The business of bread

Carmen writes, in the context of making sourdough bread:

I was wondering, if you would have the time to write a post about the differences between different types of flour. You have hinted before that some are more nutritious than others, and I tried to do a google search, but there were too many unknown terms, and I didn’t have the time to properly digest the information.

The grains most commonly used in the Western world are wheat as a strongly dominating first, rye, and barley. In recent years spelt, an ancient grain of the wheat family is making a comeback as well, and spelt flour and bread are available in many stores.

All of the aforementioned grains contain gluten, though in slightly different forms. A word about gluten: this famous protein is what gives bread its shape, elasticity and lift. The higher the gluten content, the better the bread will come out. You can make bread from gluten-free grains such as corn, teff, quinoa or buckwheat, but it won’t be bread in the form of the high, shapely, crusty loaf most of us crave.how_to_make_sourdough_08213_16x9

Image source: BBC

People with Celiac disease should avoid gluten entirely, in all shapes and quantities. People with non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, however, often find that they tolerate certain grains better than others, in particular spelt better than the commercial varieties of wheat, especially if the bread is made through long-rise fermentation process (as in sourdough).

Mankind has cultivated wheat for thousands of years, but the wheat that had been consumed throughout most of human history is not the same wheat in use today. In the 1960’s, commercial farmers switched to growing a new, modern hybrid of dwarf wheat. It provides easier processing and higher yields, but is also less nutritious (containing, in particular, less of certain minerals than traditional wheat) and, some studies claim, more allergenic. Evidence is a bit murky here, and it’s unclear how much the rise in sensitivity to wheat is due to the new genetic makeup, and how much to modern processing methods.

While I was studying for my degree in nutrition, we were told that people should consume whole grains because the bran contain nutrients and fiber that are cast away in the process of making white flour. No one talked about the different varieties of wheat, however, nor of how grain fermentation partially breaks down the gluten and makes the nutrients in whole grains more easily absorbed. In particular, fermentation activates the enzyme phytase, which breaks down the phytic acid binding minerals such as calcium and magnesium in the hull of the grain.

It might not be scientifically proved, but many people who can’t tolerate commercial wheat bread respond a lot better to long-fermented breads made from traditional grains. Of course, this only goes for people who do not have Celiac disease – if you do, avoid any gluten-containing products altogether. 

The type of bread I generally recommend is made from whole rye, barley or spelt (or a combination of these), using a long-rise fermentation process. You can obtain such bread in many artisan bakeries or make it in your own kitchen. The results might not be as reliable as when using baker’s yeast, but the nutritional and culinary benefits are well worth it.

I think spelt flour is the best option for people with conservative taste, because of its resemblance to wheat. Personally I love rye bread, but some people (my family, for instance) find it too dark, dense and dominant-tasting.

If you are new to baking with whole grains, it should be noted that bread from whole grain flour will always rise slightly less well, and be a little more dense, than bread made from white flour. The reason for this is, again, the gluten content. Because whole grain flour includes the bran and germ – parts of the grain which do not contain gluten – the amount of gluten in whole grain flour, per cup, is lower than in white flour. This is sometimes off-putting for people who are used to commercial spongy white bread, but I think it’s a matter of habit and mindset: just because the food industry has gotten us used to soft, sweet bread, it doesn’t mean that’s the way it should be.

Once you get the taste for real bread, there’s no looking back. Personally, one of my favorite light meals – as breakfast, lunch or dinner – is a slice of artisan sourdough bread with some farm cheese and a ripe tomato. Yum!

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7 thoughts on “The business of bread

  1. I make all of our bread, and although I use a lot of whole grains – mostly rye and whole wheat, but even some plain white bread – and I always add a tablespoon of gluten to the mix. I don’t think it affects the taste, but even the most “stubborn” loaf will rise nicely.

    My favorite bread, which I have been unable to duplicate, is Jewish Rye. Back in the day, most stores were closed on Sunday, but my dad would go into the Jewish neighbourhood on his way home from church and pick up a loaf of black bread with the hardest crust and the softest inside I’ve ever tasted. I’d love to find a recipe.

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  2. Hi Anna- – Just dropped by on your invitation over on BHM Forum (I’m doc). -love your philosophy-classic Thoreau “Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.– my goal too.

    My mouth is literally drooling looking at your photo above– nothing better than warm, “real” bread fresh out of the oven with gobs of butter– even tho I’m generally an advocate of the hi prot, Lo CHO diet.

    While modern wheat from Borlaug’s Green Revolution is not as nutrient dense on a per weight basis as older strains, the nutrient content per acre is better, given the higher yield. Not everyone is as lucky as us to be able to produce most of our own food without having to worry about hi yield and profits. We need to deal leniently with those poor, deprived unfortunates.

    And remember that grains are a pretty lousy sources of nutrition– the differences between different types are quite small- even the dif between whole grain and milled. They should be considered mostly as sources of carbs. Most of the vitamins in bread comes from the yeast, not the grain.

    Caesar’s legions, who ate a diet almost exclusively of grain, were petrified on first encounter with the huge Germans, whom Caesar described as eating a diet of only meat, milk and cheese. Similar observations were made by Americans dealing with the Plains Indians in the 19th century.

    And then there’s dealing with diabetes

    Best wishes,
    -Tim

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    • Tim, thanks for stopping by – I could spend hours digging into all the interesting points you bring up in your comment.

      The photo of the bread isn’t mine – I wish! It’s an image I found online. However, I’ll be sure to upload photos of any wholesome baking results here.

      Have you read Nourishing Traditions? I have a degree in nutrition and thought myself an expert when I graduated, but this book totally revolutionized my way of thinking about food. I quit being vegetarian and we added a lot more animal fats to our diet. This was 6 years ago and I can report that we haven’t gained any unwanted weight at all. In fact I feel a lot better and am in excellent shape.

      I agree with you that many people do poorly on a high-grain diet – it depends a lot on heredity. However, fermentation vastly improves the nutritional value and digestion of whole grains. That is why traditional sourdough bread is infinitely superior to quick-rise breads (even made from whole grains).

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      • I feel better eating after stopping being vegetarian as well! I ate well as a vegetarian, but still. I feel much better and have more energy with a bit of meat in my diet.

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      • Kathleen, many people report just the same. Some nutrients are just hard to come by without fair amounts of animal-sourced products in the diet. The bottom line is that people vary and a diet that works for some may not work for others.

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