Friday, February 5, 2021

Bread, the Staff of Life

Bread is referred to as the “staff of life” in European cultures (most of the rest of the world relies on rice or root crops as a primary source of carbohydrates). Carbohydrates are the primary source of calories in most diets, with animal fats being a close second. We need calories to function -- they are the fuel for our bodies -- and carbohydrates are an easy source.

Carbohydrates are basically chains of chemically-bonded sugars; the longer the chain, the more “complex” the carbohydrate. Simple sugars contain one or two sugar molecules, but complex carbs like starches will have hundreds, and cellulose has thousands. Starches can be broken down by various digestive methods into sugars that our bodies can actually use, but we're not set up to handle cellulose and have to run that through animals with longer digestive tracts to get any use out of them, which is where the animal fats come from.

One of our retired authors wrote an article on simple bread years ago, and that information is still valid. Bread is one of the earliest things humans started to make as a way to store and transport food when we began the long crawl towards civilization. A few years ago, archaeologists found a chunk of fossilized bread that set the beginning of baking back several thousand years: for centuries it was thought that we'd been making bread in some fashion for about 10,000 years, but this new find was over 14,000 years old. 

Grinding up seeds and roots makes them easier to eat and digest, so people had been making gruel or porridge (think oatmeal, but made with other grains) for a long time. Wild grains that made good-tasting bread like wheat and barley were the first to be domesticated and grown intentionally, so bread actually predates agriculture. Cooking ground grains breaks down some of the complex carbohydrates and makes them easier to digest, while also killing any pests or microbes that can cause spoilage. It also softens the grain for the older family members who may be missing some teeth and can't chew whole seeds any more, or the really young members who haven't grown any teeth yet. Baking that gruel into something you could put into a bag or pocket wouldn't have taken much thought or effort.

Bread is also a handy way to contain other foods like meats and vegetables. Just look at the variety of pitas, sandwiches, meat pies, and tortillas found around the world.

Bread is simple. All it takes is water, ground grain or powdered roots, and an oven or griddle. The very simplest breads will be flat breads like tortillas or naan, cooked on a flat rock or piece of metal placed over a fire. Roughly three parts flour and one part water, you mix it into a workable dough, shape it into patties about a half-inch thick, and place it on a greased, hot surface to cook it into bread. Everything else to be added only affects the taste, texture, and shelf-life. Baking bread has turned into an art form; even the various pastries and cakes available today are nothing more than fancy breads with frosting on top, but any edible grain that you can find can be ground into flour and baked into bread. 

Since really basic bread is nothing more than baked mush, it will be dense and chewy. Leavening agents have been developed to make it “rise” by the introduction of pockets of gasses into the dough. This added porosity makes the bread easier to chew and swallow, but doesn't add anything to the nutritional value and yeasts will actually eat some of the sugars to produce those gasses.

 Most of our common grains are grasses, so planting a patch of rye or crabgrass isn't any harder than tending a yard. A quick list of common grains can be found here, but I know of a few more that aren't on that list, and one on that list that will anger local farmers since it's an invasive species that is hard to kill. Hard to kill is a good thing for a prepper, as it means a more reliable food supply, but planting something that can take over the neighbor's fields won't be appreciated and may be illegal in some states.

Things other than grains can also make usable flour. Edible roots like cattails, yams, and arrowroot grow all over the US and can be turned into good flour. Nuts like acorns and hazelnuts (filberts) are easily ground into flour, and provide more protein than most grains. Wild plants that can be used to make bread are something to watch for as you forage, since that bread will be easier to transport, store, trade, and eat than the raw materials.

Bread in its many forms has been around for a long time, and knowing how to make it should be on every prepper's list of skills. It doesn't have to be a loaf of sliced white bread in a plastic bag to be bread; just look at the recent introduction of tortilla wraps on a lot of menus. For those of us with food allergies, changing to something other than wheat might make sense and there are lots of other options.

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