The Evolution of Bread

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
Bread’s evolution has been influenced by all the elements that go into its making: the grains, the machines for milling them, the microbes and chemicals that leaven the dough, the ovens that bake the loaves, the people who make the bread and eat it. One consistent theme from ancient times has been the prestige of refined and enriched versions of this basic sustenance. Bread has become a product increasingly defined by the use of high-rising bread wheats, the milling of that wheat into a white flour with little of the grain’s bran or germ, leavening with ever purer cultures of mild-flavored yeasts, enrichment with ever greater quantities of fat and sugar. In the 20th century we managed to take refinement and enrichment to the extreme, and now have industrial breads with little flavor or texture left in them, and cakes that contain more sugar than flour. In the last couple of decades, bread lovers have led a rediscovery of the pleasures of simple, less refined breads freshly baked in old-fashioned brick ovens, and even supermarket breads are getting more flavorful.