History of bread

Bread was central to the formation of early human societies. From the Fertile Crescent, where wheat was domesticated, cultivation spread north and west, to Europe and North Africa, and east towards East Asia. This in turn led to the formation of towns, as opposed to the nomadic lifestyle and gave rise to more and more sophisticated forms of societal organization. Similar developments occurred in the Americas with maize and in Asia with rice.

Slab stele from mastaba tomb of Itjer at Giza. 4th Dynasty, 2543–2435 BC. Itjer is seated at a table with slices of bread, shown vertical by convention. Egyptian Museum, Turin.


Charred crumbs of a flatbread made by Natufian hunter-gatherers from wild wheat, wild barley and plant roots between 14,600 and 11,600 years ago have been found at the archaeological site of Shubayqa 1 in the Black Desert in Jordan, predating the earliest known making of bread from cultivated wheat by thousands of years.[1][2] Grinding stones dated at 30,000 years old, possibly used for grinding grains and seeds into flour, have in recent years been unearthed in Australia and Europe, but there is no definitive evidence that these tools or their products were used for making breads.[3][4]

Bread is otherwise strongly associated with agriculture. Wheat was domesticated in the Fertile Crescent.[5][6] Bread is found in Neolithic sites in Turkey and Europe from around 9,100 years ago.[2][7][8]

Conical loaves of bread as grave goods exactly as laid out in the Great Tomb, North Necropolis, Gebelein, 5th Dynasty (Old Kingdom), 2435–2305 BC. Excavations by Ernesto Schiaparelli, 1911. Egyptian Museum, Turin, S. 14051-14055.

There is extensive evidence of breadmaking in Ancient Egypt during the Neolithic period, some 10,000 years ago,[9] in the form of artistic depictions, remains of structures and items used in bread making, and remains of the dough and bread itself.[10][11][12][13][14][15]

The most common source of leavening in antiquity was to retain a piece of dough (with sugar and water in) from the previous day to utilize as a form of sourdough starter.[16] Pliny the Elder reported that the Gauls and Iberians used the foam skimmed from beer to produce "a lighter kind of bread than other peoples." Parts of the ancient world that drank wine instead of beer used a paste composed of grape must and flour that was allowed to begin fermenting, or wheat bran steeped in wine, as a source for yeast. Also, different forms of currency were exchanged in Ancient Egypt before they began using coinage in the First Millennium BC. Until this time, they did not rely on silver or gold, but instead exchanged everyday goods. For the poor, bread and beer were used to pay subsistence workers.[17]

The idea of a free-standing oven that could be pre-heated, with a door for access, appears to have been Greek.[18]

In the Americas, the Mayans were known as "the men of corn" and used that corn to create things like tortillas, tamales, and other breads. The people of modern-day Mexico have adopted these traditions, making corn and bread a popular part of Mexican dishes. [19]

Even in antiquity there was a wide variety of breads. In ancient times the Greek bread was barley bread: Solon declared that wheaten bread might only be baked for feast days. By the 5th century BC bread could be purchased in Athens from a baker's shop, and in Rome, Greek bakers appeared in the 2nd century BC, as Hellenized Asia Minor was added to Roman dominion as the province of Asia;[20] the foreign bakers of bread were permitted to form a collegium. In the Deipnosophistae, the author Athenaeus (c. 170 – c. 230 AD) describes some of the bread, cakes, and pastries available in the Classical world.[21] Among the breads mentioned are griddle cakes, honey-and-oil bread, mushroom-shaped loaves covered in poppy seeds, and the military specialty of rolls baked on a spit. The type and quality of flours used to produce bread could also vary, as noted by Diphilus when he declared "bread made of wheat, as compared with that made of barley, is more nourishing, more digestible, and in every way superior. In order of merit, the bread made from refined [thoroughly sieved] flour comes first, after that bread from ordinary wheat, and then the unbolted, made of flour that has not been sifted."[22] The essentiality of bread in the diet was reflected in the name for the rest of the meal: ópson, "condiment", i.e., bread's accompaniment, whatever it might be.[23]

Middle Ages

Baker baking bread in an oven - miniature in a 13th-century psalter
Peasants sharing bread, from the Livre du roi Modus et de la reine Ratio, France, 14th century. (Bibliothèque nationale)

In medieval Europe, bread served not only as a staple food but also as part of the table service. In the standard table setting of the day the trencher, a piece of stale bread roughly 6 inches by 4 inches (15 cm by 10 cm), was served as an absorbent plate. When food was scarce, an all-too-common occurrence in medieval Europe, the trencher when served would typically be eaten with or at the completion of a meal. In times of relative abundance, trenchers could be given to the poor or fed to the dogs. It was not until the 15th century that trenchers made of wood started to replace the bread variety.[24] In Britain the price, weight and quality of bread and beer was regulated by the Assize of Bread and Ale from the 13th century. Assizes were abandoned in Glasgow in 1801, in London in 1815 and in the rest of Britain in 1836.[25]

To the 19th century

The Corn Laws inflated the price of bread. The Anti-Corn Law League demanded cheap bread. After repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 cereal duties were substantially reduced and abolished in 1869.[26]

From the late 18th century to the end of the 19th century, bread sold in England and the United States was often adulterated with hazardous materials, including chalk, sawdust, alum, plaster, clay and ammonium carbonate. Frederick Accum was the first to raise alarm to the food adulteration in 1820. In 1837, American health reformer Sylvester Graham published Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making, which described how to use unrefined wheat flour to make Graham bread at home, in response to adulterated bread sold in public bake houses.[27]

This gradually came to an end with government action, such as the 1860 and 1899 Food Adulteration Acts in Britain.[28] America had a more difficult time ending these processes of adulteration, however, as various states had varying policies regarding bread making.[29]

In the mid-19th century, Britain imported much of its bread wheat from the United States.[30]


Bread-baking was industrialized at the start of the 20th century. Otto Frederick Rohwedder developed a prototype bread-slicing machine in 1912, and a practical machine that both sliced and wrapped bread in 1928.[31][32]

An automated bakery with industrial robots palletizing bread, Germany

It was discovered early on that while a bran- and wheatgerm-discarding milling process can help improve white flour's shelf life, it does remove nutrients like some dietary fiber, iron, B vitamins, micronutrients[33] and essential fatty acids. The US government has mandated since 1941 fortification of white flour-based foods with some of the nutrients lost in milling, like thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and iron. This mandate came about in response to the vast nutrient deficiencies seen in US military recruits at the start of World War II.[34]

A major change in the United Kingdom was the development in 1961 of the Chorleywood bread process. This used the intense mechanical working of dough, and control of gases touching dough, to dramatically reduce the fermentation period and the time taken to produce a loaf at the expense of taste and nutrition.[35]

For generations, white bread was the preferred bread of the rich while the poor ate dark (whole grain) bread. However, in most western societies, the connotations reversed in the late 20th century, with whole-grain bread becoming preferred as having superior nutritional value while Chorleywood bread became associated with lower-class ignorance of nutrition.[36]

More recently, and especially in smaller retail bakeries, chemical additives are used that both speed up mixing time and reduce necessary fermentation time, so that a batch of bread may be mixed, made up, risen, and baked in fewer than three hours. Dough that does not require fermentation because of chemical additives is called "quick bread" by commercial bakers. The introduction of commercial yeasts during the 19th century was detrimental to sourdough as these speeded up the baking process making production much easier. [37] Common additives include reducing agents such as L-cysteine or sodium metabisulfite, and oxidants such as potassium bromate or ascorbic acid;[38][39] this last ingredient is added to whole meal bread to increase the softness of the loaf.[40] Calcium was added to flour in the UK to prevent rickets, which had been detected as common in women who joined the World War II effort.[40]

However, in the 1980s, demand for sourdough in the UK grew to the point that in 1993, regulations were drawn up to define what could be sold as sourdough bread. In Germany, sourdough continued to be used for rye breads, even as commercial yeasts became more popular.[41]

Since 1986, domestic bread makers that automate the process of making bread have become popular in the home.[42]

See also


  1. Briggs, Helen (17 July 2018). "Prehistoric bake-off: Recipe for oldest bread revealed". BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 17 July 2018.
  2. Arranz-Otaegui, Amaia; Gonzalez Carretero, Lara; Ramsey, Monica N.; Fuller, Dorian Q.; Richter, Tobias (16 July 2018). "Archaeobotanical evidence reveals the origins of bread 14,400 years ago in northeastern Jordan". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 115 (31): 7925–7930. doi:10.1073/pnas.1801071115. PMC 6077754. PMID 30012614.
  3. Behrendt, Larissa (22 September 2016). "Indigenous Australians know we're the oldest living culture – it's in our Dreamtime | Larissa Behrendt". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 13 August 2019.
  4. "Prehistoric man ate flatbread 30,000 years ago: study". phys.org. Retrieved 13 August 2019.
  5. "Feldman, Moshe and Kislev, Mordechai E., Israel Journal of Plant Sciences, Volume 55, Number 3–4 / 2007, pp. 207–21, Domestication of emmer wheat and evolution of free-threshing tetraploid wheat in "A Century of Wheat Research-From Wild Emmer Discovery to Genome Analysis", Published Online: 3 November 2008". Archived from the original on 6 December 2013. Retrieved 6 July 2011.
  6. Colledge, Sue; University College, London. Institute of Archaeology (2007). The origins and spread of domestic plants in southwest Asia and Europe. Left Coast Press. pp. 40–. ISBN 978-1-59874-988-5. Retrieved 5 July 2011.
  7. Popova, T. (2016) Bread remains in archaeological contexts. Southeast Europe and Anatolia in Prehistory Essays in Honor of Vassil Nikolov on His 65th Anniversary, eds Bacvarov, K.; Gleser, R. (Habelt, Bonn), pp 519–526.
  8. González Carretero, L.; Wollstonecroft, M.; Fuller, DQ. (2017) A methodological approach to the study of archaeological cereal meals: A case study at Çatalhöyük East (Turkey). Veg Hist Archaeobot 26:415–432.
  9. Bakery, Grant's. "Bread: The Most Important Thing In Human History". Grant's Bakery. Retrieved 4 December 2022.
  10. Samuel, Delwen (1989). "Chapter 12: Their staff of life: Initial investigations on ancient Egyptian bread baking" (PDF). In Kemp, B. J. (ed.). Amarna Reports. Vol. 5. London: Egypt Exploration Society. pp. 1253–1290. ISBN 978-0-85698-109-8.
  11. Gonzalez Carretero, Lara (9 February 2017). "3,500-year-old bread and beer from the New Kingdom, Egypt". Retrieved 17 April 2017.
  12. Samuel, D. (1994). "An archaeological study of baking and bread in New Kingdom Egypt (doctoral thesis)".
  13. Samuel, Delwen (2000). "Chapter 22: Brewing and baking" (PDF). In Nicholson, P. T.; Shaw, I. (eds.). Ancient Egyptian materials and technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 537–576. ISBN 9780521452571.
  14. Samuel, D. (1996). "Investigation of Ancient Egyptian Baking and Brewing Methods by Correlative Microscopy". Science. 273 (5274): 488–490. Bibcode:1996Sci...273..488S. doi:10.1126/science.273.5274.488. PMID 8662535. S2CID 19453393.
  15. Samuel, Delwen (2002). "Bread in archaeology". Civilisations (49): 27–36. doi:10.4000/civilisations.1353.
  16. Tannahill, Reay (1973). Food in History (Stein and Day. ISBN 0-8128-1437-1). p. 68f.
  17. "Bread: The Most Important Thing In Human History". Grants. 29 November 2022. Retrieved 29 November 2022.
  18. Toussaint-Samat 2009, p.202
  19. Bakery, Grant's. "Bread: The Most Important Thing In Human History". Grant's Bakery. Retrieved 1 December 2022.
  20. Toussaint-Samat 2009, p.204 gives a date of 168 for "a considerable influx of craftsmen bakers (pistores) of Greek origin into Rome".
  21. Chrysippus of Tyana gives a list of thirty kinds, without commentary (Toussaint-Samat 2009, p. 202).
  22. Tannahill p. 91
  23. Changes in diet are reflected in the modern significance of opson as fish (Toussaint-Samat 2009, p. 202); in Italy the contorni are now the accompaniment to meat rather than bread.
  24. Tannahill p. 227
  25. Otter, Chris (2020). Diet for a large planet. USA: University of Chicago Press. p. 65. ISBN 978-0-226-69710-9.
  26. Otter, Chris (2020). Diet for a large planet. USA: University of Chicago Press. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-226-69710-9.
  27. "Sylvester Graham, Health Food Nut, Makes Butchers and Bakers Go Crackers". New England Historical Society. 25 April 2014. Retrieved 29 June 2022.
  28. Coley, Noel (1 March 2005). "The fight against food adulteration". Education in Chemistry. Vol. 42, no. 2. Royal Society of Chemistry. pp. 46–49. Archived from the original on 14 June 2018. Retrieved 14 June 2018.
  29. MS., City Clerk's Office, Record Book, 1814-1820, pp. 3, 5.
  30. Gulliver, Katrina (2 September 2017). "The fruits of imperialism". The Spectator. Retrieved 25 October 2020.
  31. "Sliced Bread Turns 80 Years Old". Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune. 7 July 2008. Retrieved 6 July 2011.
  32. It occupies a section in Sigfried Giedion, [1948] 1969. Mechanization Takes Command (Oxford University Press).
  33. "Grains - What foods are in the grain group?". ChooseMyPlate.gov. USDA.gov. 1 October 2009. Retrieved 6 January 2012.
  34. American Dietetic Association (2005). "Position of the American Dietetic Association: Fortification and Nutritional Supplements". Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 105 (8): 1300–1311. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2005.06.009. PMID 16182650.
  35. "Criticisms of the Chorleywood bread process". Archived from the original on 22 May 2012.
  36. Christianne L.H. Hupkens, Ronald A. Knibbe and Maris J. Drop, for example analyzed social class variation in the intake of fat and fibre, including white bread consumption, in Maastricht, Liège and Aachen, "Social Class Differences in Women's Fat and Fibre Consumption: A Cross-National Study" 1995; the literature on class perceptions and diet is enormous.
  37. "Bread: The Most Important Thing In Human History". Grants. Retrieved 29 November 2022.
  38. Pyler, Ernst John (1958). Our Daily Bread. Siebel. p. 703.
  39. Elkassabany, M.; Hoseney, R.C.; Seib, P.A. (1980). "Ascorbic Acid as an Oxidant in Wheat Flour Dough. I. Conversion to Dehydroascorbic Acid" (PDF). Cereal Chem. 57 (2): 85–87.
  40. "Modern History of Bread - 20th Century UK". Federation of Bakers.
  41. "Bread: The Most Important Thing In Human History". Grants. 29 November 2022. Retrieved 29 November 2022.
  42. Nonaka, I.; Takeuchi, H. (1995), The Knowledge-Creating Company, Oxford University Press.
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