Leavening Legends and Cultural Creations

The consumer divide between yeasted and sourdough breads has been ongoing for centuries, though the two are not so different from each other.

| Winter 2019

Shutterstock /Valentyn Volkov

There are three preindustrial systems for leavening breads: steam; pure cultures of yeast; and yeasts and bacteria working together in sourdough starters. Steam is the simplest leavening system. Bake a thin disk of dough on a hot surface and it’ll puff up like a ball. Loaf breads are too thick to be steam-leavened. You can test that yourself by mixing up a dough of flour and water and baking it in a bread tin. A mixture of flour and water has no taste, is the recipe for glue, and makes a loaf bread that’s an inedible brick. Loaf breads only become easy to bite into, beautiful to look at, and lovely to eat because they’re fermented.

Fermentation is magic. Fermentation is what brings flavor, aroma, and a light crumb to loaf breads. Prior to the development of chemical leavenings, making a loaf bread without the help of yeast wasn’t possible. Baking soda, along with other industrial leavenings, aerates bread, but doesn’t change the underlying flavor of the dough. Chemical leavenings aren’t robust enough to create breads with large air holes in the crumb. They also don’t make breads taste good. Fermentation is required to make a richly flavored bread with large air holes. Pain de campagne, for example, can only be made with yeast, either in the form of pure strains purchased in packages or with the wild yeasts and bacteria that colonize sourdough cultures.

According to confirmed archeological research, the oldest bread excavated so far was made 14,400 years ago in what is now Jordan. This was thousands of years before the first farmers, so these breads were made with wild wheat and barley. These early breads were made from sifted flour worked into a dough and baked directly on embers or super-heated ground. The technique of ember-baking flatbreads is still common in Rajasthani villages, and ground-baked flatbreads are still common among the Bedouins in Sinai and North Africa. This early method of baking is described in the Bible, in the Gospel of John:

As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread. John 21:9

Whether you bake your disk of unfermented dough over glowing embers or in a hot wood-fired oven, the bread’s character and taste will be created by the light browning of the crust. Fermented breads also get flavor from their crusts; the flavor of the crumb comes from the fermentation process itself.



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