Bread is Not the Enemy
People often comment that I don’t ‘look like a baker.’ This is awkward, as are all comments about bodies, but I get it surprisingly regularly. For one thing, bakers come in various bodies because people come in various bodies. I look the way I look because of a complex constellation of social, environmental and genetic factors. As do we all. But what people are really saying is this: you must eat bread, and you look okay. Is bread okay for me to eat?
We tend to keep two columns in our heads: good foods and bad foods. The good foods are those which will help us fit into our skinny pants, avoid bad health outcomes, somehow or other makes us good people because we ate the good foods. We think a lot about what goes into these columns, and judge ourselves and others relentlessly for which columns we are eating out of.
The ethics of eating is both personal and political. Eating is comfort, community, ritual, pleasure. It’s essential for survival. It’s almost impossible to reduce that intricate web of elements into all good/all bad. We want to be thoughtful about what we are eating, both for ourselves and for our community/environment. It makes a big difference. But we also don’t want to overthink it, and take out all the joy.
So where does that leave bread?
Bread is a huge category of food. A naturally fermented, whole-grain boule made of nothing but flour, water and salt in a home kitchen is bread. So is a squishy, springy bright-white roll made with a long list of ingredients you can’t pronounce (except maybe the palm oil) and from wheat that went through a 24-step sifting and milling process after being treated with glyphosate in the fields. Bread in general has been relegated to the ‘bad food’ column because some bread probably belongs there. But I do eat a lot of bread, and I feed my kids a lot of bread, and I’m convinced that the bread I am eating and feeing us is really, really good for us.
What makes good bread good?
Start with the grain. A wheat berry is a excellent little unit of nutrition. It has complex carbohydrates for energy and fiber in the bran to slowly release that energy. It has significant amounts of a variety of of minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals. White flour is very often enriched with iron, folic acid, riboflavin, niacin and thiamine- all of while occur naturally in the wheat berry but are stripped out in the process of refining the flour to only it’s whitest, starchiest parts. Whole grain flour is also a significant source of fiber, which 95% of Americans don’t get enough of. A diet rich in fiber is associated with better gastrointestinal health and a reduced risk of heart attacks, strokes, high cholesterol, obesity, type 2 diabetes, even some cancers. But whole-grain, fiber-rich foods are also carb-rich, which often lands them in the ‘bad’ column in the current dietary climate.
Also consider where the grain came from. As with all produce, fresh, local grains tend to have more flavor and nutritional value. They also have a fraction of the carbon footprint. We’re living in a really exciting time for grain, as many farmers, small mills and bakers are picking up on the benefits of growing wheat varieties that have different flavor profiles or baking properties. These also tend to have better nutritional values and community benefits. Small local markets and farmers’ markets are great places to look for grain and flour. Small, local bakeries have often sought out small, local farms and mills to source from. The communities that grow around small bakeries, farms and farmers markets are also invaluable- increasingly so in this digital, disassociated age.
Once you have good grain, make the flour carefully. Minimally. Mess with that wheat berry as little as possible. Try to get as much of the whole berry into the flour as you can. All those parts of the wheat berry have their own important components, and they work (and taste) best in concert with one another.
Then make the bread well. Care-fully, and slowly. At it’s simplest, bread is made from just three ingredients, flour, water and salt. Sourdough bread is leavened with a mother culture containing naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria. Sourdough bread takes longer to rise than yeasted bread. During this long rise, the starches in the flour break down slowly and many multiple kinds of fermentation occur, allowing for wonderful flavor and texture. Wetter doughs also allow for more fermentation and give you custardy, tender bread. They are also easier for your body to digest and absorb, since fermentation has done some of the job of breaking down the starches for you.
Bread you make yourself is often the best bread. You can choose your ingredients, your recipes and your technique. You are much more likely to keep it simple and fresh than a big industrial bakery. But luckily, there are also a tremendous amount of small local bakeries out there working really hard to make good bread for their communities. Any bread you get from a small, local bakery is probably going to be more similar to bread you would make yourself than to a processed roll from a factory.
All that being said, I definitely feed us bread I buy at the grocery store sometimes. Sometimes I make milk bread, which is enriched with eggs and butter, even a spoonful of sugar and contains commercial yeast. I certainly don’t restrict us to only eating whole-grain sourdough bread. But that kind of bread is always around and it is the bread I eat the most of, by far. I also keep the principles of good bread in mind when I am shopping for it, an d try to seek out whole-grain, sourdough breads from local, small bakeries.
Bread in many forms has been an important part of the human diet the world over, since antiquity. ‘Breaking bread’ is a foundation of human togetherness. Bread made lovingly and carefully will always have a place at my able.
this article originally appeared in my Substack, Baker's Notes