The History of Bread: The Ultimate Guide

What do you know about the history of bread?

Bread is the kind of food that can be found just about anywhere in any culture at any point in human history. It forms the foundation of our sandwiches, it serves as an extra utensil for scooping up the remnants of a meal off your plate, and it often is the primary component of a great variety of delicious pastries and drinks.

Bread is incredibly simple to make which is probably one of the reasons it is so widespread; anyone who’s ever made basic bread from scratch would know that the only difficult thing about making it is waiting for it to be ready to eat. Another reason is most likely because it tastes amazing in virtually any form and because it’s satisfyingly filling. It’s also healthy in moderation; it contains a plentiful amount of carbohydrates which, when digested, provide a vast supply of energy. It has been the necessity of many hardened laborers throughout history because of this.

history of bread
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There’s a problem with bread, however: it’s often taken for granted. Most of us just buy a loaf of bread from the store and consume it without a second thought. We don’t take into account what ingredients are required to make it, or how it manages to bubble and rise, or for how long or at what temperature it needs to bake. While bread as we know it today has been an essential element of human cuisine for a very long time, it hasn’t been around forever and—like many great inventions—it may have been discovered by accident. Yeast is the ingredient that makes bread rise. When made without yeast, the result is known as unleavened bread and is flat. Some common examples of unleavened bread are pita, matzo, and naan from the Mediterranean/Middle East, the Jewish community, and India, respectively.

History of Bread

Yeast is a living organism that thrives primarily in warm, anaerobic environments, anaerobic meaning without oxygen. This process is known as fermentation and is used when making alcohol as well. Clearly, yeast plays an important part in creating the finer things in life. There are hundreds of different species of yeast, but there is a common kind that is used in baking and it is understandably called “baker’s yeast,” or in the scientific community, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Yeast produces lots of carbon dioxide when it starts to metabolize sugars, and if this process continues to a sufficient extent, the large amount of carbon dioxide gas causes bread to rise (Lawandi 2015). However, carbon dioxide doesn’t act alone here and is not the only product of yeast.

Image result for flat bread

The flavor of bread actually comes from the alcohol that the yeast cultures produce alongside carbon dioxide gas, specifically ethanol. Yes, ethanol is the stuff found in numerous different fuels, including gasoline. However, the amount of ethanol created by yeast is extremely minuscule and in addition to that, it actually evaporates once bread is placed in an oven to cook. The bubbles commonly found in bread are due to the evaporation of ethanol as it transforms into a gas from a liquid and starts to rise out of the bread, obviously attributing significantly to the rising of bread (Lawandi 2015). There is however one more component that helps bread to rise: gluten. 

Many people may steer clear of gluten either because of personal diet choices or because of allergies, but for those that can and do consume bread, gluten is an extremely important factor for the creation of bread as we know it. While gluten primarily comes from flour, yeast can help fortify and rearrange it. By doing this, gluten is able to keep the ethanol gas bubbles from escaping the bread completely and leaving it dense and unpleasant. So, ethanol, gluten, and an oxygen-free environment are important factors of yeast that give bread its flavor and structure, but how did humans find out that this microscopic living organism could have such an effect on a simple mixture of grain and water?

The Details

Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels.

It is believed that humans first started to make something similar to what we today recognize as bread about 30,000 years ago (2018). Prehistoric man was known to have a diet that included gruel, a simple concoction of grain and water. By itself, gruel doesn’t greatly resemble bread, though it may have somewhat resembled unleavened bread when cooked upon a hot stone. Back in the time of prehistory, yeast was not available to buy at any store. Instead, yeast tends to be present in the air as it is released from plants. Most likely, some of this yeast found its way into some gruel where it began to produce its byproducts of carbon dioxide and ethanol, ultimately producing a fluffier substance than unleavened bread. It is believed that humans first started to produce yeast on a commercial scale in 300 B.C.E. in Egypt (2018).

Since then, many cultures have been interested in refining the grain to make better flour in order to make more favorable bread. The result of this can be seen in today’s baking flour: a very smooth, white, and refined grain product. The significance of bread in human culture is highlighted by its repeated presence in art and in old texts throughout the years. While many foods of the past have fallen out of favor with modern tastes, bread remains a common component of the human diet.

References: Lawandi, Janice. (2015). “The Science Behind Yeast and How It Makes Bread Rise.” TheKitchn. Retrieved from https://www.thekitchn.com/the-science-behind-yeast-and-how-it-makes-bread-rise-226483.

Sarahlohman1. (2018). “A Brief History of Bread.” History. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/a-brief-history-of-bread

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