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In these carb-conscious times, when bread is often painted as the villain of the modern-day diet, we often need reminding just how important this staple is and has been to the development of human culture.
As far as I am aware, there is no cuisine in the world that does not include bread or dough of some kind among its roster of dishes, and this has been the case since long before man began to keep written records.
Bread, in all its many forms, has had a huge impact on our development. Revolutions have started over the lack of it and indeed, without the ability to grow and harvest grain, humanity would never have begun to form its earliest communities.
So as you marvel over the dishes the Iron Chef and their challenger create for the Chairman, remember that while man may not live on bread alone, our diet would be a lot less interesting without it.
What is bread?
Bread is a staple food for many cultures. That means it is eaten by the majority of people and at the majority of meals. It is, essentially, wheat flour or other meal mixed with water and formed into loaves, which are then either dried in the sun or cooked in an oven. Other dry and liquid ingredients such as salt, fats and oil can be added, as well as an agent to make it rise (leaven), such as yeast or a “starter” from previous dough.
Archeologists believe that man has been making bread in some form for as long as he has been harvesting wheat, and there are records of the ancient Sumerians soaking grains in water to make beer and then grinding the residue to make flat cakes. Bread as we know it, however, probably began with the ancient Egyptians whose records show that they leavened bread much as we do today nearly 2,000 years ago.
Most bread types can be placed into one of three main categories: Those that rise quite a bit during cooking and are baked in special pans; those that only rise a small amount during cooking (such as French baguettes and rye breads), which are cooked on trays; and those breads which do not rise at all, flatbreads such as tortilla or Indian chapati. Within these categories, of course, there are hundreds of different styles depending on which part of the world you are in, what ingredients are available and which part of the wheat grain was used in preparing the bread.
Although bread has been called “the staff of life,” on its own it does not offer many nutritional benefits apart from being low in fat and high in dietary fiber if whole-wheat grain is used. It is more just a delivery system for the dishes with which it is served.
Where does bread come from?
Although bread can be found in just about every cuisine in the world, it was a particular staple in Western Europe and it is believed that the word bread is derived from the Germanic term “bröd,” which meant a small morsel. Through trade and immigration bread moved on to become a staple food in any region where it was easy to grow wheat.
With more than 300 varieties available, Germany offers the widest selection of breads in the world and there are few meals that pass without spelt, rye or wheat bread supporting the main course. The average German eats nearly 150 pounds of bread a year; they take their daily loaf so seriously that in 2011 the Association of German Artisanal Bakers applied to have German bread making listed by UNESCO as a cultural art form.
In South America, it is the Chileans who really love their bread, with Marraqueta, a French-style loaf being eaten with every meal and often purchased twice a day. While in the Indian subcontinent, there are as many different breads as there are regions, with my own favorites being naan bread, puffed up on the interior of a tandoor oven, and flaky paratha, which is stuffed with spiced potatoes.
Even in Southeast Asia, where rice is the more common staple, you will still find wonderful bread on offer. The memory of eating hot, fresh Filipino Pan de Sal straight from the oven is one of the best from all my eating adventures.
How can I cook with bread?
Although I think a great sandwich is hard to beat, bread is a lot more versatile in the kitchen than you might imagine. I usually find it is better if it is a day or so old before I start to use it.
Whenever I make meatballs, I always add a panade, a mixture of bread and milk, to my ground meat to make the end result moist and lighter. The technique also works just as well when making a meatloaf.
To make terrific croutons, cube leftover bread, toss in a little olive oil and sprinkle with garlic salt. Spread the bread on a baking tray and cook in the oven on a very low heat until they become golden brown. The croutons add an interesting crunchy texture to a traditional Italian panzanella salad.
I have often tried to re-create some of the bread dishes that I have found on my travels around the world. In Portugal, I adored Acorda Alentejana, which is a delicious soup made from olive oil, fresh farm eggs and day-old bread, while in the Russian city of Irkutsk, I sampled Kvass, a light beer made from black rye bread.
And, of course, being British, puddings are very high on my bread agenda. Few are better than a rich bread and butter pudding made with slices of buttered bread, custard and raisins soaked in brandy. It’s heaven in dessert form.
Where do I buy bread?
Given that it’s a staple, just about any store selling food in the U.S. will sell bread of some type and most supermarkets now offer many different styles of loaves and flatbreads, as well as the prepackaged white sliced bread that so many of us grew up with.
I think it is definitely good to also support your nearest bakery. They will have even more varieties available, many of which may use grains from local farmers.
Better still, why not try making your own bread at home? It may seem daunting at first, but once you have mastered the basics, you will soon find yourself hooked.