I need a bumper sticker that says “I Brake For Bread”. I love bread. What’s not to like? It’s delicious and satisfying. Bread is my go-to breakfast, full of carbs to fuel my mornings.
I’ve been baking bread for 50-some years. My first efforts weren’t always great. I remember one loaf had so much molasses the slices just flopped over. And attempts to bake 100% whole wheat resulted in leaden lumps. But I persisted over the years. No surprise, when yeast and flour disappeared from grocery stores during the lock down, I panicked. How would I bake bread? Luckily a well-known local bakery was selling sour dough starter: 1¢ for a dab of starter, maybe a tablespoon, in a little paper condiment cup. I fed the little dab of starter flour and water, went online and learned about baking sourdough bread. Two years later, that sourdough starter is still going strong.
Where did bread come from?
In all my years of bread baking, I occasionally wonder “Who invented bread?” How did bread evolve to the wide variety we have today? Who figured out flour? Who decided to grind up grains into a coarse powder, and mix the powder with water? Who decided to cook that mixture? We marvel at people who invent rockets for space exploration or machines to decode genes, but inventing prehistoric bread from the seeds of wild plants, using nothing but rocks, is equally impressive.
Today there are thousands of variations on bread around the world, including flatbreads, tortillas, buns, sliced loaf bread, artisanal loaves, whole grain breads, quick breads, pancakes, muffins, wraps, bagels, croissants and pizza dough.
Staff of Life
Bread is served with meals around the world, and is a dietary mainstay in many countries. In some places, bread is used as an eating utensil. If you’ve dipped bread into soup or a sauce, you’ve used bread in that very traditional way. The nutritional benefits of bread, especially whole grain breads, are unmistakeable:
|Attributes of bread||explanation|
|B vitamins||better in whole grains. A few B's are added back to refined white flour|
|iron||higher in whole grains. White flour fortified with iron|
|potassium||less potassium in refined flour|
|magnesium||less magnesium in refined flour|
|protein||incomplete protein, but important in countries where bread is a major component of diet|
|calories||important in developing countries where bread is a major part of the diet|
|vitamin E||Only in whole grains|
|zinc||only from whole grains. Fiber can interfere with absorption; fermentation of dough reduces this problem.|
|fiber||significant in whole grain breads|
|culinary variety and flavor||contributes to meal enjoyment|
|convenient||This can be good or bad, depending on whether you are inclined to eat too much bread|
And I should point out: bread is mostly plant-based and usually vegan, unless it has milk or cheese added. In which case it’s still plant-based, and vegetarian.
As bread making evolved, people used grains that were locally available. Corn was used to make tortilla-like flatbread in the Western Hemisphere, before Europeans arrived. Rice, sorghum and millet were the primary bread ingredients in India and China, while wheat, barley, oats and rye were used in the Middle East and Europe.
Wheat flour is the basis for risen/fermented breads. The yeast or sourdough starter works on gluten, which is a naturally occurring protein in wheat flour. Gluten creates a matrix in the bread dough that provides strength as the dough ferments and rises, allowing the bread to hold its shape while having a light texture. If you’ve ever tried to make loaf bread with rice flour or cornmeal, you know that the resulting bread does not rise or hold its shape very well.
However, you can add some of these different flours, as well as other ingredients, to wheat-flour bread dough. I experiment all the time when making yeast bread (my sourdough bread recipe is less forgiving with non-wheat ingredients). If you’re a bread baker, try some of these additions:
- Different flours: White flour makes for lighter loaves. Heavier flours like whole wheat and rye can be combined with white flour to add flavor and nutrients. Or you can make 100% whole grain bread, but the loaves will be denser. Non-wheat flours can be added in smaller proportions for flavor interest: cornmeal, almond, rice, oat, barley, soy, garbanzo, etc. I’d limit these to 1/4 or less of the total amount of flour, since they will make the loaves heavier and more dense.
- Nuts: finely chopped walnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds. Almonds are much harder, so be cautious about putting them in bread unless very finely chopped — someone could break a tooth! A better alternative would be almond flour, maybe 1/3 cup per loaf. Nutritional impact: a bit more protein, minerals, healthy fats.
- Nut Butter: Mixing a sticky nut butter into bread dough will take some care. I’d only use old fashioned/”natural” varieties with no added texturizers or sweeteners: peanut, almond, cashew, tahini, sunflower. Maybe 1/4-1/3 cup/loaf. Nutritional impact: as with nuts, more protein, minerals, healthy fats, some B vitamins.
- Seeds: Flax, sesame and chia seeds can be added as-is, maybe 2-3 TB per loaf. Nutrients similar to nuts with added benefit of some omega-3 fats and fiber (especially from flax and chia).
- Beer: Bread baking is a great way to use up flat beer. You can substitute most of the liquid (which is usually water) with beer.
- Milk: Adds calcium and protein to your bread. I’d substitute the milk for maybe 1/2-2/3 of the water. One caution: you might need to bake at a slightly lower temperature as milk can cause extra browning.
- Yogurt: Like milk, yogurt will added calcium and protein. It will also add a slightly tangy flavor. I’d substitute only up to 1/3 of the liquid as yogurt (plain yogurt!).
- Cheese: Adds protein and calcium and a distinctive flavor. Grated cheese will also impact the texture of the bread as it melts during baking. Unless you want a really cheesy loaf, I’d limit grated cheese to 1/4 cup per loaf. Drier hard cheese (Parmesan, etc) will have less of an impact on texture. Really soft cheese (like ricotta) will add moisture and density and complicate the baking, so I don’t recommend that.
- Cooked Grains: leftover cooked grains of any type can be added to bread, about 1/2 cup per loaf, depending on your preferences. The cooked grains will make the loaf heavier and denser. Good choices include barley, oats, bulgur wheat, quinoa, buckwheat groats, millet, amaranth. Nutritional impact: additional fiber, B vitamins, minerals.
- Uncooked grains: The only uncooked grains I’d recommend are rolled oats, rolled rye or rolled wheat. Others would be too hard and add unpleasant crunch. Also, the dry rolled grains might absorb some of the dough moisture as you allow the dough to rise, making it drier.
- Dried fruit: Add fruit if you want a sweet bread. Maybe 1/4-1/2 cup/loaf. Chop larger fruit (apricots, prunes, apples, pears, etc) into small pieces. Raisins, currants, blueberries and cranberries can be used as-is. Nutritional impact: depending on the fruit, additional vitamins, fiber and minerals like potassium.
- Vegetables: Well, certain vegetables. Sautéed onions, minced black olives, and minced sundried tomatoes are flavorful. I’d be cautious about over-doing any of these. 2-4 TB per loaf.
- Oils: Most bread recipes call for some oil. I typically use canola, but sometimes use olive oil. Nut oils could be used in small amounts, maybe 1/8th of the total oil. But be cautious as nut oils can add strong nut flavors to your bread. Coconut fat? It’s very hard at room temperature and will be extremely difficult to mix into your dough. You’d have to heat it up and then you’d be adding a hot liquid to your dough, which could impact the yeast.
- Sweeteners: Technically you don’t need sweeteners in your bread, but sometimes you just want something. Sugar, honey, brown sugar, molasses, agave, maple syrup — all are possible. I wouldn’t go overboard on any of them. One-quarter cup of a sweetener in a loaf will make it quite sweet. In addition honey, molasses, maple syrup and agave will add moisture and you may need extra flour. And all will add their own distinctive flavors, particularly molasses. Bread dough with sweeteners will brown more quickly, so you might need to bake at a slightly lower temperature. Final note: artificial sweetener in your home made bread? No.
- Herbs and spices: a plain loaf of bread can be transformed into something special with herbs or spices. Rosemary, thyme, dill, caraway, and fennel seed are particularly good in bread. Spices can create a sweeter flavor without sweetener. Some of my favorites include cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cardamon, and coriander. Not too much of any of these. You don’t want to overwhelm the bread.
If bread baking has become a fun habit for you, experiment with some of these additions to your basic loaf recipe. You’ll be adding flavor, texture and nutrients, and hopefully will make your bread eating experience more interesting.
Thanks to global events, I’ve been thinking about bread over the past several weeks. Ukraine is a major wheat-exporting country. Farmers there can’t work their fields. Global wheat supplies will be seriously disrupted, with most severe impacts on developing countries that depend on wheat imports. We enjoy pricey artisanal loaves and bagels, or fret about the carbs, but simple bread is a critical part of the daily diet in many countries, and their supply could be in jeopardy. Bread in its many variations has fueled the growth of human civilization. It deserves much respect. Hmm, maybe that’s an idea for a bumper sticker: “Respect Bread”.