LONDON, Ont. - Although it comes in many forms, bread is arguably the most universal food. It is still made essentially the same way as a thousand years ago. So even with all the modern conveniences to take the heavy labour out of the job, why are so many cooks today intimidated by making bread at home?
"Everything's so easy when you can go out and buy it," says Mike Matthews, owner of Arva Flour Mills, just north of London. Established in 1819, it is Canada's oldest continuously operating, water-powered flour mill. "It's not that hard to bake a loaf of bread, but people forgot it wasn't that hard."
Chuck Wingenbach of Vancouver agrees. "Out of all the baked items out there ... bread is something people are sort of afraid of," says the former restaurateur, who created thekneadforbread.com website eight years ago and now runs it full-time.
But both believe home bread-making is on the upswing. There was a minor resurgence when bread machines first became available, they say, although many now sit unused in cupboards.
But the "whole slow food movement and eating locally and knowing what's in your food" are all factors in a renewed interest in homemade bread, Matthews says. "And when the economy went down and people were losing their jobs, (they) started doing things for themselves."
Wingenbach says it may have a lot to do with dietary needs and preferences. "More people now are getting into organics. A lot more people want the whole-grain breads, seeded bread, whole-wheat, gluten-free, getting farther away from white bread."
His website offers step-by-step, fully illustrated recipes for all kinds of bread and gets about 2,000 visitors a day from around the world, he says.
Wingenbach had always loved and made bread at home, but his "passion" for it began when he owned a soup and sandwich shop. He makes it by hand, without benefit of dough-kneading equipment.
"I love feeling the dough and kneading the dough. There's something sort of spiritual about it. It's sort of a meditating time, just slowly kneading for 10 or 15 minutes."
Kneading is the most important part of the process, he says. "You have to create the gluten (the protein in flour) and the only way you can do that is by working the dough. That causes the dough to become elastic. As you work it and knead it, you create the gluten strands and build the protein within the bread. Then it starts to stretch. And that's what's going to give you your rise."
Wingenbach feels the most important development in bread-making is instant yeast, which does not have to be activated in water. He uses it in everything. After it's opened, it can be refrigerated for two or three months or frozen for up to six months.
He says "artisan" breads with crunchy crusts are tricky to make because home ovens aren't hot enough. His tip is to use a baking or pizza stone. He puts the stone in the oven when he turns it on to heat. At the same time he puts a cast-iron skillet filled with lava rocks on the floor of the oven (or the lowest rack possible) beneath the stone.
When the loaf is ready to bake, he puts it right on the stone (it doesn't work if the loaf is in a pan), pours boiling water over the lava rocks and quickly closes the oven door. The hot stone seals the bottom of the bread and the steam created by the hot rocks and water causes crystallization of the sugars on the top of the bread and creates a nice hard crust.
In terms of ingredients, "Anything you put into a sandwich you can put into bread," he says. "It's really fun to experiment. You can put ham or bacon or cheese, any kind of vegetable, juices. It really is quite versatile."
Arva Flour Mills has sold gluten-free flours — made from rice, tapioca, buckwheat (a member of the rhubarb family) and other non-wheat products — for more than 20 years, in addition to natural and organic flours. (They can be purchased online at www.arvaflourmill.com.) Matthews and Wingenbach agree there has been a significant increase in demand for gluten-free flour in recent years with growing concerns about intolerance to wheat products.
Some people mill their own flour at home, Wingenbach says. And some smaller mills are making "sprouted flour," using grains that have started to sprout. "They're easier to digest, so I think we're going to start seeing that a lot more."
While he prefers organic and freshly milled flour, he says the bread flour you buy at the supermarket "is going to make you a decent loaf of bread," although it may lack some of the nutrients of the other flours.
Dave Tipton of Caledon, Ont., vice-president of national accounts for A.B. Mauri, the company that makes Fleischmann's Yeast, says sales of commercially produced bread are gradually dwindling, partly because of "dough conditioners," natural enzymes bread manufacturers use to extend shelf life, so the bread not only doesn't get mouldy as quickly but also stays soft for a week or more. Because it lasts longer, less is being thrown out.
But the shelf life of homemade bread probably isn't a factor for most families because it is consumed so quickly.
"Yeast is a living bacteria," Wingenbach says. "Bread is the only food we make that we really bring to life. If we cook with fruits and vegetables and meat, we actually 'kill' them first. But with bread, we're growing it and nurturing it and feeding it with sugars."
And philosophy aside, there's not much on Earth to top the smell of freshly baked bread.
To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)rogers.com.