Sunday, April 21, 2013

Thoughts on bread

My family likes bread. 

We can get through over a kilo in a day. 

I also have an addiction to flour, and so in my ceaseless mission to provide bread for the bread bin, I have been getting my hands dirty with a number of different flours recently.

I mentioned in a post on the banquet a few weeks back that bread was a staple food in our period. As a result, we almost always have some type of bread on the wic as it's one of the comparatively few authentic foods.

Trying to have authentic food on the wic is actually quite hard, because even where the same food existed in our period, it is very different to the modern product.

A loaf made of heritage flour

As regards bread, this is for a number of reasons:
  • type of flour: wheat, barley, rye, acorn etc
  • method of milling: ground with a quern stone vs stone ground at a mill vs a modern roller mill
  • raising agent and time to rise: unleavened vs sourdough vs modern commercial yeast 
  • method of baking: period ovens vs modern ovens
  • properties of the wheat
It's the last point that I want to talk about a bit today.

Unless you're another bread freak, if I say "bread" to you, then you probably think of something like this:
(Image taken from this classic white loaf recipe)

This loaf doesn't look much like the picture I posted above, and not just because I made it rather than a professional baker.

I have baked with two pre-20th century varieties of flour: the Doves Farm Heritage Wholegrain and their Einkorn. It is the heritage wholegrain which you can see at the top. The einkorn is a prehistoric hulled wheat, and the Heritage wholegrain is a recent free-threshing variety, so both are quite a long way from the wheats that would have been cultivated in our era, but sadly, they are the closest I can obtain. As almost all other wheats you can buy are the result of the green revolution in the 1960s which  produced short stalked wheats with a high grain yield, however, they're close enough to provide interesting practical insight into what bread in our period might have come out like.

 Both varieties come out significantly flatter and denser than any other flour I bake with:

Two einkorn loaves on the left and a modern loaf on the right

On the left you can see two einkorn loaves, both baked from 500g of flour. On the right is a loaf of modern flour. Even accounting for the accidental perspective in the shot, the einkorn loaves simply don't rise as much as modern flours. Partly this is because they tend to spread out more than rising, so my suspicion is that they just don't develop gluten structure the way modern wheats do.

The cracks and holes in the surface of the bread in the photos below also suggest this: instead of stretching, some of the gluten strands have just given up and snapped under the pressure of the air bubbles which are forming, creating the cracks and holes you can see below.
Einkorn loaves with cracked crusts
If I'm right - and I don't have any authentic flours to play with - then even though we know that they did have yeasted breads which rose, I'm guessing that by our standards they were pretty flat and dense. They would take a fair bit of chewing, rather than being the light fluffy loaves we eat today. Of course both of these flours are wholemeal, which is naturally slower to rise anyway because the sugars aren't quite so easily accessible, but I let these rise as much as I dared without risking them collapsing.

Just for interest, see the difference between the pure white roller-milled sourdough on the left, and the stoneground wholemeal einkorn on the left. They're pretty much opposite ends of the wheat spectrum: the one is silky, smooth, and stretchy, and the other is tight, textured and dense.

One other point: the Heritage variety is a blend of two older varieties, April Bearded and Spring Wheat, both from between the 17th and 19th century. If you're interested in reading more about these heritage varieties, then Brixton Windmill have an interesting post on their efforts to grow it, as do Howell Farm in America.

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