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The Staff of Life

by Tarla Fallgatter

Copyright 1998 Tarla Fallgatter. All rights reserved.

The word "bread" can conjure up so many memories of delicious varieties eaten throughout our lives, such as French baguettes in Paris, leinsamenbrot in Germany, chapatis in India, sourdough bread in San Francisco, cinnamon rolls at Grandma's house, and many more. No matter where you are in the world, nothing compares with the delicious aroma of freshly baked bread coming out of the oven.

Some say that bread is "older than man". In fact, there is evidence that primitive bread was baked on hot stones in open fires early in the Neolithic Age. From the first circular cakes that were thin, flat and brittle, to the great variety of shapes known today, bread in simple terms is a mixture of grains (which are seeds or fruit of a cereal grass, and when ground very fine become flour) and liquid that has been cooked by heat that comes from fire or even from the sun.

Instead of simple white flour, bread can be baked from a richer variety, such as buckwheat, chestnut, corn, millet, potato, oat, rye and soybean. And think of the interesting liquids which can be used instead of ordinary water, including milk, sour cream, beer, juices and buttermilk.

With or without leavening, bread symbolizes various things in various cultures. Since the seventeenth century and even earlier, the word "bread" has been used as a reference to money; for more than a century family providers have been known as "breadwinners."

Around 30 B.C., during the reign of Augustus, there were 329 bakeries in Rome. A baker's son became a baker and could not follow any other profession, even if he married outside. One famous baker, Vergilis Eurysaces, had a monument of almost royal magnificence raised to him after his death and it stands to this day. Eurysaces' monument bears a frieze showing all of the stages of bread-making, after the manner of a cartoon strip. The grain is shown being ground in a stone mill not unlike a huge vegetable mill of the kind found in kitchens today. The tomb of this enlightened entrepreneur provides a good deal of information, and two features are especially striking: first, the evidence of a form of mechanization, with the energy provided by horses, and second, the fact that the customers in the shop are all men, either slaves or free. In contrast to the Greek custom, Roman women never made bread, except among the very lowest classes. Bread-making was a masculine business.

Flours and Grains

Bread Flour

Wheat for baking falls into two main categories of suitability. The first is associated with the season in which the wheat is planted. Spring wheat, planted in spring and harvested in autumn, produces a strong (hard) flour containing high percentages of gluten (between 12 and 15 percent).

Winter wheat, planted in autumn and harvested in early summer, has less gluten (between 10 and 12 percent). Because it stays in the ground longer, winter wheat is usually tastier than spring wheat. Spring wheat will absorb more water and must be kneaded longer, but yields bread with a stronger structure and greater volume; winter wheat yields a fuller-flavored loaf.

The second category is characterized simply by whether the wheat is of the type known as hard or soft.Hard wheat (which may be either winter or spring wheat) has kernels that are hard and difficult to cut. Its relatively high percentage of gluten makes it tough and resistant, very well-suited to bread. The kernels of soft wheat are soft and appear starchy when cut. Its small percentage of gluten makes the flour weak and not good for bread, although it's very suitable for biscuits, muffins and pastries.

All-Purpose Flour

All-purpose flour is a mixture of hard and soft wheats with a gluten content of approximately eight percent. Though quickbreads and muffins do quite well when made from all-purpose flour, it is not ideal for either yeast-raised breads or pastries.

Bleached Versus Unbleached Flour

As flour ages, it naturally whitens. Since the purpose of bleaching is to create the whitest possible flour, bleaching can also be understood as a method of instant aging. Aged white flour performs better in machine-made dough. Thus its current popularity is easy to understand; most commercial bakeries employ machines for their bulk production. Bleaching chemicals, however, destroy the vitamin B and the fresh taste apparent in unbleached flour.

Whole-Wheat Flour

Whole-wheat flour is ground from the whole wheat berry. Thus it includes the outer layers of bran, high in non-nutritive fiber; the germ, rich in oil, protein, iron and vitamins; and the endosperm, which is primarily starch but also contains the gluten-producing proteins and many minerals. The flavor of the bran and germ will emerge and blend with the flavor of the other ingredients noticeably better when doughs containing them are allowed to rise for a long time.

Cracked Wheat

Cracked wheat is cut, instead of ground, from the whole wheat berry and adds a wonderful crunchy texture and nutty flavor to bread.

Rolled Oats

Rolled oats are whole oat kernels compressed into flakes by heavy steel rollers. They add a meaty chewiness to bread.



Yeast is the oldest leavener. It is a living, one-celled fungus that, in the presence of flour and water, feeds, grows and reproduces new cells. During this process, it turns oxygen and simple sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. The carbon dioxide becomes trapped in the glutinous fibers of the dough, causing it to expand or rise. The small amount of alcohol produced by the yeast evaporates during baking.

Compressed Yeast

Compressed yeast was the earliest yeast manufactured for baking. It consists of microscopic yeast cells compressed into a solid block. Since it is still active, it is highly perishable. Compressed yeast is sold in half-ounce cakes, which should be dissolved in 80F liquid before being added to dough.

Active Dry Yeast

Active dry yeast was developed during World War II. Dried yeasts are in spore form, a condition in which the cells are temporarily inactive but can still become activated when more favorable conditions are provided. After rehydration, it is used exactly like compressed yeast.

Fleischmann's Red Star Yeast is readily available in one-quarter-ounce packets (the usual quantity needed for up to three loaves of bread) and need not be refrigerated or proofed provided it is used before the date stamped on the envelope. I always proof the yeast just to be sure it is alive. To proof yeast, dissolve the amount called for in the recipe in a quarter-cup of lukewarm liquid with a pinch of sugar before adding the rest of the ingredients. If it bubbles within five or ten minutes, you have proof that the yeast is alive.

Baking Soda

The important chemical reaction occurs when an alkali is mixed with an acid. One alkali commonly used is bicarbonate of soda (baking soda). To be activated, baking soda must first be neutralized by an acid which, in a recipe, appears in the form of another ingredient-citrus juice, acid fruits, molasses, honey, buttermilk or sour cream. The leavening action requires the presence of both the alkali and the acid, so blanket substitutions in recipes using baking soda are not always possible. White sugar is not acidic, brown sugar (which contains molasses) is; molasses is, but corn syrup is not; water cannot be used in place of orange or lemon juice or vinegar; and sweet milk cannot replace buttermilk or yogurt. Apricots, raisins, bananas and apples are less obvious acid additions.

If you must omit the acid called for in a recipe, use baking powder instead (four teaspoons for every one teaspoon of baking soda) lest the batter or dough fail to rise. Conversely, if you add a second acid to a baking powder recipe (e.g., cranberries to plain muffins), you will need to add a small amount of baking soda to neutralize it.

Baking Powder

The results of using baking soda in such combinations are frequently inconsistent due to the many variables involved. Baking powder, introduced in the 1850s, makes results more predictable. Single-acting baking powder is bicarbonate of soda in combination with an acid, usually cream of tartar. When moistened, the two chemicals instantly begin to act on each other. Baking powder therefore also contains cornstarch to keep it dry so that it will not become active while in storage. The disadvantage of single-acting baking powder is that the chemical reaction, and thus the leavening, begins immediately after the liquid is added.

Double-acting baking powder also begins to work immediately, but the reaction is twofold and slower. Double-acting baking powder releases gas initially during the mixing stage, but it is a gradual release. The main reaction occurs at temperatures above 140F, that is, after the dough or batter is in the oven. Most brands of double-acting baking powder are treated with aluminum sulfate. If you prefer to avoid this chemical, look for Rumford Baking Powder, easily available in healthfood stores and at Trader Joe's.

Ancient History

Paleontologists working in the Nile Valley have unearthed mortars and pestles used for grinding grain, and other evidence suggesting the production of primitive bread as early as 17,000 years ago. The wild grain these Stone Age people harvested seems to have been barley and a basic form of wheat.

At least 9,000 years ago, in the fertile valleys of Mesopotamia, Sumerian farmers began harvesting wheat they themselves had planted and, because they had learned to make beer, it is clear they had some idea of the fermentation caused by the wild yeasts that developed naturally when they mixed crudely fragmented grains with liquid. The dough they made soured slightly and was baked into heavy, coarse-textured loaves. Such partially leavened breads like Iran'ssang-gak, are still reproduced daily in the Middle East. These forms evolved naturally, governed somewhat by the contours of stones on which they were baked.

Later, in the Nile Valley, Egyptians invented the oven, and the process of leavening was perfected. Records show that Egyptian home cooks and commercial bakers produced 30 kinds of bread. Indeed, bread became so important a symbol of life that it was invariably prepared to accompany deceased persons on their journey after death.

Like people, breads have national characteristics, evident in the forms they take and the grains on which they are based. Before the invention of baskets, clay pots and metal pans, all of which were used as molds, most bakers made round loaves because it was natural to form dough into a ball. Before there were ovens, it was equally natural to flatten balls of dough as much as possible, for the thinner the shape, the easier it was to cook the bread through on heated stones.

Round loaves have been common in every period of history, no matter what improvements have been made in ovens. Indeed, throughout southern Italy, the country bread on the family table is much like the loaves, excavated at Pompeii, that were baked on August 243, A.D. 79, the day Mount Vesuvius erupted. Today in France there are at least 28 loaves of varying shapes, some whimsical and some as serious as the long, thin bread that almost literally represents "the staff of life." The crisp, rod-shaped baguette is about two feet long and is stretched out in this fashion so it may be cut at an angle into many slices, each of which will have maximum crust and ample interior.

Regardless of shape, the most popular breads (which certainly does not mean the best) everywhere are white and are made from specially produced wheat flour. This appetite for white bread was not established in the beginning, but evolved over centuries as machinery for grinding grain improved. When the seeds of plants were ground by hand between two stones it was difficult to keep foreign particles out of the meal that resulted. The same difficulty remained even after the invention of windmills and gristmills powered by water. Flour was still contaminated by various kinds of dirt. The color of whole grain flour was naturally dark enough to obscure the presence of much foreign matter. Thus, when white flour was available from a miller who made a point of sanitation, it was reserved for the rich and powerful and white bread for religious use was given priority.

If a loaf of bread seemed to be plain white, it was believed to be natural and free of dirt from the millwheel or from the floor. Dark breads, especially those produced from barley and rye flours, were suspected of being impure and were therefore unacceptable to those who had a choice, but dark breads were good enough for peasant farmers or the urban poor. "To know the color on one's bread" was a Roman phrase that meant knowing one's place in the social caste system-the lowlier the class, the darker the bread.

Basically, bread-making has changed little since the ancient Egyptians found that fermentation, or the leavening process, would make it a lighter, more open-textured loaf. The grain is ground; the dough is mixed with liquid and a leavening agent like yeast or baking powder and is allowed to rise, increasing its bulk. Then, more often than not, it is baked. But whether a loaf contains flour made from barley, oats, rye or wheat, it may also be cooked by poaching (dumplings, for example), by frying in deep fat, or by steaming as in Boston brown bread or Chinese steamed buns.

Just as the American Indian believed that corn was the gift of the Great Spirit, mankind through time has given homage to bread. Many early cultures assumed the origin of wheat to be supernatural. The Chinese also were convinced that wheat and rice were direct gifts from heaven. In Britain, early Saxon yeomen baked loaves of bread from the first harvest and offered them to God. Swedes used to mold dough in the shape of a female figure in gratitude for the earth's fertility, and Norwegians made gingerbread men at the grain harvest festival. In France, Norman soldiers demanded white bread to give them courage. Elsewhere, farmers believed wheat should not be cut in the light of the moon or the bread would be dark.

In much of the world, bread has been used as a synonym for life, and is held to be sacred by many families. The peoples of some Middle Eastern countries, Claudia Roden has written, consider bread a direct gift from God: "A hungry man will kiss a piece of bread given him as alms. An invocation to God is murmured before kneading the dough, another before placing it in the oven. A piece of bread found lying on the floor is immediately picked up and respectfully placed on the table." Bread has had symbolic Christian meaning since Jesus said to his disciples, "I am the bread of life."

The Jews eat matzoh, or bread without yeast, to mark the eviction by the pharaohs. ("They baked matzoh of the unleavened dough which they had brought out of Egypt, for it had not leavened because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not linger, nor had they prepared any food for the journey." [Exodus 12:39]) Leaven thus became for them the symbol of evil and selfishness-fermentation being seen as a corruption of the dough, which could not be offered to an incorruptible God-and matzoh is a reminder of freedom.

No other sensory experience is quite like working flour into dough, shaping the live, risen sponge into loaves, filling the kitchen with tantalizing, yeasty aroma, then at last slicing through the crust of newly baked bread. Now, with active dry yeast easily available and whole grain flour (stone-ground in the traditional way) packed in five-pound bags on supermarket shelves across the country, fragrant homemade bread is again a triumphant accomplishment for cooks of all ages-and a reward that every home baker's family and friends will devour with delight.

One of my favorite recipes is the one for cornmeal bubble rolls. It is easy to make and is delicious with any meal:

Poblano Cornmeal Bubble Rolls

1 pkg. dry yeast

1 tsp. sugar

3 Tbsp. warm water

1 poblano chili, seeded and finely chopped

2-1/2C bread flour

1/2C stone-ground cornmeal + a little to sprinkle in the pan

1 tsp. salt

2 Tbsp. + 2 tsp. sugar

3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened

1 large egg

1/2C whole milk, warmed

3 Tbsp. butter, melted

pinch salt

Stir the yeast and 1 tsp. sugar into the warm water, cover and let stand until foamy-about 5 minutes. Place the flour, cornmeal, salt, 3 Tbsp. butter, the egg, remaining sugar and 2 tsp. of minced poblano chili in the food processor and process to combine. With the machine running, slowly pour in the yeast mixture and milk and process until the dough cleans the sides of the work bowl, but is still moist, but not sticky. If it is sticky add a little more flour; if too dry add more water. When the dough is the right consistency process until it is kneaded-about 40 seconds.

Transfer to a warm bowl, cover with plastic wrap and place in a warm place until the dough doubles in volume-about 1 hour. Punch down the dough and divide into 8 pieces. Butter an 8" round cake pan and sprinkle with a little cornmeal, if desired. Roll each piece into a smooth ball, arrange them in the pan, starting from the center and placing them so they touch each other lightly. Cover with a towel, place in a warm place and let rise until doubled in volume-about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 375F and place the rack in the center. Melt 3 Tbsp. butter and add the remaining chilies and a pinch of salt. Brush over the top of the rolls and bake the rolls until golden-about 35 minutes. Remove from the pan and return to the oven for 2-3 minutes to crisp up the bottom, if desired. Place on a rack to cool slightly. Serve warm or at room temperature.

MAKES: 8 large rolls


Some of the best breads around are the delicious selection ofLa BreaBakery breads found at many local supermarkets and specialty food stores. My favorite is their walnut bread which you might have to order one day in advance to make sure it is there for you.

Also, if you are passing through Santa Barbara don't forget to stop at D'Angelo for some wonderful artisan breads and brioche. You will find this delightful shop at 25 W. Gutierrez Street, telephone: (805) 962-5466.

Additional Sites

Breadman Bread Machine

Salt-Rising Bread

Tips on High-Altitude Baking

Celebrity Corner

Recipe for Water Bagels


Tarla Fallgatter is a well-known Orange County caterer, chef, teacher, restaurant consultant and kitchen tool manufacturer. She trained at Paris' Cordon Bleu, La Varenne, and Ecole Lenotre cooking schools, and was the first foreign woman to cook in the kitchens of Maxim's. She has traveled to over 60 countries throughout the world, "sampling" the local cuisine. She markets her "Tarla" all-copper rolling pin in fine cookware shops.


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