For much of recorded human history, man, indeed, did pretty much live by bread alone. Our close relationship with the staff of life goes back at least 6,000 years to Egypt, where still today, the words for "bread," aish, and for "life," aisha, share the same root. Even in whole grain form, it's not a complete food, but we make it more so usually by spreading some sort of vegetable or animal fat on it.
For millennia, most of the world got most of its calories from bread. Increasing wealth has brought other sources of sustenance. As recently as the first half of the 20th century, Americans still consumed about 30 percent of their calories in the form of bread. And until shortly before then, bread baking was done much as it had been since the days of the pharaohs, who paid their laborers' wages in bread. Some sort of wheat berry was ground into flour, mixed with water, and left to ferment slowly before being baked into something all of us could recognize and most could digest.
In every sense bread is a transformative food, central to many cultures and religious traditions but also a great conceptual advance in the conversion of raw ingredients. Starting from a hard, nubby living seed that is harvested, killed, and pulverized, it comes to life again with various strains of yeast and bacteria that develop dough biologically, then succumb during baking—but not before they lighten, shape, flavor, and transmute the loaf into something that can sustain us.
As much as our hands shape bread, bread shapes us, too. According to Aaron Bobrow-Strain, professor of politics at Whitman College in Washington and author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, mid-19th century American industry embarked on what turned out to be a 150-year experiment to bring to the table the purest of refined commodities.
Starting with grains stripped of nutrient-rich bran and germ to favor extended storage, the highly milled flour was easy to work, amenable to quick chemical rising, and readily shaped into large loaves. It was also easy on the palate, its sugars rapidly released through the action of digestive enzymes on the naked starch. Whiteness in food was equated with virtue.
But over time, white bread has descended from a status symbol of upper-crust refinement to a stand-in for white trash and the empty, sugary promises of industrial food. The year 2009 was a pivotal one for bread; for the first time in the history of American commercial bread production, sales of whole-wheat loaves surpassed those of white, part of a wider reconsideration of what we eat.
Although bread has been demonized by the low-carbohydrate diet fads of the last decade and recent concern about celiac disease (a debilitating intestinal condition triggered by intolerance to a key protein in wheat's gluten), it survives as a staple in much of the world. What's more, for the past two decades, it has been undergoing a renaissance in the U.S.
So important is bread as a source of nourishment that wheat is by far the most-traded commodity in the world. The real wonder of bread lies not in the grain of wheat, rye, or any of their 30,000 variants, but in the intricacies of transformation through two types of fermentation: by yeast and by bacteria, namely lactobacilli, the same ubiquitous microorganisms that convert milk into yogurt.
Yeast is what causes bread to rise. Through kneading and enzyme action the gluten component of wheat develops both strength and elasticity enough to stretch and hold the bubbles of gas created by the yeast action.
Baker's yeast, like the brewer's yeast of beer, consists of the fungus Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Its cell walls yield compounds—beta glucans, also present in shiitake and Maitake mushrooms—now valued for their ability to protect the heart, boost immunity, and regulate inflammation. Lactobacilli, present in the prefermenting "starter" doughs of many breads, and responsible for the tangy taste of sourdough bread, also have important immune functions, but they do not survive the heat of baking. They do, however, produce the lactic and acetic acids that enhance the flavors and richness in whole grain loaves.
Nearly banished from the modern American diet, fermentation converts sugars and other carbohydrates into various nutrients using microorganisms whose value to human health, including the workings of the gut, the brain, and the immune system, is only now under serious investigation.
Peter Reinhart began baking bread as a way to find spiritual sustenance, marrying the wisdom of old-world traditions with modern chemical understanding of processes such as fermentation. Hailed as one of America's premier bakers, and head of baking at Johnson & Wales University, Reinhart is an evangelist for flavor who has spread the word through a popular TED talk on bread baking and numerous books, including The Bread Baker's Apprentice.
Great tasting bread, he insists, takes work and time for dough to rest and evolve. Healthful as fermentation is, it is also unruly, a constantly evolving process that needs to be tended. But break into a loaf, starting with a rich brown crust, and the flavor rules. Internally and externally, commercial bread bears little resemblance to such traditional bread.
If you think sliced bread is such a great thing, be advised that the great white loaves that pour out of factories have to be presliced. They are so soft and so insubstantial that a human cannot cut into them without tearing the stuff.
Trust in Crust
The true measure of good bread is a substantial crust.
Crust is key to what bread maestro Peter Reinhart calls the final stage of bread production—the pleasure of eating. A chewy crispy crust kick-starts digestion, setting off enzyme production in the mouth. During baking, the intensity of heat on the surface of the loaf dries it and triggers numerous chemical actions. By virtue of the so-called Maillard reaction, carbohydrates and amino acids fuse, not merely darkening the surface but yielding complex, even intense, caramelized flavors, and generating numerous aroma molecules and an array of healthful antioxidants, some of them unique to bread.