The historical significance of bread is remarkable; in its many forms, it is and has been the most widely consumed food in the world. From linguistic expression [the best thing since sliced bread] to historical faux pas [“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”], the staple food remains highly regarded and prominent in our culture and diets.

The Ingredients

Flour is made from many different grains, but flour used for making bread is most commonly made from wheat. Wheat is a crop that flourishes in temperate climates. It is planted with seeds in warm, wet soil that then germinates (grows roots) in 5- 10 days. Throughout the development process, the seed goes through seedling growth, tillering, stem elongation, stem extension, and heading and flowering. Tillering means growing a lateral shoot (a tiller) from the base of the stem. For winter wheat, this whole process takes about 7 to 8 months. For spring wheat, this can take as few as 4 months. After flowering, the wheat is ready to be harvested.

The top of the wheat plants, the flower and head, are cut off. The grain is then removed from the chaff (the unused plant material). This process is called threshing. The grain is then inspected for any foreign material and correct moisture content, and then delivered to mills, where it is stored, almost ready to go through the milling process.

Before the milling process, the grain is cleaned thoroughly. This involves a lot of different processes. The kernels of the grain are scoured, all the grain goes through a magnetic separator to make sure no iron particles get through, a vibrating drum separator to remove any material too big or too small, the grain is vacuumed for dust and de-stoned, the kernels’ outer husks are scoured off, and any compromised kernels are removed.

The wheat grain is made up of a bran, germ, and an endosperm. The bran is the outer skin of the grain, the germ is the inner embryo which can sprout into a new plant. The endosperm is tissue matter that provides the germ energy and nutrition if it becomes fertilized. The bran and germ are rich in vitamins and minerals. The endosperm houses some vitamins, but mostly consists of carbohydrates and protein.

The grain is moisturized to toughen the bran and mellow the inner endosperm. This makes it much easier to separate the parts of the kernel. The grain is then milled using repeated grinding and sifting machines. For white flour, only the endosperm is used. For making whole wheat flour, all parts of the grain are used, but often in different proportions then they appear in the unprocessed grain. This grinded and milled grain is now called flour.

Sometimes this flour is bleached, which means that it is exposed to chlorine gas (or benzoyl peroxide) to whiten flour color. This does not compromise any vitamins from the product, and is purely cosmetic. The flour is usually enriched, at this stage, which means adding iron, vitamins, and sometimes malt. The flour is tested for any microbial growth, and sent out for use afterwards.

Baker’s yeast is a common term used for the strains of yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) used in baking bread. Yeast are naturally occurring single-celled fungi, which can be extracted from potatoes, grapes, and many other foods. They convert carbohydrates to carbon dioxide and alcohol by fermentation. The carbon dioxide is what makes the bread rise. Baker’s yeast are usually made up of strains of yeast that are best known for their carbon dioxide output and flavor. This is in juxtaposition to brewer’s yeast, which is chosen for its proficiency in producing alcohol.

Water should be analyzed to make sure it is fit for human consumption. If the water is compromised, it should be processed and treated to remove any harmful minerals and suspended solids and bacteria.

Salt is naturally occurring, and usually is processed to remove any other minerals that co-occur and is enriched with iodine.

The solar evaporation method involves capturing salt water and evaporating off the water. The remaining salt is put in a saturated brine solution and pure salt precipitates out. Any impurities are discarded before harvesting. Salt is also mined and harvested from rocks, and sifted and separated from foreign objects. Alternatively, wells are drilled into salt deposits and water pumped into those wells. The resultant brine solution is brought up and the water is evaporated off.

Sugar is processed from sugarcane plants. The sugarcane is crushed, and the fibers are removed from the juice. The juice is then thickened by boiling off the water in evaporators. The consequential syrup is now cooled and crystallizes, and is put into a centrifuge to get the remaining liquid out. The resulting dry sugar crystals are then washed and filtered (known as clarification), decolorized, and sifted to remove minerals and impurities.

For a basic bread, these ingredients (the sugar being optional) are mixed (in varying proportions) to form dough. This is done by first mixing the flour and the water and letting that mixture sit. This encourages gluten formation from enzymes present in the flour, and allows the proteins and starches to hydrate. The salt and yeast then are added to the dough, and the dough is kneaded until it is uniform. This helps the gluten (which is a mixture of proteins that exhibits both viscous and elastic properties) turn into an interweaved elastic network, which forms the basis for the bread shape and structure.

Alternatively, many people buy a starter, which is a mixture of flour and water which already contains a colony of yeast and bacteria.

The dough is then ‘proofed’, which means the yeast inside the dough is allowed to ferment with the sugar present in the flour before the dough is baked.

Inside the oven, the yeast speed up their fermentation until they are killed off from the heat. The carbon dioxide that has been produced from all of the fermentation helps the loaf rise and expand. Starch in the dough breaks down to simple sugars and caramelizes, and Maillard reactions occur.

The Maillard reaction usually happens in cooking when the temperature is above around 300°F, and protein and sugars are present. The protein breaks down into amino acids, which then react with simple sugars. The reacting amino acids and sugars form chemical polymers which reflect light that makes the bread look brown. These reactions also produce many volatile flavor and aromatic compounds.

The many types of bread leave room for variation and poetic license: flatbread is unleavened [there is no yeast used], while pita bread is slightly leavened. The French baguette, Indian roti, and Ethiopian injera are all testaments to how characteristic bread can be to a culture. To overstate bread’s importance is inconceivable.

The aroma of freshly baked bread diffuses through the room and into the hearts [via the nose] of the onlookers. It’s a legal high: euphoria and serenity rise through my soul and infiltrate my consciousness. Enticed, I bite into a slice with the slightest hesitation, almost not ready to end the journey this has turned into.

The taste lingers.

December 6, 2016