Don’t Suffer Ropey Bread
The warm weather is lovely, or at least, I think it is. The garden doesn’t really agree: peas have panicked and courgettes are a bit sad. The promised storms and heavy rain haven’t materialised yet, at least, not in the southwest. The results for UK cereals is that rye harvest is ahead and looking really good compared to the disaster of last year. Wheat is turning golden in the fields already and the protein levels will be really high, but as John Letts has explained to me, UK (Lincolnshire specifically) usually has the highest yielding wheat in the world due to our somewhat unenviable summers. This year though, the protein will be way up as a result of the sunshine but the yield will be consequently way down. It seems it is hard to get both high yield and high protein: French farmers have high quality but much lower yield than we do.
The warm weather can affect baking too. We’ve had a couple of calls and messages from bakers in the last week or two saying that they have “rope” infection in their bread, hoping for advice. Not knowing much about this, I set to work to research it with heritage cereals expert John Letts.
The rope infection (when bread has gone ropey – which is where the term originates) is an age-old problem that is associated with warm and humid weather. There is more to it than this though – and it can be easily avoided….so read on!
The infection that causes bread to go ‘ropey’ is an age-old problem that occurs primarily in warm weather. It is caused by a long list of bacterial species, the most important being Bacillus subtilis. Like yeast, rope bacteria are everywhere. They live in our guts and in the soil, are spread through the air, and infect our hands and baking equipment. Normally they are not harmful, and in the past supplements containing rope bacteria were actually used as an immune system stimulant! In bread, if the conditions are right, that is, warm and humid, they multiply rapidly from baking-resistant spores. Within 48 hours of being baked, the core of the loaf becomes gooey with an unpleasant, fruity smell. Distinctive, stringy strands of mucilage (“ropes”) are created when the bread is pulled apart. Eating ropey bread can cause mild food poisoning, but infected bread is unpleasant to eat and rope poisoning is rare.
The good news is that this problem can easily be avoided. Preventing spores from contaminating dough is the first line of defence, but this is an almost impossible task. In recent times, commercial bakeries have added acidic chemicals (e.g. propionic acid or vinegar) to discourage the growth of bacteria and mould. Historically, however, bakers made bread using a sourdough method which naturally generates lactic and acetic acid which inoculates the loaf against rope and mould. Research has also revealed that the inclusion of cheaper starch from potatoes or soya, as occurs with some mass-produced breads, and cheap and gluten free flours, can increase the risk of rope infection.
Rope in bread has now been forgotten wherever consumers have become dependent on supermarket bread, but is resurfacing with the rise in home baking. Some simple precautions will reduce the risk of getting rope in your bread:
1) Use good quality flour that does not contain cheap additives
2) Ensure your yeast-risen bread is well baked
3) Clean your baking equipment well after use, and use vinegar to
sterilise it if you have had a rope in your bread
4) Store your loaf in a dry environment and in a breathable bag,
and never in a plastic bag or container.
And to eliminate the risk altogether, make sourdough instead of yeasted bread – the Holy Grail of baking, for a long list of good reasons!
Why not try Vanessa’s Friday Night Sourdough?