The importance of bread in the history of civilization cannot be overestimated. Learning to grow and process grain turned people into farmers rather than hunters and foragers. This led to the further development of agriculture and the eventual development of towns rather than nomadic tribes.
Bread has evolved from prehistoric times, as the elements that go into it have evolved: the grains and how they are milled, the microbes that leaven the dough, the ovens that bake the bread and the people and their cultures who make and eat the bread.
Early humans discovered that grain could be ground to make a mixture called meal. When cooked with water, this meal became the ancient gruel that fed so many people. When this meal was mixed with water to form a dough, then baked on coals or in a primitive oven, it became bread.
What exactly is bread? It is a food made by mixing flour and water to form a glutinous mass called dough. Gluten gives the dough elasticity and allows the carbon dioxide produced by fermentation to make the bread rise. It is then baked in an oven. Wheat flour is the only kind that produces a strong gluten. Flat, unleavened barley breads were the norm on the northern rim of the Mediterranean to about 400 B.C. Leavened wheat bread then became popular, and by late Roman times wheat bread was a central feature of life.
Because good commercial bread is so readily available, most of us do not bake bread from scratch. If you have never made bread, I highly recommend that you try it. The process of mixing, rising and kneading is very therapeutic and most enjoyable. The aromas that permeate the kitchen make the effort worthwhile and the final product coming out of the oven is one you will be very proud of. Here are some simple recipes for you to try.
(Note: Making bread is very forgiving. Proof times, exact measurements and kneading directions are all subject to variation, so do not stress over them too much.)
Very Healthy Oatmeal Bread
Bring 3 cups water to a boil in a saucepan. Remove the pan from the heat and add 2 cups old-fashioned oatmeal, 3 tablespoons canola oil, 1 tablespoon salt, 1/3 cup honey, 1/4 cup sesame seeds and 1 cup raisins.
While this is steeping, combine 4 cups bread flour, 1 cup rye flour, 2 tablespoons wheat germ, 1/2 cup soy flour, 3/4 cup instant non-fat dry milk and 2 tablespoons active dry yeast.
Place the oatmeal mixture and the flour mixture in a mixer with a dough hook. Mix at low speed for 5 minutes and place the dough on a lightly floured surface. Knead it by hand to form a smooth ball and place in a lightly oiled bowl to rise. Cover with plastic film and let rise for 45 minutes.
Put a pizza baking stone in the oven and heat it to 350 degrees. Divide the dough into three pieces and shape them into small loaves. Put a piece of parchment paper on an inverted sheet pan and put the loaves on top. Open the oven and slide the parchment with the bread onto the stone. Bake for 55 minutes at 350 degrees. Remove the bread and cool on a rack for 1 hour.
Traditional Italian Bread
The day before, make a sponge by combining 2 cups bread flour, 1/4 teaspoon rapid-rise yeast and 1 cup warm water (110 degrees). Stir with a wooden spoon to form a coarse dough. Cover with plastic film and let sit at room temperature for at least 6 hours.
For the dough, combine 3 cups bread flour, 1 teaspoon rapid-rise yeast and 2 teaspoons salt. Place this in a mixer with a dough hook and add 1 1/4 cups warm water. Mix at low speed for 2 minutes and stop. Cover the bowl with plastic film and let sit for 20 minutes to rest the gluten.
Add the sponge and continue mixing for 10 minutes, adding a little more flour (up to 1/2 cup) to form a smooth dough. Place the dough on a floured surface and knead by hand into a smooth dough.
Add 1 teaspoon olive oil to a bowl and place the dough in the bowl. Cover with plastic film and let rise until double in size, about 1 hour.
Leaving the dough in the bowl, press it down and turn it over with a rubber spatula and let rise another 30 minutes. Repeat this step and let it rise another 30 minutes.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and press it into a rectangle. Roll the rectangle into a loaf, pressing the dough together at each roll to make a tight cylinder. Press the ends to form a cone.
Place this on a parchment-lined sheet pan, spray with no-stick and cover loosely with plastic film. Let rise for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, put a pizza stone in the oven and heat to 500 degrees.
Make diagonal slashes in the dough with a sharp knife and mist with water using a spray bottle.
Slide the parchment onto the stone and bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 400 degrees and continue baking for 30 minutes. Remove and let cool on a rack for about 1 hour.
Combine in a mixer bowl 4 cups bread flour, 2 teaspoons rapid-rise yeast, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 tablespoon sugar. Add 1 1/2 cups milk and mix at low speed for 5 minutes.
Turn out onto a floured surface and knead by hand into a smooth dough. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover and let rise for 2 hours.
Punch down the dough and cut it into 12 pieces. Knead these pieces by hand on a floured surface until smooth and elastic. Cover with a towel and let rise for another 1 1/2 hours.
Prepare a charcoal grill and let the coals begin to turn white. Clean the grill with an oiled paper towel and close the lid to preheat the grill.
Roll each small dough into a rough rectangle and place on the hot grill. Cook about 2 minutes per side and remove. Brush with melted butter and serve.
Note: The oatmeal bread recipe was adapted from a recipe in “The Cornell Bread Book” (1955), the Italian bread from a recipe in “America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book” and the flatbread from a recipe in “The Food Lab” by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.