What is in a loaf?

My recent infatuation with Top Chef started me down a path of consuming a lot of food media again. I am a capable cook in a lot of areas, but a recent experiment with infusing chili oil reminded me that taste is a strange alchemy. It might have certain shibboleths (don’t serve fish with cheese, at Tom Colicchio pointed out to a contestant), but the key to developing complex delicious flavors involves a sensitive palette and creativity that is just beyond me.

Bread, by contrast, makes sense to me. It is simultaneously the simplest of foods — and one that has infinite variation.

Most people might not have the full vocabulary for bread (and bread products), but they can probably explain what it is. While baking technologies and the available resources for home bakers have changed, but the basic process has remained stable for thousands of years. Bread — ἄρτος, in Attic Greek — consists of just four mandatory ingredients: flour, water (or other liquid), salt (which helps maintain structure), and heat. Leavening agents (yeast, baking powder, etc.) and time are even optional.

This simplicity is one of the reasons that I am struck by other contexts where Greek authors use ἄρτος. Herodotus, for instance, describes the cooking techniques of three tribes in Babylon that he says only at fish, explaining how they turn the fish into powder and knead them into cakes (1.200). According to this description, one of the preparation methods involved baking these fish cakes “in the manner of loaves” (ὁ δὲ ἄρτου τρόπον ὀπτήσας). Bread-baking serves as an obvious cultural touchstone, but the loaves are not themselves bread. Bread still requires grain.

So consider this, nested within a lengthy bit of bread-banter in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae:

There is a loaf called the etnites, also the lekithites, as Eucrates says.

ἐτνίτας ἄρτος ὁ προσαγορευόμενος. λεκιθίτας, ὥς φησιν Εὐκράτης.

Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 3.76

Two named breads with the same (or similar) preparation, made with pulses, the edible seeds of plants in the legume family harvested as dry grains such as chickpeas or lentils. That is to say “bean-bread.” Related words in a Greek lexicon make this point clear:

  • ἔτνος – thick soup made with pease or beans
  • λεκιθίτης – made of pulses
  • λεκίθιον – bean-meal

People sometimes say that cooking is an art, baking a science. The implication is that baking is a matter of persnickety formulas that must be followed absolutely correctly in order to get results. For cakes and pastries this is certainly the case, but bread-baking is much simpler, in large part because ambient conditions such as heat and humidity can play an enormous role.

I have only one secret for bread baking: understand how things you add will affect a dough. This particularly means knowing which ones affect the leavening (enriching agents, for instance) and which ones don’t. The former group changes the proof time, while the latter group is more cosmetic. But the list could be expanded to understand how higher water contents change a dough, how different ingredients and treatments affect gluten development, etc. There are formulas that can help understand each of these points, but I largely treat them more as guidelines than as rules.

You can find modern recipes for breads made with legumes, though I have never tried them. These modern pulse breads are additives because the pulses themselves don’t have the gluten of wheat, and technical manuals note that the pulses can compromise the gluten structure.

This leads to an obvious question about this etnites/lekithites loaf: does it, like the modern pulse breads, indicate a loaf that adds a pulse mixture to a wheat dough or is this an ancient version of a lentil loaf? In other words, what makes something a loaf of bread?

This bread might be named after the legumes, but I am inclined toward the former answer. Cheese bread might be named after the cheese, but the (wheat) bread is still a necessary component, whether the cheese is melted over the top or incorporated into the dough. Moreover, the line appears in a section of Athenaeus’ work dedicated entirely to other wheat-based breads.

For now at least I don’t see any reason to amend the core ingredients of a loaf of bread: water, flour, salt, and heat, even when bakers get creative with the other ingredients.