Man started making breads over 30,000 years ago. They have found stones that were used for pounding and grinding the grains with remnants of the starches on them. It is thought that the first innovators of this method probably ground cattails roots, fern fronds, and other root vegetables and the spread on a flat rock and made a crude flat bread. It is perhaps later, when maybe they were chased off from the site maybe, that yeast found its way into the batter and thus the first leavened bread was discovered. Over the centuries, man has learned to cultivate the yeast to serve his various needs. Some yeast is perfected for brewing alcohols like beer and wine. Some is grown for breads, where you have many different strains that yield different flavors. Most common of these is the Candida humilis or Saccharomyces exiguus that cultures symbiotically with Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis for forms the yeast for sourdough starter.
The flour used in the US is mostly of the wheat variety, rye, buckwheat, spelt flour, rice and recently they have added teff flour to the varieties that are available. The major flour classifications in the US are bread flour (which is 12.5-16% protein), all-purpose (which is 10-12.5% protein), pastry flour (which is 8.5-10% protein) and cake flour (which is 7.5-10% protein). It is the protein that creates the gluten when hydrated and kneaded. The higher the protein, the more gluten is produced and thus the more the dough is able to rise.
British recipes use flour designations as follows;
Cake & pastry flour = soft flour
All-purpose flour = plain flour
Bread flour = strong flour, hard flour, bread flour
Self-rising flour = self-raising flour
Whole-wheat flour = wholemeal flour, wholewheat flour
The traditional French bread baguettes has a very specific list of ingredients. They are water, salt, yeast and flour. Other breads utilize the same items only with the addition of other ingredients. By adding egg yolk, whole egg, potato water you can strengthen the cell walls of the dough. When the yeast is added to the dough, carbon dioxide is produced and slowly inflates the cells to cause the dough to raise which fills the pan as it expands. Making slashes in the top of the bread as it proofs or rises, will cause accents to appear in the bread as it bakes. Also, taking egg whites and whipping them with a little salt and brushing on top of the dough before baking, you can sprinkle on sesame seeds or poppy seeds as you like.
Sponges and Preferments
When making breads, it is important to have a viable sponge or preferment. What these are and how they are handled determines how your bread will taste once you are done.
Sponge is where you mix the water, flour and yeast together and let them ferment or mature. The sponge method is used for 3 different reasons: taste, texture and chemistry. The flavor that is created is dependent on the ingredients used and the fermenting yeast. Just like sourdough, the longer the ferment, the greater the taste difference.
Poolish was one of the first preferments elaborated with commercial yeast. Polish bakers, where the name originated, are credited with inventing this preferment in Poland at the end of the 19th century. The process then was adapted in Austria and later in France. Bread made with a poolish was lighter and less acidic than the sourdough bread commonly baked during that time, and it started to gain popularity.
Biga is Italian for preferment. It can be anywhere from a semi-dry, rough dough ball to a 100% hydration that has to be poured in. In either case, it has to have fermented for minimum of 12 hours. Unlike all the other ferments which contain salt, it has absolutely NO salt.
Sourdough or levain is usually started with its own methods as they are somewhat complicated because you have to maintain an active culture of the yeast. Some cultures are touted to be over a century old and are thus considered to be treasured cultures. The flavors of the sourdough cultures is very distinct and much regarded in the culinary world.