TheThe Staff of Life

Where does bread come from?

Where do the ingredients in bread come from?


An introduction to breadmaking history.

  Bread is called the "staff of life" because it is a very basic food that supports life.  The world of bread is vast and varied: some form of bread is found in virtually every society.

  The breads most common in the United States - sliced white and whole wheat, rolls in various shapes and sizes, Italian and French bread, bagels and rye bread - are all leavened or raised breads which means the dough rises during its preparation.  As a result, these breads are thick, have a crust that can be crunchy, and a middle that is soft and spongy.

   In many parts of the world the most common breads are flat: the tortilla in Mexico and other countries in Latin America, lavash from central Asia, pappadum and chapatti from India.  Another flatbread with Biblical roots is matzoh, still eaten in Jewish communities during the holiday of Passover, the "Feast of Unleavened Bread."

This photo of a Guatemalan woman making tortillas appears in Karin Badt's wonderful book, Pass the Bread.
Photo above right: matzoh.

"Stale bread is not hard; what is hard is to live without bread."  Paul Claudel (1868-1955) French poet

Author Jonathan Swift and Bible commentator Mathew Henry both used the expression "the staff of life" in relation to bread back in the late 17th century.




This famous picture by Wally Ronis is called The Little Parisian Boy.  The boy is carrying a baguette - the bread that has become instantly recognizable as French.


"If you ask a hungry man how much is
2 +
2, he replies 4 loaves."
Hindu Proverb

Where does bread come from?

 The essential ingredients for bread are quite simple: for flatbread, flour, water and salt are combined into dough and then baked in an oven or simply cooked over a stove as in the case of tortillas. Leavened breads require an additional ingredient - yeast or other leavening agent which makes the dough rise; these breads usually require an additional step in the mixing of the dough called 'kneading' which makes the dough elastic. Leavened breads are then baked in an oven.
    We can now better understand how our bread is created: it is produced through a process in which ingredients are mixed, the dough (for yeasted breads) goes through changes and rises as a result, the loaves are then shaped and finally baked.


By combining a few basic ingredients and following some simple steps you can make wonderfully tasty bread in your own home!   Go to Breadmaking for further directions.


Where do the basic ingredients come from?

  •    Water is essential for life and we must preserve our precious water supply in order to thrive.

  •    Salt is found in the oceans and in deposits in the ground.

  •    Flour is produced by the milling (grinding) of the seeds of plants known as the grains - the family that includes wheat, rice, corn, barley and rye.  Most bread flour comes from wheat since it produces the most elastic dough (ideal for leavened breads).

  •    Yeast is a microorganism (classified in the plant group known as fungi) that lives on sugar and causes a process known as fermentation which produces alcohol and the gas carbon dioxide.  Dough rises as carbon dioxide effectively inflates it, causing its elastic fibers to stretch.  The little alcohol produced in the breadmaking process evaporates away by the time the bread is done.  Nevertheless, the fermentation of the dough enhances the flavor of the bread.  Yeast is, of course, a key ingredient in beer and wine making.

                                 Yeast cells under a microscope



Wheat seeds or 'wheat berries'

Professor Bread visits Oklahoma Wheat Country


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An Introduction to Breadmaking History

   Scholars believe that raised breads were first introduced in Ancient Egypt around 5000 years ago.  Some form of flatbread (made from cooking a dough made from flour and water) is thought to have originated much earlier.  The Egyptians developed the first ovens - a necessary technology for raised bread - using ceramic pottery.  Although they didn't know about microorganisms called yeast, Egyptian bakers did know that a similiar process was at work in both breadmaking and beer making and they located bakeries and breweries adjacent to one another. One theory maintains that it was the addition of ale (the beverage derived from grain fermentation) to the dough that caused it to rise.

   In ancient Rome better bread ovens and larger grain mills were developed.  As the need for flour has steadily increased since ancient times, grain mills have continued to get larger and more powerful.  Most grain today is ground into flour in large "roller" mills that utilize metal rollers to crush the seeds.  For thousands of years, however, stones were the main tool for grinding grain.  During much of the last millennium the main milling technology relied on grinding grain between two large circular millstones; one stone remained stationary and the other rotated. For hundreds of years mills were powered by water and wind.


© 2005 Gary M. Gomer

Statue of Egyptian woman grinding grain

Ancient Egyptian model of a bakery

Oven and grain mill in ancient Pompeii

Quern mill (photo from The Gristmill by Bobbie Kalman). This is a colonial version of an ancient millo that was small enough to turn by hand.