Thursday, August 21, 2014

Rock Ridge Bakery

Bread has been the “staff of life” since mankind switched from being hunter-gatherers to an agricultural lifestyle, roughly 10,000 years ago. The ability to store food for the winter made life outside the tropics a lot more pleasant and also brought about the end of the nomadic lifestyle, since it was inconvenient to carry around six months' worth of food. Bread is so important to daily life that it has been part of our various languages for millennia: the word companion comes from Latin com "with" + panis "bread" -- literally, “those you share bread with”.

Bread is simple.

  1. Take a pile of grain (wheat rises due to the gluten in it, other grains not so much) and grind it into flour.
  2. Add water to make a really thick paste or dough.
  3. Add flavoring or fruits as desired.
  4. Add a “leavening” agent to make it rise if you want fluffier bread. This will improve the taste and texture of the bread.
  5. Bake it in an oven until it is cooked all of the way through.
Let's take those steps in order and explore them in detail.

1.  Grain

Any cereal grain (oats, wheat, barley, maize [corn in North America], rye, etc.) can be used as the base for bread. Except for the unfortunate souls with celiac disease who can't eat gluten-containing grains (wheat, rye, and barley), most of us eat wheat bread. Wheat could (may) be an article all by itself. There are so many different types of wheat, and so many different uses for them, because it was one of the first plants that people domesticated and is one of the most wide-spread.

Grinding your grain into flour can be done with something as simple as a round rock, a classic grist mill, or as complex as a commercial flour mill. The goal is to break up the individual pieces of grain to expose the inner parts (see diagram below) to the water, leavening agent, and heat in order to make them easier to digest.

Rounded rocks used to grind grain into flour. Look in river or stream beds to find naturally rounded rocks, as the water rolling them against each other tends to round them nicely.
Grindstones from a couple of powered mills. Depending on where you are they could be turned by wind, water, or animal power.
The grooves help channel the flour towards the center as it was ground.  The green thing next to them is a one-cylinder gas engine that could be used for powering just about anything with a pulley on it.

 A hand-cranked grist mill. There are modern versions on the market that work on the same principle. If you decide to buy one, make sure you buy quality. Getting spare parts from China could be a problem after a major crisis.

Most common grains have the same structure as wheat (bran, endosperm, and germ) so the one picture gives you a general idea of the internals. The hull or bran is the protective shell around the seed, our bodies treat it as fiber (or roughage as grandma used to say).

The endosperm is the stored energy for the seed. Cereal grains store energy in the form of starch, which is a complex carbohydrate that breaks down into simple sugars when eaten.

The germ or embryo of the seed is where you'll find the proteins and oils. When storing grain it is best to store it intact, since the oils in the germ will go rancid soon after they are exposed to air.

2.  Add water

Bakers, like many other professions that have been around a long time, have developed their own methods of measuring. When you see a recipe for bread that measures the ingredients in %, it is likely a baker's recipe and the unit of measure is called a “baker's percent”. They start with the weight of the flour being used as being 100% and all other ingredients are measured (by weight) as percentages of that weight. Most recipes call for about 60% water +/- 5%, depending on the type of wheat being used.

3.  Add flavoring

Fruits, honey, sugar, butter, or anything else you want to add to liven up your bread. Raisin bread toast was a Sunday morning treat for us when I was growing up, and Grandma's sweet rye bread was worth going to holiday dinners for by itself.

4.  Add a leavening agent

The most common leavening agent is yeast, a naturally occurring fungus that digests some of the sugars and starches in the dough and produces CO2, which creates voids or bubbles in the bread. This only works with grains that have a high gluten content, since the gluten acts as a binder and traps the CO2 in the bread. Maize (corn), oats, and rice do not have the gluten needed to trap the CO2 and will only make “flat-breads”.

Chemical leavening agents are commonly used in “quick” breads like pancakes and muffins, since they don't require the hours of preparation time that yeast does. Chemical leavening agents include baking powder ( a mix of a base and a weak acid that react with heat and water to produce gas bubbles) which is a delicate balancing between getting the desired bubbles without imparting any chemical tastes to the bread.

Beer, sour milk, a portion of a previous batch (starter bread ), and a bunch of other methods have been used to leaven bread through the years. They're all a source of yeast or bacteria that will convert sugars into CO2 and make bubbles

Mechanical leavening is the use of a whisk or mixer to incorporate air into the batter and usually works best on small pastries and with a high protein content (eggs are the usual source of protein). The proteins make for a “stickier” batter that holds the air bubbles.

5.  Bake until cooked

Most bread is baked in an oven, although the quick breads (pancakes and biscuits) can be cooked on a griddle or pan. An oven is simply a box exposed to controlled heat; the box keeps ash and combustion products out of the bread and spreads the heat out so the bread cooks from all sides at the same time. Ovens can be made out of metal, brick, or stone -- they all work about the same. (Oven construction is another topic that is worthy of a separate article.) They can be fueled by wood, gas, coal, or electricity, but as long as there is some way to control the heat and keep it at the desired level for the time it takes to bake the bread, it's an oven. 

Bakers provide a service for those who don't have the time or kitchen to make their own bread. They also make pastries and cakes for special treats and occasions. By providing both the staples and the minor luxuries, they become a part of every town. Because the process of making bread takes considerable time, they usually start their day well before other people are out of bed so their product is ready for sale when the customers come in. If your training and lifestyle tends towards early mornings and customer service (and eating left-overs), you may want to look into learning more about what it would take to set up a bakery if there isn't one in your area.

Note: all images that are not my original work courtesy of ,, or and are license-free, non-copyrighted images.

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