Making Bread Like in the Old Days?

And I mean in the old days like a few thousands of years ago. Archaeological evidence has been found that people have been making some form of bread for almost 30,000 years! But I want to fast forward to Egyptian times (about 3000 years ago) as they seem to be credited with the first “mass” production of yeasted bread and generally establishing what we now know as Artisan Bread. If you look at the ancient pictograph above, what we do today to bake our bread really hasn’t changed much since those days… or has it?

The basic technique of mixing flour water and salt and adding a leavening agent really hasn’t changed much since those ancient times. But let’s make no bones about it: What we do today is MUCH easier than how they did it back then.

Think about it: The way we make Artisan Bread – whether at home or commercially – today is graced with a plethora of conveniences that our predecessors just didn’t have. Bread making has come a long way since then. Let’s look at a few things that we take for granted.

Our forefathers had to grind their flour. Though the Mesopotamians invented the grinding wheel and what we know today as milling, this was low production, highly manual intensive work to get flour. Even today, there are countries where community millers still exist. And if you think about it, the type of wheat or grain people baked with was highly regional. They basically baked with what grain crop was grown in the vicinity.

We, on the other hand, go online, and get our organic, hard red or white wheat, either stone ground or steel rolled or processed with a Unifine mill. We can get AP flour, bread flour, high-extraction flour, whole grain. We can get wheat, spelt, rye, millet, ancient grains like einkorn or durum. The variety that we have accesses to – literally at our fingertips – is mind-blowing!

Also, look at our baking apparati! At home we have our electric or gas ovens. For the more rustic-thinking, there’s the Ooni and other hearth-like ovens. Commercial bakers have deck ovens or huge stone or brick hearth ovens. For those using the traditional wood-burning ovens, sure, there’s a lot of labor that goes into maintaining a fire. But consider this: Our environments are controlled and somewhat predictable. Ancient bread makers didn’t have HVAC.

Furthermore, not everyone had a baking hearth. Most villages had a community oven. In his wonderful book, The Apprentice, chef Jacques Pepin described being a boy in a village in France where on a certain day, the whole village would bake at the community oven. Us? We preheat our oven at home and pop our bread in any damn time we choose!

Also, think about how information was passed on from baker to baker back then. It was all word of mouth. And it was truly a craft where master bakers took on apprentices, and the apprentices went on to being masters and pass that on. But today, we open up our browser and look at bread making blogs and join home baker forums. We learn in a matter weeks or months what would have taken years for an apprentice to learn.

For instance, I went from this:

To this:

…in just a matter of months. Sure, it was a lot of learn by doing, but I also had the luxury of the Internet to help diagnose issues. And mind you, that loaf above is one of my so-so loaves. I’ve been able to reach a level of consistent quality not just by doing it a lot (I do bake practically every day), but having information readily at my fingertips. And I’m not alone in this. What I’ve seen other home bakers create is absolutely amazing! And I’ll submit that it’s the quick, free-flow of information that has enabled people to get to relative mastery much sooner than in the old days.

And while there are people who have totally geeked out on creating and maintaining a sourdough culture, I’m not one of them. I generally use a poolish or a biga to get the slightly sour taste in my bread. But I can do this because of the easy availability of commercial yeast. That said, I actually do maintain three active cultures but I bake several different types of bread. My cultures are tools, not pets. 🙂

Back in the old days, people had to create and maintain their starters. But let’s take a deeper dive into that. They didn’t have refrigeration. They didn’t have convenient little tupperware or glass jars. They didn’t have high-precision gram scales to get the right proportions. They certainly didn’t have silicone spatulas to clean out their bowls! Get the picture? While there is still a definite amount of craft that goes into our baking today, our lives are SO much easier than the artisans of old!

But from the standpoint of tradition, very little has changed. If there was any good about this whole 2020 lockdown, the fact that so many turned to baking – myself included – has been a real bright spot. And based on my participation in bread making forums, there’s a widespread, renewed enthusiasm for making bread. It’s heart-warming to see so many keeping the tradition alive!


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