate fed high yield grain all came together to produce the modern industrial bread world. Some countries, notably Italy, France, Germany and a few others, had very strong ‘good bread' cultures and they were a little less severely affected. Though hard pressed to compete some small bakers managed to continue. Even so the quality of the French Baguette fell as bakers tried to compete with Industrial Bread on price.

 

The re-birth of good bread. “The Empire Strikes Back”

There was this American called Chad Baker. He had a bit of a thing about bread and it was the 60’s when people were wandering off and doing their own thing. He wandered off to France and got a job at a Boulangerie Paysan. A peasant bakery. This term is one of great pride in France. These were the old artisan bakeries who baked bread to a high standard. To be called a Boulangère Paysan required training and the use of the name is strictly controlled. There are a lot of You Tube videos of these bakers baking. They are well worth watching and the bakers tell wonderful stories of their love of bread, how they strive to bake the best bread they can and many even grow their own wheat to ensure a supply of the best varieties for their baking. Search on You Tube for ‘Boulanger Paysan.’


Chad learned his craft by going on to a second French Bakery before returning to California. Meanwhile another Californian Bakery had set up making good quality slow fermented French Bread as well. The flame was lit. Slow Bread was coming back into fashion. It was baked, written about talked about and most of all enjoyed. Chad’s signature loaf was of course the Tartine, which is ubiquitous on You Tube replete with his bread signature the single score off centre and the ‘ear’ which is not so common in French bread. The way a bread is scored is sometimes like a signature. Bakers would all score their breads differently. Signature scoring first started in Europe where people took their bread to the communal bread oven to be baked. The signature scoring enabled everyone to identify their loaf as they came out of the oven.


This American quality bread revolution travelled far and wide to other countries. People again started to embrace slow bread and natural leavens. Cold fermentation was further developed in France and that spread too. Each country had its own take and each reapplied the methods in ways which matched their bread traditions. Then people started saying, but what about the wheat? Soon heirloom flours and forgotten grains began to flourish as well.


Artisan bakers began popping up everywhere. Bakers were taking pride in their bread again. This tidal wave lifted home baking too. People began to buy more bread books. They learned good bread baking practice, soon they were again putting good bread back on the table in their homes.

 

Industrial Bakers Fight Back

Industrial bakers watched all of this and saw that a new market niche had developed. Commercial bread baking is ferociously competitive. It is not unusual for Supermarkets sell bread at cost to bring customers into the store.


It wasn’t long before the Industrial bakers were producing poor quality breads which were labelled sourdough. Because of the aggressive pricing in industrial baking, they were wedded to the Chorleywood process. Some were even caught adding vinegar to their usual mock French breads and labelling it Sourdough Bread. Millions of dollars were spent on research across the globe as to how to make sourdough bread quickly without using sourdough leavens. The research papers rolled off the press. Nothing worked. Sourdough leaven was slow and it was not precise enough in it’s fermentation to use in the high speed, computer controlled, production process. It was a Functional Bread Ingredient manufacturer who found the answer. They produced a sourdough, carefully inoculated with specific yeasts and Lactic Acid Bacteria sourced from those who produce such things on an industrial scale. This was fermented with flour under tightly controlled conditions, it was then sterilised (killed) and finally it was freeze dried. All the bakeries had to do was add a measured quantity of this powder to their production lines of French Type Bread. Though it gives some natural leaven flavour the industrial bread is still not fermented and this method is merely a flavour added to their bread.

 

The Artisan Bakers War - A hero switches sides

Artisan Bakeries had to cut their prices and their overheads to compete. They were already using mixers and most had abandoned their wood fired ovens for deck ovens with injected steam. Deck ovens bake well and they take a lot of beating. Many of them switched to instant yeast, at least for some of their breads, to cut time and costs. They still tried to use slower fermentation and where they could some used cold proofing to extend that. There was a trend toward adopting shaping machines to save on staffing. Increasingly breads were made using the direct baking method with moderate or full gluten development being done in mixers to cut bulk fermentation down to 15 minutes to speed things along. The transition is uneven and today traditional methods are used only by a minority of artisan bakeries.

Successful Artisan bakeries had begun to form Chains in the U.S. using more machinery which enabled them to keep costs down and to standardise their products more.


For me a dreadful day was watching Chad Robertson, the man who had lit the flame and carried the torch for good bread, give an apologia of a speech to a major commercial bread conference. He chose his words carefully as he spoke. He was clearly deeply uncomfortable about what he was saying. He said how Artisan Bakers needed to be less precious and they should use more modern methods if they were to thrive in the bread market. He was setting up his baking chain at the time. I have seen some pictures of part of one. It was a production line which seemed not to require many bakers at all. His speech can be found on You Tube. He can tell you his point of view himself.

 

 

Home bakers – Holding the line

Few of us have access to a good Artisan Bakery and as described above not all Artisan Bakeries are actually that much to shout about.


Home bakers are the last sector who reliably put good bread on their tables. They have more baking choices than the biggest supermarket bread isle and most Bread Shops.

 

What is good bread and what are the problems we face as home bakers?

The bottom line is that good bread is the bread we and our families like to eat. For me that means that whatever else it is not loaded with chemicals and that it is slow fermented to build up the flavours.


Some home bakers will choose to bake with yeast and others natural leaven, some will bake with both. We home bakers are each comfortable at very different skill levels too. Not everyone wants to learn to be a full on home bread baker. Many are happy to just use a bread machine and occasionally to use the ‘dough only’ program to shape a Bâtard, or baguette. Others will want to take it further.


I think all home bakers would benefit if we had a developed core body of knowledge and good practice to inform our collective home baking world. This would form a foundation for those who write and those who teach as well. The planet is full of books and videos where the author doesn’t really know how to bake so very well, or what principles inform baking. You Tube is rife with wannabe bakers learning the basics as they teach and then trying to re-invent the wheel. All of this misleads the hapless beginner as they try to learn.


Developing a core body of knowledge might seem an odd thing to say. After all there is so much knowledge out there already.  What is happening is that people are carrying over commercial methods over to home baking. For example, the ‘bulk effect’. At about 20kg of dough or more the microbes start producing a lot of heat. The dough can ferment far too quickly, or even get so hot it kills itself. So now we have endless bakers telling us how to correct the dough water using the Dough Water Flour Temperature sums. Yes, this works, but I only have to get my one or two kilos of dough roughly at a decent temperature. Such a small mass will quickly adjust to the ambient temperature anyway. Mixers too produce heat, but I am not going to run my mixer for 20 minutes at a time to get moderate dough development, because it also destroys the bread flavour. I’m not on a production schedule and so I will let time develop the gluten to a large degree. So, I do not need to use chilled water in my mixer, or calculate the temperature rise of the dough per minute.


There are so many examples of baking practices being carried over from commercial baking inappropriately. 


Natural Leaven management is another imported idea. Commercial bakeries bake every day. So they feed their leavens everyday. When this idea was re-imported into home baking the solution was to discard some leaven and then feed it, everyday, as if we had used it to bake. After some fifty years home bakers realised that they could just keep it in the fridge in between bakes. So many bread baking Gurus still haven't caught on to this.

A core body of knowledge is required to underpin good home baking. It is the foundation from which we can try new things which are well founded and not just shots in the dark.

 

Of Home Baker's Heroes and Villains.

Our problem is the vast variety of bread baking methods being thrown at us from books and from You Tube most of all. Many of these ‘bad’ methods come from the author just not knowing how to bake, or the principles of baking. Here is a list of my you Tube Bread Characters, the good and the bad:


1           The Home baker who too often has little or no grasp of good bread baking methods. They might triple the amount of yeast needed making a bread that stales quickly, or throw in excessive vegetable oil making the crumb tight. Quite a number might not know how to knead at all, or just do it very badly, giving them a poor loaf. Often they don’t realise the importance of good gluten development which is central to every bread. Tip: watch their hands. Someone who can bake uses quick short well practiced movements when handling dough.


I watch their hands and then skip forward to see the resulting bread before watching a video. If they don’t cut the bread open and show the crumb at the end I have to wonder why. For all of that some home baker videos are exceptionally good.

 

2           The Chef Some chefs know what they are doing others much less so. Chefs usually do one basic bread baking module during their training. It is usually direct baking and it is usually very out of date. Bread baking has moved on a long way in the last twenty years. They will mostly produce an adequate bread, but so often they don’t really understand fermentation, how to manage it and how to get the best from it.  I have watched many learn about good home baking over a span of a year or so as their channel develops. Meanwhile they have done a disservice to many viewers as they deliver their fault ridden videos with great confidence and authority.

Charlie Chain Baker is an exception. He is well informed (and gifted) and his experiments are good demonstrations of the principles he is demonstrating.

 

3         The Artisan Home Baker  This is a very mixed group some turn out superb loaves and know how to bake very well. Again, many less so. The latter, sadly, mainly only bake a lot of  Tartine Loaves, Ciabatta and the like. A good one will explain the why of what they are doing. Quite a number have learned from You Tube and recycle too much mis-information and unnecessarily complex methods. They can make bread baking much more complicated than it is. This recycling of poor information is a sin many of the other characters in this list do too. I know of one You Tube baker who does experiments but his explanations are very mis-construed because he has not done enough basic reading on the science he is trying to present. Like many he is getting better over time. And, no I am not referring to Charlie Chainbaker who has one of the few You Tube Bread Channels I watch regularly.


4         The Professional Baker These are again a mixed bunch. Most professional bakers are exactly that. They went to bread baking college and learned to bake commercial bread. Rarely will they have learned that much of the science which informs good baking and its methodology.  Most have been taught production baking with machinery. Surprisingly baking in the home is a very different fish. We often bake long slow fermented breads, something they often seem to know little about. We rarely do full or medium gluten development in the mixer at the beginning. As soon as I see such a baker running his mixer for more than a couple of minutes I change channel. You cannot produce a good bread with those methods. Again, many learn as they go along with their You Tube Channel. These bakers seem to do a slow transition to home baking over a year or two. Some don’t complete that transition.


5         The Professional Presenter These are sometimes very famous people one of whom I have come across runs an internationally successful baking show with contestants. But, he cannot bake bread! I’ve read his book and despite him having a show with cutting edge modern patisserie his bread baking method was from the 1970’s and many of the recipes had major mistakes in the quantities. He also did a couple of You Tube videos which were embarrassing. Most of what he said was garbage. An example was, “ferment your dough at 20C 68F.” His handling of the dough was inept as well. He may have baked bread at one time, but his career is as an entertainer and a publicist, not baking. Watch out for bread baking videos set in a studio. Few bread bakers are famous enough to have such resources.


6         The Professional Home Baking Instructor There are not many of these and we all know their names, Peter Reinhart, The Tartine crowd, Richard Bertinet. Dan Lepard, the King Arthur Crowd, Teffri-Chamberland (Ecole Internationale de boulangerie) and so on. They have mostly taught home baking for many years. Usually they are professionally trained bakers too and know their bread biochemistry and what works well in the home baking environment.


7         Working Artisan Bakers My favourite source of these is You Tube. French Paysan Boulangers, German small bakery people, Italian Artisan bakers and so on. There is a huge amount to be learned from them even when the video is just filming them bake. However, this group also contains people like the Iranian Small Bakery folk who invariably use a mixer excessively, pour in massive amounts of instant yeast and turn out their breads fast and furious will little fermentation. I single out this group only because I have watched dozens of videos from Iran. I fell into writing to an Iranian film maker who films these bakeries. She told me that there is still good quality baking taking place in out of the way places in Iran. But these town bakers have to get large amount of bread out at a fixed low price. Iran, or Persia, has an exceptionally long tradition of baking high quality bread. A few thousand years of it. It was Persians who brough leavened bread and the tandoor to Pakistan and India along with Naan bread. Later in the late 19th Century it was again Persians who set up the first sandwich bread bakeries in India.


The home baker is beset with a jungle of inputs and we have to find the good ones. The big names are mostly trustworthy. There are no more than a a handful of English language You Tube channels I trust. One of the best being Charlie Chain Baker. Too many of them need to keep inventing things to keep their channels fresh and these ideas take on their own life as other You Tubers often copy each other. Falling oven temperatures seems to be in vogue at the moment. Baking by dough acidity has just gone out of fashion. That one cost me weeks of study before I realised the claimed science was bunkum.

 

The Home Baker’s pilgrim’s progress.

 The beginner   There are a number of solutions for the new home baker. Pick a sound baker and learn what you need from them. Possibly buy a good home baking bread book from one of the major author's listed above. Stick to the big names. Do a weekend baking course. Be wary of twee converted farm outhouses or converted homestead courses. They are sometimes more about the weekend experience than the instructor being a good baker. 

 

The more advanced baker: You will probably developed your own style and have quite a few regular bakes which turn out excellent loaves. That might be all you ever need. For those who want to go forward my recommendation is to read just a little on the technical side. When I began to do this my baking began to change. I found better ways of doing things and picked up on things I did which were lowering the quality of the bread I baked.  Knowing why we do this or that also means we are armed with the knowledge to see when someone is showing us something which is simply bad method.

 

The more I bake the more I find that the old ways are the best. After all, baking has been around for a few thousand years and people learned what works well. That might sound odd, but think. They had no mixers. They were using slow beer yeast, or natural leavens so their fermentation times were long. And, for all of the buzz about the bread baking revolution, we are merely going back to the old ways, but with a lot more knowledge.



Baking at Home, Iran


So what is this Death and Rebirth of Good Bread?

Professional Bakers are increasingly becoming highly specialised machine managers. They have biochemists on call and scientists in the mills balancing their flours to perfection. For many their knowledge base need not be so very large.  Artisan bakers, on the other hand, quite often start out with just a partial training in a ‘Sourdough School’. Those courses can be terribly brief. Even the Cordon Bleu Bakery School gives a professional Artisan Bread Bakers Diploma from a course of three terms at 6 hours a week. Total 180 hours training. I’m sure it is a sound course, but it is so very brief for a professional training with little or no real bakery time. And, without placements in a Bakery their training will only be a starter.


Home bread baking and some artisan bakers are rapidly becoming the final bastions of good bread baking knowledge and skill.

 

Wear your bread baker’s apron proudly. We are keeping the craft of bread baking alive.


And remember, of good bakers, you shall know them by their hands, for baking is first and foremost, a craft.

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