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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Back to Basics: Bread as a Staple

After the Storm by Renee Williams,
acrylic on canvas covered board
Evelyn does an incredible job of posting filling, easy-to-make recipes (like her beef stew) that will be handy to have around in the case of a SHTF situation. In fact, she does such a good job of it, she inspired me to start thinking about some of the recipes in my own “go-to” files to see what could be easily adapted for the prepper or off grid person. Looking at my recipes got me to thinking about the basics.

One of the most basic staples of human food supply, beyond fresh meat and seasonal fruits or vegetables, is bread. The Romans conquered a world for themselves because bread was the primary staple of their diet, especially way-bread and other unleavened types that could be easily transported by the legions.

In its easiest form, bread has only a few absolutely necessary ingredients:
  1. Ground Grain
  2. Water
  3. Salt 
Technically, even the salt is optional. It greatly improves the flavor profile, and makes the bread more satisfying, but it’s not an absolute necessity for the bread to work. Mostly it will help your bread – even the coarsest unleavened loaves – from having a bit of a flat tastelessness.

Unleavened Bread

You might notice that I left out some sort of leavening agent, such as yeast or baking soda. That’s because while we modern folks are mostly used to leavened breads (heck, what we’re used to is leavened, bleached, vitamin enriched, and chock full of various modern chemicals that give it a particular soft texture and its own half-life on the grocery store shelf!), historically this was not the case.

Unleavened breads tend to be very dense, and are often difficult to chew and digest. For this reason, they were frequently used as the serving bowl or plate for the rest of the meal, soaking the juices up while you ate your main course. The juices from the main portion of the meal – whether that meal be a thick, meat-rich stew, or roasted vegetables with the remains of what meat you’d killed and salted weeks before – would soften the dense, coarse loaf and make it much easier to chew and choke down at the end of meal time.


Leavening Agents

Chemical leavening agents, ranging from standardized yeasts to baking soda and baking powder, to baker's ammonia, to various forms of potash (notably pearl ash, from potassium bicarbonate) weren't commercially available until the early portions of the 1800s.  Prior to that, leavening agents consisted of 3 things:
  1. Wild yeasts that were maintained as a sourdough culture (sometimes referred to as Bread Mother);
  2. Wild yeasts that were maintained as a beer brewing culture (often referred to in medieval sources as Ale Marm or Beer Mother); and
  3. Whipping a lot of air into the dough as it's being mixed and shaped. 

Natural

  • Yeast, when properly stored in an airtight container and left undisturbed, will last and stay usable for a very long time. It’s surprisingly shelf-stable, and if you keep it refrigerated, it lasts even longer. 
  • Making a Bread Mother (sourdough culture) and maintaining it can be very rewarding, and sourdough breads have a flavor profile that simply can’t be matched through substitution.

Artificial

  • Baking soda has a good shelf life as long as it’s been kept in an airtight, sealed container. However, it will lose its potency given time and exposure to air.
  • Pearl ash and baker's ammonia (something I wouldn't suggest using, as it leaves a distinct smell, and frequently a bitter taste as well) aren't in common use even among professional bakers these days, though they’re still available through high end specialty supply houses. They are so seldom used that I doubt you’ll ever run across a recipe that calls for either of them as the leavening agent. 

Other Ingredients

A good addition to the most basic grain/water recipe – or substitution, really – is the use of milk in place of some or all of the water. Milk will add a touch of sweetness, and will change the texture and flavor profile of many grains. Eggs as a binding agent, or an added protein, have been used frequently throughout history, and are considered a “standard” ingredient in most yeast bread recipes today. Butter, lard, olive oil, or some other form of oil is frequently added to bread recipes to help with the consistency and elasticity of the dough. Most noodles, in fact, are simply flour, water, eggs, and oil formed into dough, then stretched and rolled thin before boiling rather than baking.

Even today, beer breads are a delicious variant on home bread making, and the use of high end artisanal beers can impart wonderful overtones of richness and flavor to the breads created from them. I’m fond of using Guinness Black, and other very dark ales and dark lagers, in my beer bread making. Pairing a nice dark lager with a touch of molasses in the dough is almost sinfully decadent, and leaves a slightly sweet aftertaste that lingers a bit, especially when combined with a rye or oat base.

Simple Pita

This is my recipe and directions for making Simple Pita Bread. This form of bread, either leavened or unleavened, has been in use since the earliest times of recorded history. It bakes quickly, with a soft texture and either a flat or a slightly puffy visual appearance. Due to steam forming while the pita is rising in the oven, it frequently forms a pocket when sliced across its center, making it easy to fill and take with you as a meal on the go.
  •  3 ½ cups All Purpose flour, plus extra for kneading and rolling 
  •  ¾ cup warm water, kept under 105F 
  •  ½ tablespoon Agave Nectar or Honey 
  •  1 ½ teaspoons Active Dry Yeast 
  •  2 teaspoon Olive Oil 
  •  2 eggs, room temperature

Mix together the yeast, agave syrup, and warm water, stirring until all yeast is wetted; set aside to allow the yeast to bloom.  The yeast has bloomed when it appears to be frothy on top.

Add the olive oil and eggs to the yeast water, stirring until well incorporated.  

Mix your flour and salt loosely. 

Add liquids to flour a bit at a time, making certain the flour is completely moistened and incorporated into the forming dough, and continue mixing until it pulls itself mostly into a ball in the center of the bowl, pulling away from the bowl sides on its own.  At this point you should have a mass that is only somewhat sticky, and rather elastic.  

Dump dough ball out onto a smooth surface which has been sprinkled liberally with flour, coat your hands with flour, and then begin working the dough to knead it into a smooth, completely elastic consistency.  Add flour to your hands, or the kneading surface, as necessary to keep the dough from sticking. This should take about 7 to 10 minutes.   

Place dough back into bowl, cover lightly with a towel, and leave (covered)  in a dry, warm space for 1 to 3 hours to allow it to double in size.  

Once dough has doubled in size, punch down to remove excess air, and split dough into 8 to 12 small balls of approximately equal size.  Roll each ball out into a round approximately ¼ inch thick. 

Bake for 10 to 13 minutes in a 425 degree oven, or until puffed up and just beginning to brown.

The Fine Print


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