The Science and Early History of Bread

Hello Planetary Pals,

One of my hobbies is baking bread. This is something that I have been doing for years now. It is probably connected to the fact that my mother is a baker, hence why I picked it up. I find it rewarding to make something from scratch over many hours, plus nothing beats the smell of freshly baked bread! In this blog post I will be running through both the history and science of bread-making.

There is a saying that goes something like this: “Cooking is an art, baking is a science.” I completely agree with this statement. There is much to the science of baking bread.

There are different types of flour that can be used when making bread. Each uses different grains, so while wheat is the most familiar, breads can also be made from crushed oats, millet, spelt, and so many other plants. Ultimately flour is the backbone of a bread. The proteins in it, specifically glutenin and gliadin, will be activated by water and the kneading process to form elastic gluten.

Salt can be added for flavor and also acts to strengthen the gluten structures. There is a breakdown of the starch in the flour to glucose sugars which can be utilized by the yeast for fermentation and the production of gasses. These gasses allow the bread to achieve a larger volume and a less dense, easily eaten product. In the case of sourdough, the unharmful bacteria it contains ferments and also produces gasses that allow the dough to rise; the lactic acid they produce also affects the flavor of the bread.

The science of bread infographic. Credit: CompoundChem.com

While we today know the science behind this staple food, ancient cultures did not and through trial and error and the production of so many variants, bread has become a staple of much of the world’s diet. The earliest known breads predate the development of agriculture. In the eastern Mediterranean, cooked flatbreads were found that were carbon dated to 14,600-11,600 years ago. These peoples ground wild barely down to a flour and made a paste of it with water to form a simple flatbread. These breads were likely made over an open fire instead of an oven.

Agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, present day Iraq and the Eastern Mediterranean, can be viewed as both a result of bread and a cause of bread. Neolithic, sedentary lifestyles developed out of the ability to cultivate plants for the sake of making more bread for the population. Flatbreads were common food in the Mesopotamian culture and Egyptian culture and were often featured in burial sites. Baking over an open fire is not ideal, and new styles of preparation came about. Flatbreads could be buried beneath hot sand and embers, and simple vertical ovens also developed. These allowed better heat control than an open fire and produced better bread. As well, leavened bread, using wild, natural yeasts was first started in Egypt. The Egyptian bread-making strategies were spread to other cultures such as the Greeks and Early Romans.

Ancient Egyptian oven, (CC-by-SA 2.0 Dennis Jarvis)

The Romans made many advances to bread-making as well. They were the first to develop Baking Guilds that allowed for the regulation of bread and the dispersal to a wider population. As well, Romans developed sourdough breads that utilized beer and wine musts as a farmable source of bacteria and yeast. A new practice that would become standard for many centuries developed. Peasantry who could not afford an oven would still farm grains but would sell the product to bakers and would then buy back bread (often of low quality dark breads) .

Breads during the ancient and classical periods were heavily associated with religion. Bread was seen as a metaphor for life and sustenance itself. As such, many mythologic cults across Europe and the middle East worshipped gods and goddesses of the harvest and of grains. For the Abrahamic faiths, bread is also essential. The Jewish people eat unleavened bread as a symbol of their flight form Egypt and Christians partake in eating bread as part of the Eucharist.

Orthodox Priest offers the Eucharistic sacrifice of wine and leavened bread

In Medieval Europe bread remained a staple to the diet of all people. The Norse could farm hardy varieties of rye to make rye-flour breads that are still common today. In other parts of Europe, peasantry still ate dark breads while the feudal lords would eat higher quality white breads. An intriguing part of bread in the Medieval period is the “Trencher.” The Trencher was a dense piece of bread that was used as a plate to hold food. At the end of the meal, the sopped bread can be eaten or given as alms for the poor. Just as in Roman times, Bakers guilds were regulated.

Just as bread is a staple of the modern Western diet, it has been fundamental to so many old world cultures. I find the history of this to be intriguing and by making my own bread, I feel connected to thousands of years-worth of history!

Published by Anthony Dicecca

Hello and welcome to my blog. I am Anthony Dicecca, and I am currently pursuing a thesis-based Masters degree in Geology with a Specialization in Planetary Science and Exploration. I am a native of Rochester, New York but moved to London, Ontario to attend the University of Western Ontario. From 2016 to 2020 I worked to complete my undergraduate degree, finishing with a BSc in Physics and a BSc in Geology. During this time I developed a passion for geology, and in particular, planetary science. I've had the pleasure of working with Dr. Gordon Osinski and his team during this time aiding in research ranging from Arctic peri-glaciology to global impact cratering, and from Lunar spectroscopy to Martian mapping. In Autumn 2020 I continued my education at the U.W.O., working towards a MSc in Geology with a Specialization in Planetary Science and Exploration. My research will likely involve insights obtained from the Holuhraun Lava Field in Iceland and their applications to other bodies in the Solar System. This blog serves as an archive of my progression over the next few semesters.

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