What you knead to know

Industrial bread is a gastronomic and digestive disaster. It leaves stomachs bloated, bowels irritated and some of us with an intolerance to wheat. It also has a tendency to get stuck between the teeth and to the roof of the mouth.

The majority of loaves you’ll find on UK supermarket shelves have been prepared using the Chorleywood process. Introduced in the 1960s, it was designed to revolutionise the commercial production of bread. By adding more yeast, water and hard fats, and using high-speed mixers, food scientists found that the time for kneading and proving could be reduced.

bread food assembly

More than 50 years on and the mechanical process has reduced our appreciation for what constitutes a proper loaf. Slices of white bread that have a dough structure that can crumble under the slight pressure of a condiment or preserve being spread have long been a fixture in the diets of plenty.

For those who find industrial bread’s overly salty undertones unpalatable, real bread, especially sourdough, has been enjoying something of a revival.

“Real bread – bread leavened and fermented using naturally occurring wild yeast and bacteria – is more sustaining, more nutritious, flavoursome and has better keeping qualities than its industrial counterpart,” says Ben MacKinnon, founder of the E5 Bakehouse in the borough of Hackney.

Ben e5 food assembly

“This is due to the enzymatic activities occurring in the dough (principally the phytase breaking down phytic acid to make minerals available), the lack of commercial yeast and other additives, and the organic acids that are produced by the bacteria.

“There are around 40 ingredients added to bread made through the Chorleywood method. Many of these do not need to be labelled as they are considered part of the process.”

It’s thought that the absence of fermentation in industrial bread is partly what is making hearts grow fonder for loaves that have been baked with the kind of care and attention also reserved for beer brewing and cheesemaking.

MacKinnon says that proper breadmaking is more than flour, water and salt – it’s an art form, and people are starting to fall back in love with it.

“Practice, repetition, watchfulness all contribute to great bread,” he exclaims. “The dough is a living creation and the baker must respond, recognising how it’s fermenting and then adjusting things like temperature or hydration.”

 

E5-bakehouse-sourdough
The E5 Bakehouse started in 2011. MacKinnon set it up after becoming frustrated with his career in corporate sustainability.  For him, baking real bread is not simply about improving people’s tastebuds and encouraging healthy eating; it’s an opportunity to have an impact on society beyond the palate and to support the environment.

“As well as the nutritional benefit, there’s also the satisfaction of supporting a craft which employs passionate people in their profession. The social and economic benefits are seen more directly within the local community,” he says.

“And not only does well-made sourdough bread have benefits to our own health, if the ingredients are sourced wisely – for example, diverse grains, such as spelt, rye, or heritage wheat grown on farms that use non-intensive, low chemical input techniques – then the bread can also support the health of the countryside. That encourages greater biodiversity and less pollution.”

For anyone interested in sourdough, go check out the Real Bread Campaign by the food charity Sustain. Use its Real Bread Finder to find a local baker near you.

About

Richard McEachran

Rich McEachran is a freelance features writer covering all things edible, green and sustainable. He writes for The Guardian, Vice and Virgin Travel. He was a finalist in the Guardian International Development Journalism competition 2012.

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