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Updated on March 19, 2009
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Historical Background of Bread

Primitive man probably made the first bread from the coarse seeds of wild grasses or from nuts that were ground between stones. The seed or nut meal was mixed with water and the resulting porridge cooked on hot rocks or in embers. The bread was dry and flat, like tortillas. A piece of this kind of bread was found in the remains of a village of Swiss lake dwellers, a people who lived in Switzerland about 4,500 years ago. Unleavened breads of flour and water, similar to matzoth and Ry-Krisp, were made by the ancient Hebrews, Chinese, and Egyptians.

The Egyptians probably were the first people to discover a way of leavening bread. The discovery may have occurred when yeast cells in the air happened to land on a dough of flour and water. The yeast caused fermentation to begin, and carbon dioxide was produced in the dough. When the dough was cooked, the carbon dioxide expanded, and a porous, light bread resulted. Before man learned to grow yeast, bakers saved a bit of uncooked dough to add to the next batch.

Since leavened bread is thicker than unleavened bread, it could not be baked on flat stones. The first ovens, which were invented by the Egyptians, consisted of horizontal stones laid flat on top of two or three vertical stones. Heat was supplied by a fire between the bottom stones, and the bread was placed on grates or ledges inside this enclosure. Bread making was a skilled craft in Egypt.

In ancient Greece and Rome, bread was made in commercial bakeries, as well as at home. One of the earliest schools for bakers was founded in Rome during the 1st century A.D. by the Emperor Trajan. Bread making was introduced into western Europe by the Roman legions. During the Middle Ages, as towns and cities grew, bakeries were established, and the bakers formed guilds. These guilds controlled baking practices and protected their members from competition.

In the Americas, Indians made bread from corn before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. The first European settlers also used cornmeal to make bread, but later began to raise wheat. During the American Revolution the Continental Congress appointed a Superintendent of Bakers and Director of Baking in the Grand Army of the United States.

As the population of the United States grew and as the western frontier receded and new communities were established, the number of bakeries increased. In about 1850, bread making in commercial bakeries began to be mechanized. In 1910, 95 percent of the bread made in the United States was homemade, but by the early 1960's, 95 percent of all bread was made by commercial bakeries.

Kinds of Bread

Breads vary greatly in shape, texture, and flavor. Bread is also made in the form of biscuits, buns, rolls, or muffins. Bread may be flavored with salt, sugar, honey, or spices, and may contain nuts, raisins, and other special ingredients.

Some kinds of bread are traditional in certain countries or regions. In the United States the most popular commercial bread is slightly sweet enriched white bread, made from finely sifted wheat flour. In the southern and midwestern sections of the United States, corn breads are popular, and in New England, Boston brown bread and johnnycake are common.

Popular breads in Scotland include oat cakes and bannocks, flat loaves made from oats or barley. In France and Italy long loaves of white bread with hard, flaky crusts are most common. In Italy, the top crust of the loaf is often sprinkled with sesame seeds. In Germany, Russia, and Scandinavia black breads are popular. They are made from rye flour, to which potato or barley flour is sometimes added.

In many parts of the world unleavened bread is eaten. Chapati, a common form of bread in India, is made from a mixture of whole wheat flour, salt, and water. The dough is kneaded, rolled flat, and baked in an uncovered pan over an open fire. In Mexico and other Latin American countries, tortillas are a popular bread. They are flat round cakes made from cornmeal and baked on a flat rock or in an iron pan over a fire. Crisp, flat breads made from rye are common in Scandinavian countries.

How Bread Is Made

The two common methods of making bread commercially are the sponge process and the dough process. In the sponge process almost all of the work is done by machinery, and thousands of loaves are produced at one time. First, sifted flour is measured and combined with vitamins, minerals, and the yeast that ferments the dough. Then, water is added, and the ingredients are mixed thoroughly for about five minutes. The resulting sponge is moved to a large, rectangular steel tub, called a trough, where the dough is fermented to make it rise. The trough may be covered to prevent heat and moisture escaping, or it may be left uncovered in a fermentation room (to 'prove'), where the heat and humidity are controlled.

In the fermentation room the sponge is constantly mixed and is kept at a temperature of about 78° F. After about five hours of fermentation it is returned to the mixer, where more water, milk solids, sugar, shortening, and preservatives are added. The dough is mixed and transferred to a divider, where it is cut into balls and rolled flat to squeeze out the carbon dioxide produced by fermentation. It is then shaped into loaves, which are placed in pans and carried by a conveyor belt to a large container, called a proof box. In the warm, moist air of the proof box the dough rises again. Then the loaves are sent to the oven to be baked for about 27 minutes at 450° F. (212° C.).

One widely used kind of oven consists of a long, heated tunnel, through which the loaves travel slowly on a conveyor belt. In another kind of commercial oven the loaves are circulated on a reel similar to a Ferris wheel. After the bread comes out of the oven, it cools for a few hours before being sliced and bagged.

Small bakeries usually make bread by the dough process. The dough process differs from the sponge process in several ways. All the ingredients are mixed at one time, and the dough ferments only about three hours before it is shaped and baked. Most of the work is done by hand, and the bread is firmer and more compact than bread made by the sponge process.


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