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What is Real Bread?


Real Bread at the Phoenix Bakery

Real Bread at the Phoenix Bakery

On the day that a BBC Radio 4 PM article discusses the merits of Subway becoming more prevalent than McDonald's in the UK on the grounds that a sandwich is perceived to be a healthy option, is all bread "real bread"? The most basic bread recipe has just flour, water, salt and a raising agent, typically yeast. In Austria and Germany there was once a law, the Reinheitsgebot, where only water hops and barley were permitted to feature in beer. Many German brewers still declare compliance on their labels. Maybe something similar should  be put in place for Real Bread? CAMRA has a definition for Real Beer but, the trouble is, for bread, we like to vary things by adding ingredients to create varieties with interesting, or even challenging, flavours and textures. So, what makes an ingredient good and what makes it bad? Can't we just add anything as long as it tastes nice and call it bread? Where does Real Bread end and baked concoction start? Maybe anything goes? There are endless way to alter even a basic loaf, just by changing the ingredient used to make the loaf rise - be it yeast, sourdough starter or baking powder. These all change the loaf texture and flavour and are all valid in real bread (baking powder is used in soda bread).

Of the remaining basic ingredients, huge variety can be achieved simply by using flours in different combinations and strengths. Whether the flour is milled by rollers or stone grinding wheels can make a difference to the flavour and texture of the loaf. More complex flavours and higher-quality loaves go hand-in-hand with the best quality ingredients.

There are other ingredients, or adjuncts, that are added according to the end result required. For example, milk powder, often used in bread-machine recipes, like oil, makes for a more cake-like loaf and darkens the crust. Other added ingredients may be seeds, a little honey or perhaps gherkin vinegar or grated potato (see Dan Lepard, The Handmade Loaf) or some malted, roasted flour, all of which impart a characteristic to the bread, making the textures and flavours more complex, and perhaps challenging expectations to provoke criticism, be it good or bad.

Then there are other ingredients that don't usually appear in bread-baking books. Mostly, they aren't generally available. Why are they there?

SubWay White Bread

The photo is of the end of a cardboard box we received when given a quantity of apples for pressing. Naturally it drew my attention and then got me wondering where "White Bread" starts and ends. It contains a number of ingredients that, without looking them up, I don't recognise. What are they for? Here is my view:

  • Wheat flour.
  • Water.
  • Sugar - it can do things like improve the browning of the loaf and make it sweeter - a flavour enhancer. A yeast food: faster rising.
  • Yeast - makes the bread rise.
  • Salt - OK in the right proportion - at about 2%.
  • Non-hydrogenated Vegetable Oil - this is used to hold the dough up when in the oven in the Chorleywood process.
  • Emulsifier E471 - this is a synthetic fat, from vegetable or animal origin.
  • Emulsifier E472(e) - aka DATEM, (Diacetyl Tartaric acid Ester of Monoglyceride) - common in commercial breads, used as a softener to improve the flour
  • Emulsifier E481 - aka Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate - this lets the dough take up more water and improves the keeping quality. From vegetable or animal origin
  • Soya Flour - a source of protein, it does many things: allows the volume of the dough to increase, increase water content,  increase browning, whiten the crumb, increase shelf-life
  • Dextrose - a form of sugar - helps yeast work faster.
  • Stabiliser E412 - guar gum this is a naturally occurring thickener used to hold the various ingredients together
  • Flour Treatment Agent E300 aka Citric Acid or ascorbic acid. Very commonly used as a bread enhancer

Looking at this list, the ingredients for "white bread" are extensive and typical of the "Chorleywood" mass bread production process where cost, consistency an speed are the goals, displacing, flavour, texture and quality. There is no indication of proportion and of course, nothing of the quality of the ingredients used. Some of the ingredients are there to make what SubWay believes to be the ideal bread. Others are more likely to be there to allow it to be baked in the Netherlands and then to be transported to the SubWay outlets around the UK and remain edible. Some are there to allow for cheaper, inconsistent ingredients to make a consistent bread. Others are there to bulk-up the loaf, making it puff as much as possible and others to make sure that the concoction holds together. From what I read, none of the ingredients, in reasonable quantities, have any known negative effects, although vegetarians should be wary of E471 and E481.

This isn't intended to be a criticism of the Chorleywood process - many others have done that. Rather, back to the question, is all bread "real bread"? I don't think so. I am struggling to find a neat definition in one sentence, but will courageously have a go and you are invited to improve on it:

"Real Bread is made with flour, raising agents, water, salt and only additional ingredients having a positive addition to the loaf and not to compensate for, or to mask the presence of other ingredients or their quality"

There it is. Undoubtedly flawed - can you improve on it? It doesn't mention any methods of proving or baking - should it? The Real Beer definition by CAMRA says that only "traditional" ingredients may be added. This is a little vague to my mind since "traditional" is non-specific: are we talking last century or last millennium?  I don't think that this would work for bread since one of the beauties of bread is its acceptance of varied adjuncts to give the baker a free hand to demonstrate their creativity.

Under this definition, the SubWay "White Bread" wouldn't qualify. By a mile: it is possible to make a soft, fluffy sandwich bread without having to play any games, but this has shortcomings for commercial operations where volume and cost are the overriding drivers. Wouldn't it be an achievement to have an accepted definition for Real Bread such that products like these might need to be labelled "White Bread - not to be described as Real Bread", or perhaps, more positively, Real Bread, wherever it is made, qualifies for some sort of mark of quality?

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