Have you thought about the chemistry that goes on behind the scenes to create the chewy goodness that is known as bread?
We eat bread almost every day. Have you ever looked at a slice of bread and noticed the tiny holes in it? It almost looks like Swiss cheese gone horribly wrong. While bread is a delectable delight, have you thought about the chemistry that goes on behind the scenes to create the chewy goodness that is known as bread?
Bread know how
Bakers might as well have degrees in organic chemistry; the exact science that goes behind baking the perfect loaf could be considered the eighth wonder of the world.
How does bread work?
There are numerous chemical reactions that go on beneath the surface of any loaf of bread, as well as feats of nature, which keep the loaf from either exploding or imploding on itself. Let's take a quick look at some of the simple facts of life bakers use to create the moist and spongy concoction we know as bread.
Believe it or not, bakers have their own mini gas refineries, in the form of yeast. Yeast is a single-cell fungi that attacks sugars, breaking them down into alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. These little fungi have a big sweet tooth and can break down more sugar pound for pound than a kid on a sugar high at Halloween.
The carbon dioxide that is produced gives the bread the light, airy texture we all love, while the alcohol, which cooks off in the oven, adds to the complexity of the flavor. These little organisms of mass production help give bread the look, feel and smell we are familiar with.
When flour, especially wheat flower, is mixed with water and kneaded, it becomes a super-elastic material to rival any balloon or rubber band you can think of. The reason this concoction becomes stretchy is because of a protein called gluten. There are actually two proteins that help develop the super stretchy material; gliadin and glutenin.
These two proteins, when combined with water gives the bread dough the ability to capture the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast in little flour compartments. As the flour holds the gas hostage, it begins to rise, double and eventually triple in size before being punched, poked and prodded, only to start the whole process over again two or three more times.
Just like the transformation between bread and toast, once the dough goes into the oven, it makes a radical change. The strands between the air bubbles are what give the bread its shape while the alcohol bakes off and develops the spongy component we all look forward to.
Once the bread begins to near the end of the baking process, the chemical reactions begin to slow down. All of the gas has been released, a solid crust has formed and the bread has taken its familiar shape. None of this could have ever happened without the mad scientist baker knowing exactly what he or she was doing. I bet you never thought bread could be such a fun and exciting food; did you?
Tools of the trade
Bakers have a variety of tools to use when making bread. Bread making is a craft that is generally perfected over time and uses precise measurements to ensure the perfect loaf. Let's take a look at just a few tools of the bread-making trade.
As stated above, baking anything, let alone bread, requires exact measurements of different ingredients in order to get the right characteristics for the type of loaf you are trying to create. Many bakers rely on good measuring utensils, such as a standard measuring cup, measuring spoons and even various sizes of bowls that have notches in them to let them know how much ingredients are to be added.
There are some bakeries that even go as far as using beakers and test tubes to measure out exact quantities of ingredients. On that note, few bakeries even go as far as to look like science labs you may find at NASA. With high-tech tools, these bakers take their breads to the next level of production.
On the flip side, some well seasoned bakers only rely on proportions of ingredients, like your grandmother used to do, where one "cup" of flour is equivalent to the little blue coffee mug she had in her cupboard. While this is not the best way to make bread, it certainly worked then and should work the same now.
In the old days, mixing tools extended as far as your reach; literally. Hands were the primary mixing devices utilized by bakers and even though some of the measuring tools have gone techie, hands are still a common denominator when it comes to making bread.
Other bakeries have invested in huge stand mixers that have a mechanical "arm" to do the mixing for them. These machines have even been scaled down to fit on the common counter top to allow efficient home mixing. While some bakers rely on the feel of dough between their fingers to know when it is done, stand mixers usually require constant supervision. The up side to a mechanical mixer is that your arms do not fall off after making large quantities of bread.
Once you have a large ball of dough, making sure you get the exact amount in each bread pan can be difficult to achieve with the naked eye. For this practice, scales are used to divide the bread by weight. Some bakers use the standard balancing scales with a set of weights on one side while others go the digital route and tare the scale each time. Either way is sufficient for making a great loaf of bread.
Once the bread has been mixed and divided, it is time to let it rise. In the old days, bakers would let the dough sit out in the sunlight to rise. Now, there are special cabinets and even entire rooms built dedicated to helping dough to rise. These cabinets have a warm air humidifier installed, to keep the air warm and moist, allowing the yeast to break down as much sugar as possible. Again, for home baking, a simple bowl covered with a towel will do the trick, but be sure to keep it away from any air conditioning vents otherwise the bread will not rise properly.
As far as baking goes, there are two schools of thought. The traditional oven method is most commonly used in bakeries that produce large numbers of loaves each day. Single person bakeries, otherwise known as your kitchen, have opted for the set-it-and-forget-it bread maker. Both devices achieve the same end result, a beautiful and delicious loaf of bread.
While there are many different tools to use when making bread, the process is generally the same. The main thing is to find what works best for you and get consistent at making your favorite loaf. It doesn't really matter what NASA is baking or what high-tech robotic arm is mixing the dough, what matters is that you get to enjoy your hard work and that, is the best thing since sliced bread.
Types of bread
There are hundreds of different varieties of bread you can make at home. Dense breads, light, fluffy breads, if you have seen it in a store, you can make it at home. Let's take a look at the different types of breads that are only the beginning of possibilities.
White bread - This is your standard, bleached white flour bread. Many different things can be added to this bread, including seeds, herbs and even cheeses. White breads are usually very soft and fluffy and are a common occurrence in bagged lunches.
Wholegrain bread - Whole bread includes whole wheat and other whole grains. This means the bread contains all of the components of the grains. There are numerous health benefits to having whole breads, including the nutrients that come from the grains as well as the added fiber.
Mixed grains - Mixed grains are usually made from a mixture of whole grain flours. Typically, mixed grain breads also contain seeds and grains right on the top of the loaf as well as incorporated within the bread itself. Again, the added benefit of the nutrients and fiber are extremely present.
Live grains - While other breads are made by taking grains, toasting them and then grinding them into flour, live grain breads actually allow the seeds and grains to sprout before being dehydrated and ground down. Sprouted grain bread is, by far, the most nutrient dense bread as the grains used to make the flour is not processed. Because the grains are able to sprout, they also have more nutrients than any other types of bread.
Rye bread - Rye bread comes in many forms. Usually found accompanying a Rueben sandwich. Rye bread is made from a combination of rye flour and wheat flour. Since rye has such an obvious flavor profile, it is difficult to mistake for any other bread. Pumpernickel is another form of rye bread, which is heavy, dark bread, made from rye flour, rye meal and cracked grains.
Sourdough bread - Sourdough bread has an unusual name due to the slightly sour flavor profile it so eloquently boasts. The reason this bread is so different is that it uses the yeast bacteria that is naturally found in the air, along with yogurt to help with the leavening. The dough is allowed to sour through a fermentation process that produces carbon dioxide as well as an acid instead of an alcohol. The acid is what imparts the tart flavor profile while the gas is trapped, like in all other types of leavened breads, to allow it to rise.
Bread international - There are different types of foreign breads, spanning the alphabet from A to Z. Some of these include Naan, Indian leavened bread that is cooked in the top of a clay oven called a Tandoor. The clay and smoke in the tandoor combine to produce the flavor and crisp texture. There are also Italian breads, like chibatta bread, the standard French bread and even Chinese dumplings.
Gluten-free bread - Gluten-free bread is made from dough that does not require gluten to hold it together during the leavening process. This bread is perfect for people with gluten intolerances or allergies. Many times gluten-free bread is made from corn flour, rice flour or potato flour and is generally more dense and crumblier than traditional bread.
There are many different types of breads to try. Get out this weekend and pick up something new for a change. After all, white bread is not the only option out there even though it makes up a majority of the market.