A family and social history of bread in the United States

A couple weeks ago, one of my students invited me to give a presentation on sourdough bread to a club she’s involved in, which I did last night I decided to script part of my talk so that I didn’t just blabber in a million different directions.

Below the jump is the transcript of most of that scripted portion, which I called “A family and social history of bread in the United States.” I lightly edited the script to remove the presentation cues and moved forward a paragraph on yeast culture from later in the talk. Enjoy.

Continue reading A family and social history of bread in the United States

Do you want to hear me talk about bread?

If you answered “yes,” then I have great news for you. A few months back I recorded an interview about bread in Ancient Greece with Aven McMaster and Mark Sundaram for their podcast The Endless Knot. That episode went live this morning. I haven’t heard the final product yet, but it got an excellent review from Emma Pauly, the person who edited and transcribed the episode.

You can get the episode anywhere you get podcasts or by using this link. Bon appétit!

What is Making Me Happy: Best Baker in America

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Best Baker in America, Season 4

Okay, let me get something out of the way. I hate the name “Best Baker in America.” I think it is clunky and overly pretentious given that any given season will only have a few contestants, so the nominal crowning of “best baker in America” is meaningless.

What I don’t hate is this show, a reality baking competition on the Food Network that I first encountered on a recent plane flight.

If it wasn’t obvious from previous posts here, 1) I bake a lot; 2) I enjoy watching food television, particularly when it involves baking. Best Baker in America, Season 4 meets both criteria.

Anyone familiar with the Great British Baking Show should be broadly familiar with the template. Ten bakers from around the country come together to bake their way through a gauntlet of challenges set by the quirky hosts until only one remains to be crowned champion. However, there are also some significance differences, including that all of the bakers are professionals and the competition is based almost exclusively on pastry.

Each episode in this season involves two challenges. Every baker completes the first challenge, a signature dish on based on various flavors and ingredients. The judges choose a winner and some number of bakers who are safe. The two or more bakers who made the least successful dishes then compete in a bake-off, a second challenge to see who gets eliminated, at least until the finale.

Personally I found the quirkiness of the judges (Carla Hall, Jason Smith, and Gesine Prado) over the top, perhaps because they play a double role of host and judge where those jobs are separate in Great British Baking Show. Despite this, the judges exhibit my favorite thing about a lot of baking shows: they are unabashedly enthusiastic about the work that the contestants are doing. That is, they openly root for them to succeed, even while they offer critiques of the product.

In a similar vein, I like the simplicity of the format. Where the Great British Baking Show puts the contestants through three challenges over two days and then judges them holistically, this show has just two that are judged individually. If a contestant screws up that bake, they have a chance at redemption.

Other shows and, indeed, earlier seasons of this same show, use a format taken from reality competitions where the first challenge in a given episode earns immunity from elimination that happens after the second, but I found that I vastly preferred this format when I tried watching one of the others seasons. For one thing, a head-to-head competition raises the stakes and allows you to concentrate on what is happening on a smaller number of stations. For another, the other competitors remained in the kitchen, meaning both that they turned into a designated cheer-squad, much like what happened in the most recent season of Top Chef‘s Last Chance Kitchen, but also that they got to taste what the bakers made and called upon to assess the dish.

I suspect that some of the particulars of this season and its coziness were shaped by the demands of filming during a pandemic (Season 3 came out in 2019, but the show only returned for Season 4 in 2021), but I found the final product to be an excellent—if also over-the-top and frequently silly—addition to the genre.

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.

Ten Lessons of Phyllo

I decided I wanted spanakopita this week and in the absence of any frozen phyllo, I decided to just make it myself. My go-to cook book The Joy of Cooking refuses to give a recipe, telling you instead to go buy it frozen. This should have been a red flag.

The internet had a few recipe suggestions for this dough: water, oil, flour, salt, and a dash of vinegar, rolled thin. Simple, right? Well, here are the ten lessons I learned:

  1. Roll the dough thinner.
  2. Thinner.
  3. Thinner.
  4. Even thinner.
  5. Keep going.
  6. No, even thinner than that.
  7. Even thinner.
  8. The cornstarch and flour mixture is very important to keep the sheets from sticking together.
  9. In small amounts vinegar strengthens a dough, allowing it to retain shape or, in this case, hold together when stretched so thin.
  10. Homemade phyllo is finicky and tedious in ways that hurt my back and neck to repeatedly roll out the sheets, even to produce sheets as thick and clumsy as mine. But it is also delicious.

Help, I’m out of yeast!

Anyone who knows me know that I bake––in case the posts about ancient bread and slew of baked goods on Instagram didn’t give me a way. The recent pandemic has inspired many people, and quite possibly everyone, to start baking, creating a shock to the flour supply chain and sold many stores entirely out of yeast. I have primarily baked using a sourdough starter for a few years now, but since I have had several conversations with people in the past two days, I thought I would collect that advice here.

Commercially-available yeast, at least in the United States, is most common either as active-dry or instant yeast (active dry technically needs proofing to activate the yeast, instant has more living cultures straight from the packet), in a shelf-stable dry version developed by Fleischmann’s during World War Two. Both types are baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) harvested from a strain first isolated in the 19th century by Louis Pasteur and protected from other yeasts and bacteria like lactobacillus that occur naturally in the environment in order to produce a regular, reliable product.

The creation of commercial yeast makes baking easy, but people have been baking without it for thousands of years, so there are plenty of options for anyone who wants to keep baking. Here are four tried and true replacements for commercial yeast:

1. Make unleavened flatbreads. Passover might have just passed, but you can make matzah anytime, and the best soft varieties are just an an unleavened flatbread. Similarly, you could go with Indian Roti or flour tortillas pretty easily.

2. Make soda bread. Yesterday I declared beer bread a waste of good beer, but every once in a while it goes very well with some honey or maple butter, and there is a whole world of soda breads that you can try. These breads using baking powder and/or baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) as its leavening agent. Too much of the leavening agent can leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth and most simply aren’t to my taste, but they are an easy workaround if you don’t have yeast. Try this one for a cheddar cheese enriched soda bread from King Arthur Flour.

3. Harvest yeast from raisins. Seriously. A few years back I came across a story about a baker in France recreating the bread distributed to French soldiers during World War One. His scratch yeast came from raisins, which makes sense given both ancient precedent (Pliny the Elder mentions creating levain from millet kneaded with grape must, NH 18.26) and that the original baker’s yeast was identified on the skin of grapes. This technique is easily recreated at home; I promise that your bread will not taste like raisins unless you actually add raisins to the dough, at which point you are on your own.

4. Just make a sourdough starter. As Instagram culture and social media in general fuels all manner of anxieties surrounding people’s body and lifestyles, so too does it drive attitudes around sourdough. There are hundreds of videos about making the rustic Tartine country loaf. I know, I’ve watched them, and I still regularly fail to create the perfect loaf. My oven sucks, I don’t have the ideal dutch oven, I am notoriously ambivalent to precisely-weighing my ingredients* and yet my sourdough starters (I actually have two) still make spectacular breads without a hint of commercial yeast. My easy go-to bread is a simple sandwich loaf enriched with just a little bit of sugar and milk.

*This only holds true for breads; cookies and cakes require much more precision.

In short, the idea that you have to be “ready” for a sourdough starter is a myth, and with a little bit of care to adjust for different ratio of flour to water you can make any recipe. I’ve been known to tag Instagram posts with #sourdougheverything.

(To do this, prime the starter with water and flour to get it going ahead of time, and then add this to the recipe, adding extra flour a little at a time to reach the right dough consistency. The amount of flour will vary based on a number of factors, including how wet your starter is, how much of it you use, and the type of flour you’re using. You will need to allow more time, up to 1.5 or 2x, depending on the temperature and the starter’s activity, over what the recipe calls for with commercial yeast.)

Much as with harvesting yeast from the skin of grapes, natural leavening has been around for millenia, cultivating strains of yeast from the environment and the flour itself. The process is actually very easy––all you need is time. There are numerous guides available online and if you’re worried about harmful bacteria, use one with citrus which inhibits the growth of those strains until the good stuff can take over (grapefruit juice is the most common; I used lime).

Once the starter gets going, it is actually quite easy to maintain. I have been using two sets of the same strain cultivated in my kitchen for year, sometimes going as long as a few weeks between feedings. I keep my starters in Tupperware in the fridge taking out a small portion and building it up in preparation for each bake. When the base gets low, usually about once a week at my rate, I refresh it using a 1 cup of water and roughly 1.5 cups of flour and letting it feed for a few hours until it becomes fluffy and doubles or so in volume before it goes back into the fridge. Here are more detailed instructions.

I might be a sourdough heretic in some respects, and my instructions do not bring the starter quite to its most active the way that the instructions that call for three or four feedings in the day or so right before baking, but it is an easy way to manage a starter without discarding any of it.

Happy baking!