There may be no food more basic to human civilization, especially civilization in the west, than bread and its products. In diets, culture, and even religion, bread has played an outsize role in Western culture. Thanks to its simplicity, durability, and wide availability, bread has sustained people, especially those of limited means, for thousands of years.
At its simplest, bread is a paste of grains and water that is then heated or roasted. Bread is often leavened through the introduction of yeasts, either intentionally with the use of a sourdough starter or yeast paste, or incidentally by allowing the dough to be exposed to wild yeasts. These differences in preparation account for the different kinds of bread enjoyed around the world today.
But, chemistry and biology aside, bread is one of the most basic forms of sustenance that humans have ever created, and perhaps for that reason, one of the most important. For all of human history, access to long-lasting, nutritious, lightweight calories—in this case, the grain used to make the bread—has been part-and-parcel to the formation of kingdoms and civilizations.
But you’re not here for a history lesson—you’re here to learn about bread recipes. Today there are many types of bread, those that are leavened and unleavened, those that make use of alternative grains like barley, rye, or corn, chemically leavened breads, and so on.
Flatbreads—beauty in simplicity
Flatbreads were probably the first type of bread to be invented. Flatbreads are quick and easy to make and are not typically leavened, making them ideal as impromptu side dishes. They’re also much more flexible in terms of which grains can be used, making them perfect for those of us who happen to be gluten-intolerant or just simply looking to diversify their diet.
Flatbreads vary a lot around the world, from the corn-based tortillas of Mexico and Central America to the Greek and Middle Eastern pita bread, to Sardinia’s thin and crispy carasau. Learning the ins and outs of flatbreads is a rewarding and unique way to get a start on breadmaking.
Leavened breads—the right fluff
Sure, flatbreads are alright, but bread only gets really serious when you bring the microorganisms into it. Yeast is the thing that transforms bread from simple sustenance into something truly delicious and special. But you’re going to work for it a little bit.
Leavening happens when yeast is introduced into the bread and allowed to ferment. This introduces air into the dough and makes it fluffy, but it also allows complex flavors to develop. Even an overnight rise can produce these flavors. Bakers can use packaged yeast, a sourdough starter, or even leave the dough out to collect the natural yeasts that float through the air around us.
A simple italian bread recipe is a great way to practice your leavened bread skills. In this simple white bread recipe, the addition of yeast and lard make for big flavors while still allowing the simplicity of the white wheat flour to shine through. Serve this loaf with Italian cheeses, salami, olives, and some high quality extra virgin olive oil for an antipasto worth remembering. To let the bread develop more flavor, let the dough rise in the fridge overnight before baking as normal.
Chemically leavened bread—a new era?
Humans have been using yeast to leaven bread for thousands of years, but much more recently, humans discovered chemical leaveners like baking powder. These are used when you don’t have ready access to yeasts or time for a traditional rise. A great example of this is Damper bread, a recipe from Australia. Traditionally cooked over hot embers, the damper bread is a great option for camping trips and other times when you don’t have access to a traditional oven. Subtly savory due to the addition of lard, damper bread is delicious when served with both sweet and savory options. Try spreading it with jam or even just a nice slab of butter.
Chemical leavening is also great for desserts where you have a lot of other flavors and additives in play. Extra sugars and ingredients can interfere with the way a loaf of bread rises, so recipes like this Easter Almond Bread use baking powder to get their rise. Serve it with coffee or tea for a fantastic afternoon snack!
Bread: a human tradition
When you bake bread, matter what kind of bread you decide to make, you’re taking part in one of the world’s oldest human traditions. Chances are, just about all of your ancestors made bread at one time or another, so the next time you mix your flour and water together, think about your place at the end of a long line of bakers and breadmakers. Historically, bread was a promise—a promise that you and your family will not starve. There’s a reason that bread occupies a place of honor and respect in our language and culture. So go forth, young baker, and take pride in your daily bread.