by Mollie Doyle
“Bread is the Fat Devil,” a woman told her friend as I stood in line behind them at Fiddlehead Farm. We all gazed up to consider the magnificent looking loaves of bread. I’ve been hearing this sentiment more and more lately and thought to myself, “Is bread really that bad?”
I got the cosmic answer the following week when my neighbor Carol Kenney called me up and offered me some freshly baked bread. The bread looked like the loaves that grace the covers of Peter Reinhart’s A Baker’s Apprentice or Jim Lahey’s My Bread—crusty and earthy.
I called Carol up to thank her and to find out more about her bread. What made it taste and feel so good? Carol explained that it was sourdough rye, that she uses stone-ground organic heirloom variety bread flours from two companies: Anson Mills and Fiddler’s Green, proofs it in a banneton (a wicker basket for rising bread) and bakes it in a covered pot in her oven, which makes for a great crust, but moist interior. Then, after a pause, she quietly confessed that she had actually written her Ph.D. on the potential uses of sourdough in everyday baking. She explained to me, “Carbohydrates are the mainstay of people around the globe, accounting for between 40 percent to 80 percent of the diet. But carbs have two drawbacks: a high glycemic index (GI), and phytates, which block mineral absorption, if not soaked. Sourdough answers both issues, by lowering the GI and defusing phytic acid, not through soaking the grains, but through the fermentation process.”
After several more conversations, Carol said, “You really need to meet my friend Ellen Arian. She is an amazing natural foods chef. And she’s the one who taught me how to make the bread.” So we set up a bread-baking lesson.
In anticipation, I tried recipes from a host of cookbooks lying around the house, and talked to local bread bakers. I ordered the heirloom flours, a banneton and the book, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.
I think bread bakers are among the hardest working, yet happiest group of people I’ve ever interviewed. The Scottish Bakehouse owner and chef Danielle Dominick talked about the adventure of creating new recipes rapturously. Gates Rickard of Rickard’s Bakery talked about the ritual of making bread and said that, for him (a former philosophy major), kneading dough is a meditative experience. The Orange Peel Bakery’s Juli Vanderhoop talked about her outdoor wood-fired oven as though it was a most beloved aunt.
Juli made a few excellent points about why some people think bread is fattening. “It’s not the bread that makes us fat, it is the amount of bread we eat. And it is what we put on bread: butter, cheese, peanut butter.” Good point. She also told me, “Toasting your bread is unhealthy.”
Skeptical about the toast angle, I asked Carol and Ellen and we all checked it out. It turns out Juli is right: toasting bread activates acrylamides. According to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, “Acrylamide (AA), classified as a genotoxic carcinogen.”
Carol delivered some good news. She told me that 140 degrees is sufficient to activate flavor molecules without forming acrylamides. So warm your bread, don’t toast it.
Gates Rickard told me that many bread companies still use flours that have potassium bromate in them, which has been banned in the EU and other countries, to enhance a flour’s performance. It gives a bread’s rise an “extra boost.”
As I walked into Carol’s house one day to finally bake bread, she and Ellen were pulling a glorious raisin nut sourdough bread out of the oven. Ellen handed me an 11-page handout and began moving around the kitchen, tending to various stages of bread with the grace of a ballet dancer. I read the top of her handout. It said, “People have been baking sourdough bread for as long as they’ve been baking bread at all. If it was really that complex and difficult, it would never have found its way into our modern, convenient times.” Phew.
The lesson was a blur of flour and facts. Ellen expanded on Carol’s explanation for why sourdough is so good for you. This means minerals like iron, zinc and magnesium are not bound up and are, instead, available for absorption. Sourdough starters depend on wild yeast from the air, so the bread has a lower glycemic index than bread made with commercial yeast—even when it is made with white flour, so its impact on blood sugar is minimal.
Ellen continued, “Finally and most remarkably, there is the issue of lysine. Legumes are rich in the lysine that cereal grains lack, and this has long made them ideal culinary partners. As Stephan Guyenet has explained, however, the fermentation of grains—as in sourdough bread— creates lysine, which gives them an ideal balance of amino acids and makes them, without any complement, a nearly complete protein.”
My mind is still trying to grasp the science behind bread, but Ellen and Carol’s bread world led me to discover something else: the beauty of, as Carol calls it, “spreading bread.” A week after I learned how to make their sourdough, a friend’s grandfather died. I brought some bread over to the house with some of Ellen’s raw butter. It felt so good to be able to offer something so beautiful, basic and full of life.