Bread. There is perhaps no single more appropriate symbol for humanity. Since the advent of agriculture, grain-based breads have been produced by almost every culture on earth, on every inhabited continent on earth, in one form or another. The word “companion” even has its root in the latin for bread. It has wormed its way into language, place names, religious symbolism, and social ritual. Bread is one of the most uniquely human foods in our traditional diet.
Yet this food has lately become demonized, by the low-carb, paleo, anti-agricultural food fadists of the day and by the specter of gluten intolerance that looms increasingly over the popular food landscape. Some have gone so far as to say that the agricultural revolution was the worst thing that happened to mankind.
I reject the notion that breads in and of themselves are unhealthy.
Some nations with remarkably low rates of cardiovascular disease eat bread and grains in one form or another as part of their traditional diet, including the French and the Japanese. I would propose that both the quantity and the quality of the bread in question is the more important issue.
I eat bread rarely, and when I do, I bake it at home.
Sure, it’s a lot more work than going to the grocery store and grabbing a bag of pre-sliced sandwich bread off the shelf, but I’ll tell you… I spent six weeks once watching a bag of grocery store bread sit on my counter, just checking it out every day, and it didn’t mold within those six weeks.
Some people might see this as a convenience. I find it utterly bizarre.
Since that time, I’ve considered buying bread at the store for packed lunch sandwiches, and I look at the bread on the shelves in their plastic bags, and I remember the bag of bread on my counter, sitting there, not molding, and I just can’t bring myself to do it. Your food should rot. If it doesn’t rot, you probably shouldn’t be eating it.
So while I’m not much of a baker, I do bake bread, sometimes in large quantities. It’s one of my favorite things to do when I’m feeling blue or cranky. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it… I started at basic white sandwich breads, and progressed to french and whole wheat breads, even trying out spelt flour and graham flour. I’ve made pita, focaccia, pizza dough, cinnamon rolls, and even croissants (the croissants were amazing and I’m never eating those store bought again, but it is a three-day process to do it right so it’s an occasional thing). When I was living in Singapore, I learned to make naan and roti, and it’s not as good as what you can get there on the street, but it’s far bette
r than anything you can find here, if you can even find roti in the stores. I can make tortillas, and english muffins (one of my favorites), and I spent several years researching and experimenting with buttermilk biscuits until I had them just the way that I wanted them. I can make a decent french loaf without a recipe now, just judging what the dough needs by feel. I don’t have a lot of money, so baking my own bread is cheaper; but it’s more than that. It produces a bread of much higher quality, not just in terms of health (though I suspect that is the case,) but also in terms of texture and flavor. The things that they add to grocery store bread to improve flavor and texture are actually just making up for other things that have been added or omitted from the bread to improve shelf life and reduce the cost of production. It’s also more than just quality concerns, though… it’s mostly that making bread is a calming and restorative process.
Bread is a kind of alchemy; the ground wheat kernel, when combined with water and salt and exposed to a culture of yeast, and then left to its own for a few hours, produces a compound that when baked becomes delicious and complex, and yet is one of the simplest of the modern produced foods. The smell of bread baking, even the smell of it fermenting on the counter, makes me feel at home no matter where I happen to be. The satiny, slightly sticky texture of a properly developed slug of risen dough makes me feel a sense of accomplishment. The kneading relieves stress and believe it or not is becoming more and more optional as modern bakers make a more extensive exploration of artisanal baking methods.
When I eat bread that I make at home, it sits high in my belly, and makes me feel solid and contented, rather than weighing me down and making me feel groggy and awful. I feel good about eating the sandwiches I make from my bread, because I know what’s in it, I know where it came from and how long ago. I love looking at a huge risen bowl of dough and knowing that I provided the right environment for my little partners, the yeasts.
I love learning about bread. I love all of the different techniques that go into its production, and I love the amount of variation one can derive from flour, water, yeast, and salt.
I love baking bread. I love baking it for other people and nourishing my companions; my brothers in bread.