Ever thought of bread as a utensil, livestock, or a social event? Senior staff writer Charlotte Slovin reports on Columbia Science Review’s event from last Thursday.

Throughout the pandemic, many people have taken up the practice of bread making as a way to entertain and nourish themselves. That said, how often do we think about the history and culture of bread making, bread’s myriad of uses, or the science of starter?

Last Thursday night, Columbia Science Review hosted an event titled “The Best Event Since Sliced Bread: The Science and History of Bread Making,” where, in fact, we did learn about the importance of the sliced bread loaf. The panel event, moderated by CSR’s Alli Greenberg (BC ’21), hosted Dr. Megan Elias, director of the Gastronomy Program at Boston University, and Fransisco Migoya, head chef at Modernist Cuisine and former Culinary Institute of America instructor on culinary science, pastry, and bread.

Like the title, the event focused on the cultural history of bread as well as some of the science behind bread making. Dr. Elias began by reminding everyone that, despite its apparent ubiquity, bread is not a staple food for everyone in the Americas. People tend to conflate the presence of bread with Europe’s historical obsession with bread. Europeans came to the Americas with a “commitment to bread” as Dr. Elias put it. Tied to a perceived necessity of bread, Europeans changed the landscape of the Americas to accommodate wheat (for bread) production instead of embracing indigenous crops for nutrition. Breadmaking was a desire, not a necessity, and ended up having an impact on the native ecology.

However, knowing that bread isn’t vital or ubiquitous doesn’t mean that it isn’t important to many. Dr. Elias pointed out the utility of bread; as a utensil, it soaks up liquids, holds other foods, and its leftovers can be used in other dishes. She also pointed out that bread is a living organism–growing, changing, fermenting (sometimes)–and people take care of it like other living organisms. When put into context with the long history of domestic production, women have historically been responsible for all living things in the home, bread included. In Elias’ words, “in a way, a cow and a starter are of the same family.” This changed when grocery store sliced bread was invented. Sliced bread, now thought of as “an abomination” to the bread and pastry world, meant that housewives no longer had to worry about taking care of a starter. Sliced bread meant there was no longer any worry about how many sandwiches one could make–it was already determined for you. What we now consider ordinary completely changed meal preparation.

Bread also holds social meaning: before the mid-nineteenth century, people baked bread together to cut down on fuel expenses. Women would bring their dough to the local baker or to a neighbor’s house to maximize the use of one fire. This collective activity created a social space for locals, creating a community around bread making. Dr. Elias also mentioned the history of social issues concerning bread: the history of hot bread in the South is based on slave labor, as the promise of a constant supply of hot bread is only possible with people constantly baking in the kitchen. 

In the 1930s, Cornell scientist Clive McCay invented a bread that promised low cost and high nutrition to keep people fed. “Cornell bread,” as they called it, was made of multiple types of flour and could be made quickly. However, Mr. McCay’s recipe necessitated that people have access to multiple types of flour, something impossible for most during the Great Depression, making his invention a flop.

Despite his imperceptive plans, the work of Clive McCay exhibits the long, intertwined history of bread and science. While he did note the importance of the subjective “it tastes good,” Fransisco Migoya takes a very scientific approach to bread making. Over three years, Migoya conducted 1,500 experiments on bread making. His work spanned topics including creating the best baguette, understanding why panettone bakes the way it does, and how bran and germ affect the volume increase of dough. Due to the highly industrialized history of bread making in the 20th century, Migoya was able to access lots of published research on the science of bread that had been funded by bread companies.

On Thursday night, Migoya used sourdough baking–which seems to have become a common quarantine activity–as an example to explain why being scientific about baking is so important. He emphasized the importance of being accurate with your ingredients and, keeping the science simple, explained that temperature impacts the fermentation process of sourdough and subsequently the bread’s flavor. Additionally, knowing the science behind bread mitigates mistakes in future bread making endeavors. Having a basic understanding of the functionality of fermentation and dough behavior reduces errors and waste. Like Dr. Elias, Migoya characterized a starter as an organism that needs pet-like care: once carbon dioxide is released by the starter’s yeast, the starter must be fed on a regular schedule. Otherwise, it will die. He also described dough as a foam, and bread as a bubble system that sets after being heated. This clinical portrayal of bread removes it from its usual characterization as food and makes it an object of science, an important shift in perspective that helps bakers focus on the detail and care necessary to make a good loaf.

As reflected in popular pandemic behavior, the science of breadmaking has become an appealing topic to many. Dr. Elias sees this in many areas of food and food creation. She credits this trend to the intellectualization of cooking. Since the 1960s, there have been moves to make cooking and baking appear more scientific in attempts to appeal to men. Even though cooking and baking have always been fields that require deep and specific knowledge known to those in charge of making bread, manufacturers worked to formally intellectualize bread making to sell more product. Bread making was moved out of the private space of the home and into the public sphere of science and manufacturing.

This intellectualization of bread can also be seen in the popularization of gluten-free bread products (and more) in the United States. Migoya states that from 2004 to 2018, reports of gluten intolerance have skyrocketed while reports of Celiac disease stay constant, revealing a hyper-awareness of this element of bread without really knowing what it is. While this gluten-free craze has led to a certain demonization of a mostly innocuous aspect of bread, it has also led to more research of Celiac disease and experimentation in new ways to create gluten-free alternatives to preexisting bread products.

Looking forward to bread making in the future, Greenberg asked if wheat crops are being impacted by climate change and, if so, how that influences bread making. While the commercial yeast industry is being challenged, along with sugar (and other tropical climate ingredients), wheat crops seem to be doing fine. In fact, Migoya stated that wheat crops benefit from more extreme temperatures as it produces a stronger flour. Dr. Elias hopes that climate migration, although devastating, brings cultures together in a way that makes bread seem like less of a staple than it is currently portrayed in the United States.

For seasoned bread makers, molecular gastronomers, and lay folk alike, “The Best Event Since Sliced Bread” revealed a rich history and complex science behind a seemingly mundane food. The good spirits and very interesting work of both panelists made the event both entertaining and insightful, not to mention leaving viewers with a strong craving for bread.

A recording of the event is available on the Columbia Science Review’s YouTube.

A set bubble-structure that was formerly your pet via Pixabay