There are four unopened bags of white flour taking up space on a shelf in our compact pantry. They've been there since March when we, like many Americans, stockpiled non-perishable household essentials. We made lots of pizza in the spring and early summer, so we used up the case of tomato sauce, but we kept finding fresh-made pizza dough and shredded cheese in the store so we didn't need to break into the all-purpose flour. Worse hasn't yet come to worst. Bread has been also readily available, along with all of our food provisions. We thought we would get into baking, that it would be a fun family activity or distraction during the lock-down, but we haven't the way many others have.
Numbers released this week from IRI, a company that tracks sales of packaged goods, show that we keep buying baking ingredients at a faster clip than last year. Not the +99% from early Spring, but still impressive growth given that per capita flour consumption has been declining for a very long time.
We're buying more stuff to bake with despite the "pandemic fatigue" assigned, among other things, to the time and effort making meals at home, day after day, with no definitive word on when we will be able to eat out without restrictions. I suppose baking is different from pulling together a meal. The rewards of baking sweets are always fresh and maybe more encompassing than what you get out of, say, making an Instant Pot meal. Baking bread is maybe different still from baking treats. I got a taste of that this week too.
There is now half a bag of fresh bread flour in the pantry, sitting on top of the other flour. We made several loaves of ciabatta this week. The motivation was neither need nor boredom. It was inspiration and curiosity. I discovered the Bread Lab while researching regenerative agriculture (the topic of an upcoming Talk to Me About Food podcast episode).
No, the Bread Lab is not a how-to blog, or a purveyor of bread-making stuff, or a space where you can learn how to bake incredible or uncommon bread. It is a real lab at Washington State University: "The Bread Lab is a combination think tank and baking laboratory where scientists, bakers, chefs, farmers, maltsters, brewers, distillers and millers experiment with improved flavor, nutrition and functionality of regional and obscure wheats, barley, other small grains and beans."
What really got my attention is the focus on taste and nutrition. Most of the bread we buy is made with wheat that's been bred for superior yield and packaged for long shelf life. Not surprisingly, taste and the full nutritional potential of wheat have been sacrificed in the industrialization of flour-making. Significantly.
Stephen Jones, the Bread Lab Director, suggests we need not make that sacrifice. What's more, we shouldn't, in any event, be growing the same monoculture wheat on immense farms, regardless of topography and climate, in poor soil bolstered by synthetic fertilizer. By cultivating a variety of wheat breeds, and grains specific to local conditions, the Bread Lab is promoting both a sustainable approach to growing these grains, as well as better tasting, better for you bread.
The other thing I'm learning is that to realize the full potential of a loaf of bread it takes a community of folks who together collaborate on creating the flour you and I buy. The Bread Lab, and others - breeders, millers, and chefs around the country - are reminding us of the true, fuller gift encapsulated in each kernel of wheat. They are resurrecting heirloom breeds, refining some, even concocting new types of wheat that are even more nutritious and make you expand the description of what bread can taste like. The variety of wheat possibilities is eye-popping.
I didn't seek out one of these more exotic flours bred for a specific flavor or texture, or tailored to our regional soil and climate. Using a national brand of bread flour, a well-known brand of yeast, coarse salt, cool water, a mixing bowl, a rubber spatula, and 475 degrees of oven heat for 20 minutes we made as good a loaf of bread as I've purchased from the store. On the first try.
There's more to it. Making bread tickles the senses. The dough sticks to your hands. You watch it rise. Then rise some more towards the top of the bowl. The bread takes shape and color in the oven while its aroma seeps around the oven door's edges. There's also the act of making bread. You're taking part in the simplest of rituals at the core of civilization-making. Fire. Water. Mineral. Fungus (yeast). And an edible kernel of grass co-created with nature's will.
At the end of the day, you can survive on a piece of bread and water.
Apparently, bread can be much more in terms of taste, texture, and nutrition if we, as consumers, invest time and effort that we don't have to if we buy Big Bakery, packaged bread built on high-yield grains. We have to give up the added convenience of a long shelf life too. Then again, after making our first loaves of ciabatta I was wondering what meals would best accompany the bread, not the other way around. The bread disappeared before we had time to even think about preserving it.
I hope the Bread Lab, Blue Hill restaurants in New York (Hudson Valley and Manhattan), Anson Mills in South Carolina, and The Land Institute in Kansas, among others, open more eyes to the possibilities of sustainably-grown grains bred for a much wider range of flavors and textures than most of us can find today (at an affordable price). Imagine craving "plain, simple" bread the way you crave a chocolate chip cookie or a bowl of ice cream.
Imagine a loaf of bread featured at Thanksgiving alongside the best homemade pies and your secret recipe dressing. Bread even more fulfilling than dinner rolls and cornbread. I'll be giving thanks for this most humble food when we break bread this Thanksgiving.