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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