As far back as documentation allows, bread, that most familiar of everyday foods, has been the cornerstone history’s generations have leaned on for nourishment. The earliest forms of bread were a simple amalgam of water and grain, pounded into a paste and cooked on hot rocks. Versions of these flatbreads have survived the centuries and can still be seen today in the forms of Middle Eastern lavash, Indian roti, and Greek pita bread.
Flour, meet Yeast
The earliest evidence of a leavened loaf comes from Egypt. These remains date as far back as 4000 BC and are memorialized in hieroglyphics. It is thought that the first leavened loaf was most likely an accident brought about by some forgotten bowl of flatbread paste being introduced to some roving wild yeasts. A gastronomic meet cute: sugars were eaten, CO2 was released, and voila! leavening in its most primitive form was born.
However, this method for achieving consensually leavened bread was unpredictable at best and was a great source of frustration to ancient cultures. The Egyptians were the first to isolate the elusive wild yeasts and harness their power to leaven dough. Saving back a portion of the previous day’s dough to add to tomorrow’s loaf, they utilized the same methods we do today to make our sourdough breads.
The Communal Oven, and a Baker’s Dozen
In the days of feudalism, serfs owned not much more than the clothes on their backs, and kitchen appliances were as yet unheard of. Communal ovens owned by the lord of the land, or the church, offered a place for all the town’s people to have their bread baked. Despite its misleading name, the oven was another form of income for its owner and members of the community were charged for every loaf.
It was not uncommon for bakers to take advantage of their positions by removing a portion of each loaf brought in to be baked. Some went as far as to construct trap doors under which young children were kept. When the sign was given the child would pop up through the door and pinch off a portion of the loaf. The stolen bread was later baked off and resold. 13th-century bread makers became so notorious for shorting their customers that King Henry III stepped in enforcing strict regulations regarding the price, weight, and quality of bread sold and laying out harsh punishment for those caught cheating.
Attempting to avoid retribution and overcome negative connotations, bakers began to throw in an “extra” loaf. This practice continues today in what we commonly refer to as a “baker’s dozen.” That extra roll or two apparently also swept away all concerns and repercussions for their imprisonment of children for hours on end in a cramped and stifling environment beneath a trap door.
The Evolution of Bread
The consistent theme in bread, hearkening back from ancient times, has been the pursuit of an ever whiter and lighter loaf. Whiteness in bread was a mark of purity and distinction, and being able to afford white bread was a sign of affluence. As technology advanced and bread evolved, it reflected this. Roller mills were invented that refined the flour; commercial yeasts, and chemicals were introduced that ensured uniform loaves. The elimination of ever more of the grain’s bran and germ, milder yeasts, and higher quantities of fat and sugar has left us with the ever consistent industrial loaf. Completely bereft of nutrients, we have taken refinement and enrichment to the extreme and have left ourselves with a bread that no longer tastes of bread; whose cottony texture is more akin to lamb’s wool than the crusty loaves once commonly made.
In recent years there has been a resurgence of more traditional breads. These breads are produced with less refined grains, and flavor is built up through long, slow fermentation. The popularity of the new old “rustic” loaf marks a turning point in our society as we switch directions in an effort to reclaim the nutrition, flavor, and techniques that were lost in the pursuit of white bread.
“Eaters of Wonder Bread
Must be underbred.
So little to eat.
Where’s the wheat?”
The Reclamation Loaf
5 ¾ cups Whole Wheat Flour
1 ¾ cups White Flour
3 ½ cups Water
1 Tbsp + 1 tsp Fine Sea Salt
¾ tsp Instant Dried Yeast
Here’s a recipe for a rustic loaf that can be completed in 1 day instead of 3, but makes no compromises when it comes to flavor or texture.
This is probably a weekend recipe for most, though significantly faster than many loaves, it’s best to plan on starting this recipe in the morning as the mixing, shaping, and proofing of the loaves takes about five hours, all told. Do not let this discourage you as actual time working with the dough is very limited and easy to do.
Combine both flours and all of the water in a large bowl, using your hands mix together just until incorporated. Cover the bowl with a clean towel and let rest roughly 30 minutes.
After the dough has rested, sprinkle the salt and yeast evenly over the surface of the dough. Being sure to wet your hand first (this prevents the dough from sticking to you) reach under the dough and grabbing a portion of it, stretch it up towards you folding it over to the opposite side. Turn the bowl and continue this stretching and pulling three or more times until the salt and yeast you sprinkled on are completely enclosed within the ball of dough
Continue working the dough, folding and kneading it in the bowl to thoroughly combine the ingredients. Do this until you start to feel some tension. You should feel the dough physically resisting you and pulling back into itself, this is the sign that you have built up the gluten adequately.
Let the dough rest for five minutes. Then work it again for an additional minute, until you feel that familiar strain as the gluten strands start to tighten again. Cover your thoroughly exhausted dough, and allow it to rise for five hours.
Every twenty minutes of the first hour of proofing, you should “turn” your dough. Turning your dough consists of wetting your hand and doing the same motion you did when incorporating your salt and yeast (reaching under the dough and pulling it up and over onto itself). Continue pulling and folding the dough until tension starts to build up again then allow it to rest until the next fold. By the end of the first hour you should have turned your dough three times, now you can sit back and relax, just four more hours to go.
Near the end of your five hours, check your dough to see if it has risen properly. It should be approximately tripled in size. When it has reached the right size, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and sprinkle some flour onto the middle of your dough where you mean to divide it. Using a bench scraper or dough knife, separate the dough into two equal lumps.
Preparing to Bake
If you have proofing baskets, dust two of them generously with flour. If you do not, line two mixing bowls with clean kitchen towels and flour them heavily. Shape each piece of dough into a ball and place it, seam side down, into its bowl. Cover the bowls with another clean kitchen towel and allow to rest for another hour.
It’s best to preheat your oven now (475 ℉). This gives the oven plenty of time to come up to temperature and heat your dutch oven throughout.
20 minutes before you’re ready to bake your first loaf, place the second loaf in the refrigerator. This retards the proofing process and gives you plenty of time to bake both loaves separately. Alternatively, you can keep the second loaf in the refrigerator overnight and bake it in the morning, if you decide on this option don’t bother with your final hour-long proof, and instead just place your second loaf in the refrigerator immediately after placing in your proofing basket or bowl.
When the hour has passed you can use something called the “finger-dent test” to check if the dough is fully proofed. To do the test: poke a floured finger about ½-inch into your dough. If the dough springs back immediately it’s not done yet, and the loaf needs more time to proof. If the loaf springs back, but slowly and incompletely then it is ready to go. If it doesn’t spring back at all you’ve over-proofed.
When your dough is ready, carefully pull out your dutch oven and invert your dough into it. This method leaves the seam side up and eliminates the need to “score” your bread. Bake for 30 minutes then remove the lid and bake an additional 15-20 minutes until the bread is a deep brown. Remove the dutch oven and turn your bread out, letting it cool on a rack. Though temptation is at its highest, resist! Allowing the dough to rest 20 minutes before slicing gives the bread a chance to set up, and renders a better eating experience in the end.