Why make your own bread?

The answer to the question ‘Why make your own bread when you can buy it at every supermarket for about 70p a loaf?’ could be answered in many ways.

I could go on about how therapeutic bread making is. It is no coincidence that many organisations helping people that are facing social exclusion or struggling with mental health issues or are  being rehabilitated during or after their prison sentence are using bread making as part (or indeed the very crux) of their strategy. You can read more about this at The Real Bread Campaign. I find the process of bread making very relaxing. It’s not only the physical kneading (which I rarely do as I prefer to stretch and fold my dough in the bowl), but it’s also the fact that it is goal based. You have to keep going back to it, checking it, folding it, shaping it, baking it and then waiting patiently for it to cool. Whatever else might be happening in your day, your bread is there, needing attention, drawing you back to it and requiring your focus, even if for just a few minutes at a time.

I could mention how satisfying it is to feed your family with bread that you have made. I love putting a good loaf on the table and watching people tuck in.  I cannot tell you how satisfying it is to have my children (now in their teen and pre-teen years) eat my bread. For many years they have resented the home made bread and wished that I would buy them a sliced white loaf. Now, finally, they will eat and enjoy my bread, even my sourdough (as long as I tell them that it is white bread), they look at me suspiciously knowing that I am stretching the truth (it’s normally sourdough made with mostly white flour but with wholemeal added in for good measure) but they do, mostly, eat it.

But what I really want to mention is that homemade bread is made up of the ingredients that you choose to use. It has three (sourdough bread) or four (yeasted bread) basic ingredients – flour, water, salt and yeast. Then you can choose to add olive oil, butter, eggs, milk, sugar, dried fruit, olives, walnuts, tomatoes, onions, etc, etc.  You can choose the flour.  You can choose flour from your local mill, or a mill that stone grinds it flour, or flour made from a heritage wheat, or organic flour, or wholemeal flour, or seeded flour, or granary flour. You can choose which yeast to use, fresh (100% chemical free), active dried (with emulsifier) or easy bake/instant (with emulsifier and ascorbic acid).

If you do buy a loaf then buy it from a bakery that cares. Ask your baker how long the bread is fermented for? Whether they use pre-ferments? Whether they use natural sourdough starters, fresh yeast or easy bake?  If they can answer your questions, and you like the answers, then buy your bread from there. If they can’t give you an answer then they have probably bought the bread from one of the big factories frozen and ready to bake by them.

If you buy from a supermarket have a look at the label. If it is baked in-store then it might only have the essential allergens noted, as that all labelling law requires. If that’s the case then take a look at their online store. That  can give you a lot more information, depending on the supermarket.  I did that this morning. I looked at one of the UK’s biggest supermarkets’ online grocery store and found their unsliced Crusty White Farmhouse Bread, which they describe as ‘scored and with a light flour dusting for a rustic finish’. This is the bread that you buy from the Bakery shelf and it is baked in-house in their larger stores (that might mean from scratch baking or baked from frozen, depending on the supermarket and the size of the store). Here is the list of ingredients for that particular loaf:

Wheat flour, Water, Yeast, Processing Aid – (Calcium Sulphate, Rapeseed Oil, Water, Soya Oil, Calcium Silicate, Enzymes, Thermally Oxidised Soya Bean Oil interacted with Mono- and Di- glycerides of Fatty Acids, Silicon Dioxide) Salt, Rapeseed Oil, Spirit Vinegar, Emulsifiers (Mono- and Di-Glycerides of Fatty Acids, Mono- and Di-Acetyl Tartaric Acid Esters of Mono and Di-Glycerides of Fatty Acids), Sugar, Wheat Gluten, Soya Flour, Flavouring, Palm Oil, Flour Treatment Agent (Ascorbic Acid).  

I am not a food scientist (or any kind of scientist) so I don’t understand what most of these more scientific sounding ingredients are, which is rather my point*. If I can eat bread that doesn’t contain unnamed enzymes and Mono- and Di- Acetyl Tartaric Acid Esters of Mono-and Di-Glycerides of Fatty Acids, then I think I will continue to make and eat that bread rather than subject my stomach to this cocktail of scientifically produced food.  *(I have googled some of these ingredients and the details of what I found are at the bottom of this post if you are interested to find out more).

The bread available from the large industrial bakeries is made with efficiency and economics in mind rather than any health or, indeed, taste benefits. It’s made with speed. This means that you don’t benefit from the long fermentation that homemade bread or bread from a good bakery can offer. Proper fermentation increases the digestibility of bread.  Industrially and speedily made bread is harder to digest. They have to add all of these processing aids, enzymes, chemicals and extra gluten to get that soft, well risen loaf because they don’t have the time for that to happen naturally with a good, long fermentation.  Manufactured bread has very little to do with proper bread making and a lot to do with producing a cheap food stuff that has little nutritional value and is difficult to digest. There is an interesting short podcast about industrial bread and the history of the Chorleywood Bread Process on the Eat This Podcast site.

If you really don’t want to make your own bread, or think you don’t have the time, then there is some good bread available out there at local bakeries or that can be purchased online from some of the bigger artisan bakeries and if you do buy supermarket bread then make sure you do some research first. Have a look at their online store and check the list of ingredients.  There are a few offerings out there that don’t have added enzymes, emulsifiers and chemicals.  Whilst I was checking the ingredients of that first loaf described above I checked the other loaves available at the same supermarket and you can buy an Ancient Grain Bloomer that has only natural ingredients listed. It’s more than twice the price of the first loaf, but you get what you pay for.  Beware of their sourdough though, a sourdough loaf should be long fermented and contain only flour, water and salt. Theirs contains Ascorbic Acid and a Non-Declarable Processing Aid (Enzymes). Although some credit must go to them for declaring the non-declarable processing aid, as many others don’t. In fact, in comparison with other supermarkets this one is much more open with their labelling than some of the others. Other online grocery stores do not declare the full list of their ingredients of their freshly baked range, listing only the allergens.

If you choose to buy bread rather than make it at home, then please buy wisely. Do your research, ask what is in it and how it was made. Your stomach will thank you for it.  But my advice is get your hands stuck in and make your own, your stomach and your general well being will thank you for it.

* I googled some of the ingredients and if I am honest it gave me a headache trying to understand what some of these are and how they are produced, but from my very limited layman’s interpretation I have set out what some of them are:

Mono and di-gycerides of fatty acids, also known as E471 are extracted from mostly vegetable oil but sometimes from animal fats hence The Vegan Society warns that vegan and vegetarian consumers should be careful when this is listed in the ingredients. It may also be made from pork fat, so is a consideration for those who for religious or cultural reasons do not eat pork. The oil or fat (normally hydrogenated soybean oil) is heated with glycerol and the mono and di-glycerides are synthesised.  Their purpose in the loaf is to act as an emulsifier and anti-staling. Their addition improves loaf volume and texture. (In a home-made loaf both volume and texture can be obtained with proper gluten development and fermentation and staling is delayed with proper fermentation).

Calcium Sulphate is mined from limestones and added as an anti-caking agent (reducing lumps in the dough when liquid is added), dough strengthener and stablizer.  (Good mixing will get rid of any lumps and proper gluten development and fermentation will strengthen the dough in a home made loaf.)

Calcium Silicate is produced from lime, hydrochloric acid and sodium silicate and is used as an anti-caking agent.

Ascorbic Acid is vitamin C by another name. It improves the loaf volume and texture and reduces the rising time of the loaf.  The vitamin C will not have any nutritional value as it is too small an amount to make a difference to your daily requirement; it is in a less complex form than that found naturally in foods and is mostly baked out.  Ascorbic acid is an ingredient in easy bake/ instant yeast so if you are using this yeast you will also be adding this into your homemade loaf.  If you want to ferment your loaves for a longer time then having ascorbic acid in the mix can cause the loaves to over ferment and the gluten to become too weak. To avoid this use dried active yeast (follow the instructions to hydrate in water before use) or preferably, fresh yeast.

You can find out more about additives in industrially produced bread at The Real Bread Campaign.

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