One of my treasured childhood memories is of my mother baking bread. It smelled wonderful as it cooked, and we always ate the first loaf out of the oven before it cooled. She'd slice it into thick pieces and spread it with home-churned butter for us. The fanciest gourmet restaurant can't outdo that fresh bread and butter.
Although bread lost favor temporarily among low-carb advocates, it remains the staff of life for many people. If made from unrefined flour, bread is full of healthy vitamins and minerals.
A long history
Experts think that humans have been baking bread for more than 12,000 years. It's believed that most of the bread-making process was discovered by accident, as people learned to pulverize grains, mix flours with liquids, and bake hard, little bread cakes, using hot stones or ashes to heat them.
The first breads were flat breads, many kinds of which are still made and enjoyed today. The Egyptians were the first to make raised breads, and they are also credited with inventing ovens in which to bake bread.
Before people learned to use yeast, they used sour dough to make raised loaves. A little bit of dough was saved each time they baked bread. Airborne yeast made their home in the dough, which caused it to ferment, or sour. The fermenting yeast made little bubbles of carbon dioxide gas, causing the dough to expand and rise. Eventually, cooks learned how to grow yeast and better control the rising process.
Many people today still relish the taste of sourdough bread, and they keep 'starters' on hand for making their own. (I'm one of them - a jar of sourdough starter from Alaska occupies an honored place in my refrigerator.)
Wheat is the most common flour used today in breadmaking, primarily because it's high in gluten, a 'stretchy' protein that allows bread to rise. We also add yeast, oil, salt and sugar to the mixture. Specialty breads may be made from almost any kind of flour, a variety of spices or seasonings, and liquids other than milk. Fruits, vegetables, meat, seeds or nuts can be added to breads, especially to loaves made at home.
Down to a science
While bakers today can choose to make bread by hand, for most of us, bread machines have eliminated all the manual labor in producing a fragrant loaf of delicious homemade bread.
Commercial breadmaking has, of course, been reduced to a science. Machines measure all the ingredients accurately, regulate the mixing and kneading process, form the loaves, and automatically bake them at precise temperatures and times. Each loaf is exactly the same as the ones before and after it. There are no serendipitous accidents like those that led to the first flours, breads and fermentation.
But however it's made, few foods offer as much variety and satisfaction as fresh bread. And good butter still makes the best topping.