Baking Bread

Here's a comprehensive guide to preparing dough and baking bread, with recipes. Topics covered include ingredients, equipment, kneading techniques, and of course baking.

| January/February 1989

A woman who bakes bread can comfort children with a glance, converse with elms, invent new colors. A man who bakes bread — why, he can gentle animals with a touch, talk to teenagers, look good in his undershirt. Or so we are likely to believe. Such is our reverence for this elemental food and the power of baking bread that the people who can do it seem to tap an ancient communal memory, to possess powers that the rest of us can only dimly imagine.

Staff of Life

Bread pervades our language and literature, a metaphor for physical and spiritual sustenance.

We petition for our daily bread, live not by bread alone, break bread together. (The word companion derives from the Latin companio, "one who shares bread.") The satirist Juvenal lamented that his fellow Romans cared only for "bread and circuses," a concern we still share: A modern man who is short of bread could use a little dough to see him through.

And substance preceded the image. Ten thousand years ago, the domestication of wild grasses made the domestication of humanity possible. Freed from the necessity to roam constantly in search of food, humans could settle down and invent civilization. Heroic images of fur-clad, spearwielding hunters notwithstanding, we soon fed ourselves primarily on grains.

Before bread, grain was dried on hot rocks or boiled into a paste or gruel. By the late Stone Age, flat breads were common. (Remnants endure: Mexican tortillas, Chinese pancakes, Indian chapaties.) The Egyptians began making leavened bread about 4000 B.C., probably when a neglected gruel, contaminated by wild airborne yeasts, fermented and rose. With characteristic virtuosity, the Greeks became master bakers who served up 62 varieties.

Both Greeks and Romans preferred white bread, the food of the upper classes; slaves and servants ate the dark. Since extra labor was required to refine dark flour into light, it was more expensive and thus a mark of status. Europe followed the classic tradition. For centuries, coarse, hard rye bread was the daily fare of peasants — often secondhand, at that. The masters ate their dinners served up on rock-hard slabs of bread, called trenchers. When they'd eaten their meat and gravy, they fed the sopping trenchers to the servants and the dogs.

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