Bread is one of the oldest baked foods in existence and is, in fact, one of the first foods after mankind began farming. The change from a society of hunters and gatherers to one of farmers was a big step toward civilization.
Bread has four ingredients: flour, water, yeast, and salt. Any ingredients after these four change the basics of bread on many levels, but originally it was these four ingredients.
The flour, likely barley flour, was the first ingredient. Barley is one of the oldest grains, much older than the wheat used to make common breads like loaf bread. The first breads were unlike modern bread in many ways. The first breads were likely flat, very dense and rather bland due to a lack of salt.
The first breads, with hand-ground flour, did not have the uniform consistency we see today. The bread texture changed as the grinding methods and technology changed. Because wild yeast cultures were easy to find, it’s likely that letting bread sit and rise was more of a happy accident.
Yeast is what makes bread rise. As a quasi-living cell, yeast would dine on the natural sugars in the flour and create carbon dioxide gas. The bubbles of carbon dioxide gas, trapped in the now-rising bread, would cause the bread dough to inflate. It wasn’t until a long time later that yeast was found and its role in making bread rise was figured out.
Gluten is a protein created when water is mixed with wheat flour. Gluten gives bread its chewiness. Because gluten is stretchy, it helps the dough rise because it traps the carbon dioxide bubbles that the yeast makes.
Salt, the final ingredient, activates channels on the tongue to enhance taste buds. Leaving salt out of a bread mixture will result in a bread that will be flat-tasting and not at all palatable.
The old chestnut, “This is better than sliced bread!” has some historical truth to it. Until the late 1920’s, bread was sold in full loaves; the buyer was expected to slice the bread themselves at home. A German-American, Otto Frederick Rohwedder, is credited with inventing a machine that would slice and bag bread. With this invention, housewives around the world rejoiced.
Modern breads are much different than their ancestors. Most breads in the U.S. are baked in large, commercial ovens and the ingredients include stabilizers and preservatives to maximize shelf life. Europeans, like the French and Germans, still buy their breads daily as the bakers in their respective countries do not add preservatives like the American commercial bakeries.