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The Staff of Life: Basic Bread

November 11, 2011

Baking bread can seem like an arcane and difficult process, to the point at which bread machines have become popular in upscale households and most people pay someone else to make it for them.  Although flour is still a household staple, available in most grocery stores, most of the flour used at home has been used to bake cookies since 1972 1 .  Even so, we eat far less bread than our forefathers and even than we did in my parents’ lifetime – bread consumption hit its peak in 1963 (9 billion pounds) and has been declining ever since (5.6 billion pounds in 1990).  This isn’t a shift to more whole-grain eating habits; even with the drop in overall bread consumption, white bread outsells variety breads such as ryes, wheats, and pumpernickels by more than five to one 1 .  Frankly, we just don’t eat a lot of bread, and the recent Atkins craze tarnished the image of this once-staple food still further.

That said, there was an interesting side effect to the Atkins fad, at least for me.  First off was the realization that the food pyramid I’d grown up on – and probably a lot of you have as well – is a load of crap, governed more by politics than sound nutritional science thanks to the ever-frenetic activity of lobbyists for various food industries (this is why they generally don’t tell you to eat less of anything, and have to settle for the more hazy phrase “moderate your intake”)2.  Hell, they just overhauled it recently for the more evenly-balanced MyPlate image, which still emphasizes grains and vegetables but not nearly as much as the previous pyramid.  The second was the realization that the bread I’d been eating for years is also crap.  Mark Furstenburg, an artisan baker quoted in Food Matters, explained how most bread is produced:

Bread is made from the simplest imaginable ingredients: flour, yeast, water, and salt.  The difference between good bread and bad bread is the most expensive ingredient – time.  What the big bakeries do is to replace time with stabilizers, dough softeners, preservatives, and other chemicals so the bread develops quickly and evenly and stays on a supermarket shelf looking and feeling fresh – even if it isn’t.  Bakers like me put additions into bread – whole wheat flour and rye, raisins or currents, herbs or olive oil – only for flavor.  Only for flavor – not to replace time 2 .

Even the flour is often treated with chemical additives -bleaching agents such as chlorine compounds, peroxides and bromates -to turn the originally yellow-brown wheat flour the white it would normally oxidize to naturally as it ages.  As noted by Marion Nestle, these agents are unlikely to remain behind in the flour since they evaporate or become inactive during storage or baking, but they can make the bread taste distinctly chemical2 .

These changes did not come without their price.  Breadmaking is traditionally a slow process, with a fermentation step (which is present in the recipe that follows) either allowed to proceed directly or indirectly through the introduction of some older, longer-fermenting dough known as the “sponge.”  If dough is left to ferment in this way for six hours instead of the thirty minutes seen in industrial methods, about 80% of a possibly carcinogenic substance called acrylamide (found in bread crusts) is removed from the dough, and the highest levels of B vitamins remain behind.  Longer-fermenting dough also keeps longer, so breads produced quickly require additional preservatives to keep them from going stale in under a week.  Cutting the fermentation process also required the introduction of much higher levels of yeast in modern breads than were found traditionally, and for the development a different strain of yeast than was traditionally used.  It is possible that these changes are related to an increasing intolerance for yeast and the observed difficulty in certain segments of the population to digest modern – but not traditionally-produced – breads3 .

So modern breads, at least in the United States and U.K., are generally not very good.  They also tend to be very front-loaded in simple sugars, which is not necessarily as noticeable to the rest of the population as it is to me; I’m not diabetic, don’t appear to have any actual glycemic issues after multiple blood tests, but still have to be very careful about the glycemic index or GI of foods that I eat.  At home I used to never eat bread much because of its “high and crash” nature, but spending time in Ecuador where breads seem to be made with a lot less sugar (and probably more time) reintroduced me to the idea of being able to eat a continental breakfast and not wanting to fall over midway through the morning.

The key to the process, as you might have guessed, is time.  There’s not a lot of active hands-on time spent making bread, but it does need to spend a lot of time sitting in the kitchen, doing its thing.

No-Knead Dutch Oven Bread

(Recipe taken from Mother Earth News, seen here)

Ingredients for making no-knead bread

The original recipe for this bread makes a 1-pound loaf, but considering how fast it always disappears around here I make a 2-pound loaf, which is what you see below.   I also use a combination of 4 1/2 cups white flour and 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour.  Increasing the whole wheat flour content to a 1:3 ratio makes a much heavier, but still good and hearty, wheat loaf.

1/2 tsp active dry yeast
3 cups warm water
6 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting. You may use white, whole wheat or a combination of the two.
3 tsp salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran for dusting

  • In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in water. Add the flour and salt, stirring until blended. The dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest at least 8 hours, preferably 12 to 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.
  • The dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it. Sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let it rest for about 15 minutes.
  • Using just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to the work surface or to your fingers, gently shape it into a ball. Generously coat a clean dish towel with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal. Put the seam side of the dough down on the towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another towel and let rise for about 1 to 2 hours. When it’s ready, the dough will have doubled in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.
  • At least 20 minutes before the dough is ready, heat oven to 475 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in the oven as it heats. When the dough is ready, carefully remove the pot from the oven and lift off the lid. Slide your hand under the towel and turn the dough over into the pot, seam side up. The dough will lose its shape a bit in the process, but that’s OK. Give the pan a firm shake or two to help distribute the dough evenly, but don’t worry if it’s not perfect; it will straighten out as it bakes.
  • Cover and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and bake another 15 to 20 minutes, until the loaf is beautifully browned. Remove the bread from the Dutch oven and let it cool on a rack for at least 1 hour before slicing.


  1. Staten, V.  1993.  Can You Trust a Tomato in January?  The Hidden Life of Groceries and Other Secrets of the Supermarket Revealed at Last.  New York: Simon & Schuster.
  2. Nestle, M.  2006.  What to Eat.  New York: North Point Press.
  3. Whitley, A. 2009.  Bread Matters: The State of Modern Bread and a Definitive Guide to Baking Your Own. Kansas City, Missouri: Andrews McMeel Publishing.
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