Bread that is old is new again

May 15, 2019

Bread is back on American dinner tables. After years of being vilified as the enemy to our waistline, people are starting to realize that when made in the traditional way bread is a nutritious option, not just a loaf of empty calories.

The phenomena started with a question. How could bread have been the foundation of the world’s diet for 6,000 years if it was bad for us? As more people looked for the answer, they realized that the industrial bread found in supermarkets is a completely different thing than what our ancestors ate. Basically, the industrial processes companies developed to make bread quicker and cheaper corrupted a wholesome food, making it something hard to digest and not nutritious.

In order to give bread its dignity back, American bakers have abandoned modern practices and are adopting older, traditional ways to make bread. By focusing on preparation and ingredients, places like Tartine, Bread Lab, Manresa Bread, La Brea, and others are elevating the product from a commodity to a gourmet experience and creating new opportunities for the industry.

The big change is the return to the sourdough process, which has been used for 5,000 years. The process starts with a sourdough starter, also known as the mother, instead of the quick-acting commercial yeast. During the breadmaking process a special fermentation takes place where the yeast and bacteria found in the starter break down the flour’s gluten and sugars. Not only does this make the dough rise, it also chemically modifies the grain, increasing the nutritional content and making it easier to digest. So, while this is an intense process that requires regular maintenance and monitoring, there is a huge payoff. The final outcome is not a spongey, bland loaf that leaves you feeling heavy, but a crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside, slightly tangy treat.

In addition to the natural leavening, artisan bakers are starting to mill their own flour because the industrial milling process removes the germ and bran, which are two components essential for our bodies to properly digest bread. For instance Manresa Bread in San Francisco produces 2,000 pounds of flour each week with its in-house stone mill. By not taking anything away from the grain, they can make a healthier and fuller flavored product.

The other trend for cutting-edge bakers and chefs is pre-industrial wheats. While there are 3,000 varieties of wheat in the world, 95% of what farmers grow are common, non-nutritional varieties because they are easy to grow. Bakers sourcing directly from farmers ancient and heritage grains like kamut, einkorn, red fife, emmer, and spelt. Some are even baking with rare breeds like black winter emmer or purple barley. These varieties are an opportunity to showcase diverse flavors such as nuttiness, black pepper or vanilla. As a result, these flavorful loaves elevate bread out of its commodity status.

By going back to old ways, bakers have opened up new possibilities for the grain and bread industry. Now, the focus is on rebuilding the American grain economy by growing more diverse species and building more regional mills across the country. The objective for many bakers is to scale their production, making nutritious and delicious bread more accessible. While going back to ancestral practices seems counterproductive to innovation, this movement demonstrates that it can actually create an opportunity for better innovations. As entrepreneurs look for new ways to innovate, their eyes should not just be towards the future. An awareness of the past is crucial because sometimes to move forward, we have to take a step backwards.