My very best friend growing up was baker for a commune back in the day. Hippiness was her refuge from the world at the time. (In another age, she would have gone to a monastery). Anyway, she turned into a really good baker with a fundamental feeling for what could and could not be done with bread. To this day she is one of those bakers that takes about this much of this, a handful of that, a pinch of the other, whatever she has on hand and feels like doing at the time. That is not the way I function at all, for baking, anyway. Very precise measurement with a digital scale is my way. But you know – we both get good bread at the far end of the process. (Much as I love her – we would probably kill each other if we tried to function in the same kitchen).
God has blessed us with several things that function by fermentation: booze, of course; cheese is fermented milk product; and let us not forget that the bread rising is a result of fermentation. And yes, there is even some alcohol (not much) in the dough before we cook it. That contributes to the flavor at the end. You can encourage the booze qualities of sourdough to the point of getting something to drink. It is pretty nasty, lethal stuff and is called hooch. In the days of the Alaskan frontier the Hoochinoo Indians got very fond of the stuff after learning sourdough technology from the gold miners and fur trappers, or so the story goes. Anyway, while you can encourage and grow the stuff fairly easily, you really don’t want to drink it. Rather vile and it will put your lights out.
There are tons of references to bread in the Scriptures. Even more if you use the full Old Testament (Septuagint) of the Eastern Church. There was, and probably still is for the sillier literalists, some warping out over whether bread should be leavened or unleavened. I leave minutia to those who get some kind of kick from it. Back to the main topic. Bread is important stuff.
In this time and place (USA, 21st century), bread is so commonplace that we don’t give it a second thought. We do not think about the millions of acres in grain cultivation, the massive labor of harvest, the transportation to the mills, processing, packaging, transport to huge bakeries, preparation, packaging, transportation to grocery. We eventually get this stuff and casually make a sandwich, or some toast, or whatever. Granted that, for the most part, this factory bread is not nearly as tasty as good homemade, it is better than bad homemade.
Firstly, growing the wheat. It used to be that what grew locally was about all you could get. The grain of the region dictated the baking of the region. Just in this country, the breads of the Northern European countries could pretty well be duplicated in the Northern part of the USA. Good hard wheat would grow quite nicely in the colder Northern US. The North (Yankees to the educated) was known for the excellence of the bread which the Northern bakers (home or otherwise) could produce. The South was a whole different proposition for many reasons. The first reason is that hard wheat will not grow in the Southern States. What we get is soft wheat. There is less moisture, protein, and gluten in Southern wheat. Not really good for bread. But killer for pie crusts, biscuits and so forth. The rural nature of the South also made central bakeries impractical. What the Southerner came to regard as normal for meals was cornbread. Wheat flour was used mostly for the coating for deep frying, pies, and biscuits. Hoe cakes and johnny cakes were made from cornmeal. It may be a chicken or egg discussion, but there is some thought that many of the Southern recipes were of African inspiration. I don’t necessarily thinks that the African connection is direct. Certainly the black cooks in the South brought great contributions to the table. I tend to think that what became Southern cooking in the 1800s to early 1900s was an amalgamation of all of the immigrant traditions: English, Irish, Scots, African, French and the rest all lumped together and dictated ultimately by the materials available. Oh yeah, back to the growing. The hard wheat that feeds the world is grown from the central US up to Northern Canada. What!, you exclaim. How on earth can they grow wheat in that rotten a climate? Well, it’s like this: They plant in the late Summer before the freeze and it spends the winter resting. When the Spring thaw hits it grows again and with all the Northern light it grows like gangbusters so that it can be harvested before the brief warm spell is over. Just in time to get the ground prepped for the next planting cycle. You have to remember how huge Northern Canada is. Feeds a lot of people, it does.
Transport: In the days before the transportation revolution it was impractical to expect to get grain from Northern Canada to mills hundreds or thousands of miles away. We routinely ship things thousands of miles as necessary, so it is no big deal to get grain to a mill. We still want to minimize the expense of transport as much as possible, but with rail available it is easy to route huge amounts of grain to the location desired.
The home baker can break the chain at this point, if desired. There is no reason why anyone with an internet connection cannot get delivery of any raw grain wherever desired. Many of the home bakers like to mill their own grain. Home milling equipment is available and affordable. The internet is one huge mall of everything in the world for sale. The thing is that if the home baker desires to grind his own, the tools and information are readily available. Any grain desired can be acquired. We now have advantages that no previous generation could have envisioned, much less realized.
Flour: High quality flour for any common task is usually as near as the grocery. For uncommon tasks, once again, the internet to the rescue. We also have to be careful what we consider high quality. For bread, generally the richer the flour, the better the bread. King Arthur flour is the best I know of for bread. This is not true for pies or biscuits or cakes. Bread flour is generally the highest in protein and gluten. Pie crusts, biscuits and the like are better served with a lower protein and gluten content. Southern flour like White Lily or Martha White will make much better pies and biscuits. Cakes get the tender crumb and little rise from very low protein and gluten. Even the Southern flours are too high to make good cakes. Then there is French bread. There is no American flour which can duplicate the handling characteristics and taste of French flour. (You can come pretty close with King Arthur unbleached A/P). Or true Irish coarse whole wheat, for Irish soda bread. The internet will serve for those who wish to get specialty flours which are not locally available. I will generally check the King Arthur website first, as they carry a good many specialty flours at quite reasonable price. I also double check the web in a general search, just to make sure that I can’t get better pricing somewhere else. Usually I can’t, but it doesn’t take that long to check.
The other thing that we on the consuming end of things don’t often think about is all the varieties of grain that have been developed within the last 50 years or so. We have cheap and readily available quantities and qualities of grain that our ancestors could only dream about. Modern grains are much heartier, more dependable, with tremendously greater production per acre. Amazing. There was an episode of the original Star Trek that I think everyone in Western civilization knows – “The Trouble with Tribbles”. Many may not remember that the centerpiece of the plot was not the Tribbles, but the new grain that was being threatened by the Klingons. Quadro-triticale. Triticale actually exists, a cross between wheat and rye. Contrary to Chekhov’s assertion, it wasn’t the Russians, it was the Scots and Swedes that did it. Anyway, point is that even TV Sci-fi writers can recognize the importance of grain in our lives.
Oh yeah, let’s not forget that the internet solution is actually a three part invention. We can find anything in the world on the net. We have to pay for it, and while too many people abuse plastic and get in over their heads, it really is a wonder that we can simply enter our credit card information for payment. Used to be a really big deal. Even 20 years ago, if you ordered something mail order, you had to send a check, which could take a couple of weeks to clear. Most places did not ship until they had the money in their hands. Last part of the equation is the shipping. With post, UPS, FedEx and the like just about anyone in the civilized world can get a shipment in a pretty short time. Truly amazing.
Another facet of the great time we live in is that there are so many books available on baking – thousands, in fact. We also have the ability to look up just about any recipe that ever was. Cool.
Ovens. It is true that our modern home ovens are not quite as good as the bakers masonry ovens used throughout most of our history. But. They are adequate and a good sight more convenient, just turn them on and let them warm up, cook, then turn them off.
Mixers. I could not bake any more if I had to mix and knead by hand. I’ve gotten too stiff and lost too much hand strength. But – with the power of my Kitchenaid Mixer, I can bake for many more years. The mixer does all the work.
Bread machines. I don’t like them or use them, but millions do. They work.
I’m quite sure that you can think of many more examples of the wonders of modern baking. We really do live in a golden age for bakers.