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If you’re familiar with my blog, you’ve probably noticed that I’m not anti-wheat or anti-grain. In fact, I think the majority of the recipes I’ve posted so far have included grains in some form or another.
What can I say? I love bread, and cake, and cookies 🙂 (Eaten in moderation and homemade from real, natural ingredients, of course!)
This isn’t a post about why I choose to eat wheat when other people are choosing to avoid it, though, so I’ll just summarize by saying that I think that properly-prepared grains can be part of a healthy diet for those who don’t have a sensitivity to gluten. I also don’t believe that there’s anything inherently wrong with wheat or other grains.
I do believe, though, that the way modern grains are processed and made into bread can have detrimental effects on our health.
So the question is, what exactly are the differences between modern bread and traditional bread? Here are four of the main differences between the two:
1) Modern Bread Uses a Different Variety of Wheat
Modern wheat is actually quite different from the wheat that our great-grandparents’ generation used, and it’s even more different from the wheat that our ancestors used in earlier centuries.
Over the centuries up until the 1960s, wheat has gradually changed, but the heirloom varieties such as einkorn, emmer, spelt, red fife, etc. still shared many similarities. The modern dwarf wheat hybridized in the 1960s, however, was a much more drastic change than the gradual transition over the centuries from einkorn to emmer to spelt.
This modern dwarf version of wheat is a high yield variety, but it also has a lower nutrient content than heirloom wheat and a different protein structure, which is considered by many to be more inflammatory than ancient varieties of wheat. (For more detailed information about the differences between the two, check out the sources listed at the bottom of this post.)
2) Modern Bread Uses Different Yeast
Traditional bread used homemade yeast as the rising agent. This yeast was usually either a sourdough starter, or a yeast made from distillery barm. Many 19th century cookbooks include recipes for making homemade yeast using hops, potatoes, or a flour-water-sugar mixture.
Modern bakers yeast as we know it today didn’t even exist until the late 1860s. Even then, it was slow to gain popularity at first because it was more expensive than making homemade yeast, and many housewives were reluctant to try something different from the yeast they were accustomed to using for baking.
Traditional homemade sourdough yeast essentially sours or ferments the dough, allowing anti-nutrients such as phytic acid to be broken down and making minerals and vitamins more accessible. Some studies are even showing that the sourdough fermentation process can make the proteins in wheat such as gluten easier to digest.
3) Modern Bread Has a Shorter Rise Time
When you compare modern bread and traditional bread, one of the most noticeable differences is the amount of time that the bread rises. Traditional bread has a much longer rise time than modern bread does. Most old-fashioned bread recipes call for letting the bread rise for at least overnight and sometimes longer than that.
When I make sourdough bread, I usually let it rise for about 12-18 hours in the summer time and 18-24 hours in the winter since my kitchen is always very warm in the summer and very cold in the winter.
Modern bread, on the other hand, only rises for a couple of hours, and sometimes even less if using rapid rise yeast. And that’s for homemade bread. Many commercially-prepared breads include additives that allow them to rise even faster so that more loaves of bread can be produced in a shorter period of time.
4) Modern Bread Has Additives
Traditional bread recipes usually have just five or so ingredients: flour, water, yeast, salt, and either some type of sweetener or maybe herbs or spices. If you look at the ingredient list on a loaf of modern bread, though, you’ll almost always find a lot of extra ingredients that you can’t even pronounce.
These extra preservatives, artificial flavorings, stabilizers, and enhancers weren’t part of the traditional bread-making process. They might help the loaf of bread rise faster and keep it from molding while it sits on a store shelf for several weeks, but they are unnatural additives that aren’t doing our health any good, and in many cases, these artificial chemicals can cause negative reactions in our bodies.
(And One More Sort-of Reason . . .)
I don’t think of this as one of the main differences between modern bread and traditional bread, but another difference is the fact that modern flour is more heavily refined than traditional flour was. Even though refined flour was still used in traditional baking, it wasn’t refined to the same degree as it was after the invention of modern steel roller milling in the late 1800s.
It’s not really true that all traditional bread was 100% whole wheat because many times old-fashioned flour was bolted or sifted to remove some of the bran (while still leaving some of the bran, the germ, and the endosperm intact). This partially-refined flour was less refined than modern white flour, though, and it was never bleached or bromated or “enriched.”
How I Keep my Bread Traditional
Because of these four reasons, I choose to make homemade bread whenever I can. The way I bake bread is basically the same as the way that my great-great grandmother might have made bread back in the 1800s.
I use heirloom varieties of wheat – usually a blend of organic spelt, einkorn, and barley (you can find those flours here). I also sometimes buy spelt berries and use my grain grinder to get freshly-ground flour.
I use my sourdough starter as my rising agent, and I let my bread rise for at least 12 hours. And, of course, since my bread is homemade, I can pronounce every ingredient in it, and I don’t use any weird chemical additives.
I’d say that probably about 90% of the bread that I eat is traditional, homemade bread, but if I’m eating at a restaurant, I don’t worry about having the occasional dinner roll or slice of cake made from modern flour. It’s all about balance, right? 🙂
Vintage Remedies Guide to Bread
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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.