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Tales of the Kitchen

A very common phrase that I use quite a lot is “the greatest thing since sliced bread,” meaning something of superlative quality. The phrase is more than true. Bread is a popular food in the Western world and most other societies. There are many variations of bread recipes – pizza, chapatis, tortillas, baguettes, brioche, pitas, lavash, biscuits, pretzels, naan, bagels and quick breads. There are also different names for bread. In Spain bread is called “pan”, in France bread is “pain de mie”, in Southern France “fouace”, in Italy “focaccia”, in South Asia “roti or chapati” (which are flat breads). The Jewish bake a traditional bread named “challah”, in Scotland bread is called “plain bread”, and in Northern China “mantou”.

How could something so good come from 5 basic ingredients – flour, yeast, sugar, water and salt? Now there are many more ingredients that can better your bread, but you can get a favorable product with just these 5 products. Let’s face it: bread is a bio-chemical technology for turning wheat flour into something very tasty.

In approximately 2600 BC the Egyptians were lucky enough to have a sufficient amount of wild yeasts in the air from the beer brewing to accidentally discover its uses in leavening bread. Then Greek sailors and merchants brought the flour back to Greece, where baking bread flourished. Rome then took over after the conquest of Greece and, in 150 BC, formed the first Bakers Guilds. This was not only done to have a respectful profession, but to protect the public. The guilds held the profession to standards which they had to follow or be punished.

In early colonial America lack of wheat was an issue, so they turned to corn. Even when wheat became common, the Southern colonies had trouble making bread rise due to the high heat and humidity that killed off the wild yeasts. So biscuits and cornbread remained popular. By the 1800’s flourmills introduced highly processed flour and then, in 1825, a German baker was able to create cakes of yeast and package them for sale. From then on baking bread became easier for all, but even today bakers prefer to bake without commercially processed yeasts. They would rather work with a starter mixture developed out of the wild yeasts in the air.

We are very lucky living here in the Bay Area with all the wild yeasts around us allowing us to make our own sourdough starter. All it takes is time and care in developing a starter. It needs to be fed and watched that it does not get too cold or too hot. I remember in culinary school that was the last thing we would do every night – feed and put the starter to bed. It seems like a lot to do, but even if you used compressed yeast, you will still have to perform 12 steps:

Again, in culinary school these were drilled into us and tested, so I try not to forget these important steps.

1.  Scaling and mise en placeing your ingredients, which mean weighing out and measuring all your ingredients properly.

2.  Mixing, which has 3 purposes: distributing the ingredients, developing the gluten and initiating fermentation.

3.  Primary fermentation, which is when you manipulate temperature to control the outcome. This is the most important stage in the creation of a great bread. Sugar is the one necessary ingredient for fermentation, converting into alcohol and carbon dioxide with the yeast.

4.  Punching down: there are 4 reasons for this step: 1) it expels some of the carbon dioxide trapped in the dough which could choke off the yeast; 2) it allows the gluten to relax; 3) the temperature of the dough is different from the inside to the outside and it helps to equalize the temperature; and 4) it helps redistribute nutrients and trigger a new feeding cycle.

5.  Scaling/dividing: it should be done by cutting dough evenly so it does not rip. Each time the dough is cut it creates a week spot.

6.  Rounding: helps to stretch the glutens and form surface tension around the skin of the dough.

7.  Benching: depending on the type of bread being made will determine how long to bench the dough.

8.  Shaping and panning: there are many shapes and sizes.

9.  Proofing: which is the ending of the secondary fermentation. Once you bring your dough to the size desired for baking, a wash would be applied and then you would slash the dough to release any trapped gases.

10.  Baking: done by following your recipe based on what you are producing, hard crusty bread or soft bread.

11.  Cooling and patience: need to be practiced, if you slice your bread too soon after it comes out of the oven the center will be dough or under baked. The starches are full of moisture and are still in the process of setting.

12.  Storing: don’t store bread in the refrigerator, don’t store crusty breads in plastic bags, don’t store soft breads in paper bags, and don’t store warm bread in plastic.

This may seem like a lot to remember, I even forget a step or two, but if I just work thru the steps in my mind, they do come to me. Also a phrase, written by Frances Bacon (1561-1626) to use, “Acorns were good enough until bread was found.”

Chef K. Marie Paulk