Sourdough in the oven
Over a pint in the Fat Cat on Friday, I was told to ‘get off my high horse’ by a friend who had recently read Bread barons on the way out. It made me think how the rise of factory-made bread has banished the artisan baker to the much scorned realm of the middle class. In defence of the artisan baker, who is busy hand-crafting his or her wares as we are tucked up in bed, I would like to set the record straight.
Society has been fooled into demanding the impossible from our bread through an increasing industrialisation of baking and a corresponding distance between the factory-made bread on our supermarket shelves and the age-old traditions of baking.
Even before the dawn of the Chorleywood process, Britain was fast industrialising its bread production. In Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery, she describes the factory baking process of 1957; ‘Baking takes place in a 12-sack travelling plate oven, 75 feet long and 8 feet wide and with a capacity of 2,640 loaves an hour’.
In the bread factories of 1957 dough was proofed for at least two hours before being baked. The proofing process in commercially yeasted bread is where one strand of fast acting yeast converts gluten and other carbohydrates into carbon dioxide gas which makes the dough rise. Though the measuring, kneading, shaping and baking were being done by machines, the principles of bread making were the same as those used in small independent bakeries.
Since the Chorleywood process arrived on the scene in 1961, from the mixing of the dough to the final product leaving the oven takes less than 90 minutes. It uses twice the commercial yeast of the methods used in the factories in 1957. The Chorleywood process uses a mix of chemicals to bully the ingredients into action. While sourdough takes up to 12 hours of proofing, the Chorleywood method uses a fast mixer to speed up the process.
Contrast this to the way we have made bread for hundreds of years. The use of sourdough culture in bread makes the bread rise in the same way as commercial yeast, just more slowly. However, the health benefits of using sourdough culture are twofold: firstly, the culture relies on natural air-bourn yeasts, of which there are many different strains. These yeasts are able to break down more carbohydrates in the flour; making the bread easier to digest. Secondly, the presence of naturally occurring bacteria in the culture also means that the bread contains probiotics, which are proven to be good for the health of the stomach.
Rather like a politician who promises great things during the lead up to the election then turns into a tyrant when in power; the Chorleywood process gave Britain the soft white loaf it craved in the post war years. Since then it has reigned unchecked and sales have increased at the same rate as the indifference of the public to the poor quality of the product. We have been fooled by the bread factories of the quality of the ‘boiled wool’ (David, 1977) that passes as bread. All the while we have fooled ourselves as well; ignoring the testimony of our taste buds and the groans of our digestion.
The Chorleywood process accounts for 80% of bread brought in Britain today, but what about that other 20%? With regards to flavour, texture and nutrition, the Chorleywood process today is all together as useless as the day that it was born. The demands of society created the beast, and I believe that if we keep demanding more from our bread then we can slay it once and for all.