Bread is one of those foods that always just seems to be around. Most people have a loaf or two in their home pretty much all the time; it comes with our meals at restaurants, either separately or as a part of a sandwich; and many of us even bake it ourselves.
A very basic type of bread was probably the first of all manmade foods. While there is no way to determine exactly when bread was first made, there is evidence suggesting that a primitive form of flatbread was made as far back as 15,000 BC in what is now central Jordan. With the spread of agriculture during the Neolithic Age (about 10,000 to 5,000 BC), bread took its place as one of mankind’s staple foods and has remained in that position ever since.
The first breads were most likely unleavened, flatbreads akin to the matzo and tortilla (discussed below). Eventually, leavening agents (most commonly some form of yeast) were added to the dough, which caused the bread to rise while it was being baked, resulting in the type of bread most commonly consumed around the world today. In the early 19th century, chemical leavening agents were discovered which caused dough to rise more quickly, and in the 1930s preservative agents began to be used in industrial bread manufacturing.
Most, but certainly not all, bread all is baked into loaves, from which slices can then be cut. Pre-sliced bread – commonly found in supermarkets today – was first introduced to very limited US markets in the 1920s, and then widely marketed to the United States and Canada by the Continental Baking Company as Wonder Bread, which is still widely manufactured today.
Bread remains one of the most (if not the most) widely consumed foods in the world. While it is impossible to even guess at how much bread is actually eaten worldwide, slightly over 12 million loaves of bread are sold in the UK every day, while some estimates suggest that the average US citizen will consume around 80 loaves of bread per year.
Types of Bread – The Anatomy of Bread
At its most basic, bread is made from dough which is itself made from combining flour (derived from some sort of grain, often – but not always – wheat) and water. Whether a leavening agent is used or not, the dough will be kneaded either by hand or machine, until the dough becomes the desired consistency at which point it is formed into either a single unit (roll, bagel, etc.) or a loaf and baked (or cooked using some other method).
Assuming that a leavening agent is used, the bread will rise as it is baked developing air holes on the inside – which produces a spongy texture – and a crust on the outside. Generally speaking, the longer a bread is baked the thicker and harder the crust will become.
Today, there are thousands of types of breads produced throughout the world, both commercially and by individuals experimenting with different flavors and cooking techniques. In this article, we will be concentrating on some of the more common types of bread found in markets and bakeries.
Loaf bread, as the name indicates, is bread that is baked (and normally sold) as a loaf. Loaf bread can usually be purchased either whole, or pre-sliced.
Perhaps the most popular and widely produced bread in the Western world, white bread is made from wheat flour that has had the germ and bran removed as part of the milling process. This removes the naturally occurring oils from the wheat flour and extends the shelf life of the bread after baking, making it more resistant to mold and rancidity. The flour used in white bread is often bleached. Many commercially produced white bread are fortified with iron, thiamin, riboflavin, folic acid, and other nutrients.
White bread – also sometimes called sandwich bread in the United States – is available both pre-sliced and in whole loaves almost everywhere food is sold in the US, Canada, and European Union. One of the spongiest and softest bread on the market, white bread is widely used in sandwiches, toasted as an accompaniment to breakfasts, and with soup-based meals.
Another very popular variety, rye bread is produced, not surprisingly, using rye flour – sometimes on its own, but more often (at least in the Western world) in conjunction with another flour, often wheat, in a mixture. Rye flour is usually sturdier and more flavorful than wheat, and the proportion of rye used in the dough will significantly impact both the taste and the texture of the bread. The more rye used, the darker and chewier the bread will usually be.
Commercially produced as both whole and pre-sliced loaves, rye will usually be richer in essential nutrients and fiber than white bread, depending on the percentage of rye used in the dough. Rye bread will usually be denser than white, and often have a thicker crust. This bread is often used in sandwiches, and as an accompaniment to dishes featuring stronger flavors.
A very close relative of white, whole wheat is a type of bread made from wheat flour that has not had the bran and germ completely removed. The term ‘whole wheat’ can be deceptive, as the amount of bran and germ used in the flour will differ depending on the producer or recipe. In some cases, only a tiny amount of bran is used in the final product, and artificial coloring is sometimes added to darken the loaf.
Whole wheat bread is typically brown in color (the more bran used, the darker it will usually be) and sturdier than white. It is sold both whole and pre-sliced, and will usually have a stronger taste and chewier texture than white.
As the name indicates, multigrain bread is produced using multiple grains to make the dough. Grains commonly used can include wheat, rye, barley, flax, and millet. In some cases, small ground up seeds (pumpkin, flaxseed, sunflower, etc.) will be incorporated into the bread, giving it a chewier and a nuttier taste.
Multigrain bread will usually be fairly dark and much firmer than some other types of bread. It will also tend to be denser and chewier, and have a fuller flavor. Depending on the specific grains used, it will often have up to four times more dietary fiber than commercially produced white breads, and be richer in vitamins and complex carbohydrates.
Sourdough is one of the oldest types of loaf bread, dating back to at least the 36th century BC. For centuries prior to the introduction of chemical agents, sourdough was used as leavening for many other types of breads due to its high Lactobacillus culture content – a naturally occurring leavening agent.
Basically, sourdough bread is produced using dough that has been aged and allowed to ferment for a period of time. This fermentation process gives the usually quite thick and hearty finished bread a slightly sour and bitter taste. Used in sandwiches and sometimes eaten alone with butter, sourdough bread is naturally resistant to mold, and will usually keep for longer than many other types of bread.
Probably originating several thousand years ago as a flatbread fried by members of North American native tribes, cornbread is a sweet or semisweet bread still prevalent in Native American, Southern, and Southwestern cuisine. Cornbread is usually made using a combination of cornmeal, baking soda (as the leavening agent), eggs and sugar, and will usually have a fairly dense and sometimes crumbly texture.
Cornbread is often eaten with meals or on its own, or covered in honey or powdered sugar and served as a sweet breakfast or dessert. Cracklin’ bread is popular in the Southern United States and is a type of cornbread with fried pork rinds (or cracklins) inside. A thicker, spicier cornbread variation called a hushpuppy is often served as an accompaniment to fresh seafood and shellfish.
Potato bread is usually a form of wheat bread in which potato flour, flakes, or mashed potato replaces a certain quantity of the wheat flour in the dough. Very popular in parts of Central Europe, the UK, parts of South America and the United States, the quantity of potato used in the dough will vary widely from region to region and recipe to recipe. Generally speaking, the more potato used the denser and chewier the bread will be.
Not unlike whole wheat bread in flavor and coloration, most potato breads produced around the world will be quite hearty and have a thick crust, although many of those commercially produced in the United States use a larger percentage of wheat flour and are lighter, and quite similar to white bread.
The baguette is a type of elongated (usually somewhere between 24 and 36 inches long) white bread closely associated with France and French cuisine, although today it is commonly produced around the world. Often simply called French bread, the traditional baguette is most commonly made from dough containing wheat flour, salt, water and yeast – although in the United States and other countries other flours – including rye, rice and barley – are sometimes used.
Slits are cut in the top of the loaf prior to baking to allow for gas expansion, giving the bread its distinctive appearance. The bread itself will usually be quite chewy and feature a sturdy, hard crust. This bread (or a variation of it) is often used for making submarine sandwiches (also called grinders or hoagies) or consumed as a part of traditional French cuisine.
What is most often referred to as Italian bread is similar to French bread in many ways, although the loaf will tend to be shorter and have a larger circumference than its Western European neighbor. The major difference between the two pieces of bread (aside from length and width) is the addition of olive oil directly to the dough which serves to bind the flour, yeast, and salt together, resulting in a denser, sturdier final product.
Italian bread tends to have a thinner, although still somewhat hard, crust which is achieved by basting the loaf with water during baking. It will also typically have a thicker, softer interior specifically designed for sopping up the hardy, rich sauces used in many Italian cuisine dishes. Italian bread does not have a particularly long shelf life and will become stale in just a day or two if not wrapped in plastic for storage.
Pumpernickel is a type of rye bread which originated in Germany, probably in the mid to late 14th century, and was typically eaten at first by peasants and the lower socio-economic classes. Traditionally made with a coarse rye flour or meal and sourdough or yeast as the leavening agent, pumpernickel is usually baked slower and at lower temperatures than many other breads, resulting in a thick bread with a fairly thin crust and a robust rye, slightly sweet flavor.
Over the years pumpernickel has become an important part of many European cuisines, and a very popular bread the world over. Whole rye berries are sometimes incorporated into the dough to give the bread a chewier texture. In North America, pumpernickel is sometimes combined with a lighter form of rye dough to create ‘swirl’ rye breads.
Increasing in popularity in the last decade or so, rice bread is made using either rice flour (normally brown or white) or a combination of rice and wheat flour. Looking a great deal like white or whole wheat, rice bread will often be a bit drier than wheat-based bread, as well as somewhat lighter. Rice bread’s recent surge in popularity can be directly correlated to the fact that many types are gluten-free, and so are an alternative to regular breads for those on a gluten-restricted diet.
Fruit and Nut
Fruit and nut breads basically refer to any bread in which some type of fruit or nut is incorporated into the dough prior to baking. Considered specialty breads, virtually any type of dough can be used in making fruit or nut breads, although wheat and wheat/rye mixtures are the most common. Generally softer nuts (walnuts, cashews, etc.) will be used and in many – but not all – cases, the fruits used will often be chopped or mashed. Fruit and nut breads are commonly used as dessert breads, and they will often not be stable enough after slicing for use in sandwiches.
Pita bread can be traced back almost 16,000 years to what is now Jordon in the Middle East. A type of flatbread that is only lightly leavened, some forms of pita bread have a ‘pocket’ in the center that can be stuffed with other ingredients to make sandwiches while those without the pocket will be used as a ‘wrap’ in some dishes, such as souvlaki. Normally made from wheat flour, pita bread is cooked at a very high temperature for a short time, and will normally have a chewy texture and a thin but sturdy crust.
A native of France, brioche is a bread usually made from wheat flour, eggs and butter; sugar, cream and brandy are also often incorporated into the dough. Often used as dessert bread, brioche will usually have a flaky, almost pastry-like crust and a very tender and flavorful body. Brioche likely dates back to the mid-13th century, and remains very popular in Western Europe and other parts of the world. Most historians believe that the famous quotation ‘Let them eat cake’ – incorrectly attributed to Marie-Antoinette – was actually ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,’ which translates to ‘Let them eat brioche.’
The earliest types of bread – and the direct ancestors of most of the breads commonly found in supermarkets today – unleavened breads are flat, thin breads in which no leavening agent is added to the dough prior to cooking.
Typically made of wheat or corn flour, salt and water, tortillas (which translates from the Spanish to ‘small cakes’) are very simple flat, thin unleavened breads. Dating back thousands of years to the native peoples of South America, tortillas remain a staple food in many South American countries, Mexico, and are widely used in the United States, Canada and Western Europe.
Tortillas are generally round, and once the dough has been formed they are lightly cooked for between 20 and 40 seconds per side using a skillet, which allows them to remain slightly moist and flexible. Tortillas are often cut into small pieces and deep-fried or baked to produce hard, crunchy tortilla chips.
A crepe is a thin, unleavened often sweet pancake (see below) made from wheat flour that is native to France. Often used as a wrap for sweetened fruits and other sugary concoctions, crepes are also often served topped with powdered sugar or fruit compotes.
The matzo is a traditional Jewish unleavened flatbread dating back several thousand years. They are a part of traditional Jewish cuisine, and an important part of the religion’s celebration of Passover. By Hebrew law, kosher matzo can only be made from flour (wheat, barley, rye or oat is allowed) and water. Non-kosher matzo are often made incorporating eggs, fruit juices, and different types of seeds into the dough. Depending on how it is cooked, matzo can be either soft or crisp; most of the kosher and non-kosher matzo produced commercially is crisp.
At their most basic, rolls are small, individual-sized (or single serving) loaves of bread. They are made using a variety of different flours and added ingredients and typically baked in the same way as bread loaves. As a general rule of thumb, if your dough can be baked into a full-size loaf of bread, a smaller quantity can be used to make a roll.
Rolls come in all shapes and sizes and are widely used in sandwich making (sandwich rolls), as an accompaniment or side dish to meals (dinner rolls), or simply eaten on their own. Rolls will often contain fruits, nuts, or be covered with honey or a sugary glaze (sweet rolls, honey buns). Many manufacturers market packaged, precut roll dough (typically breakfast or dinner rolls) that can be easily cooked in the home.
Though you might not think it to look at one, a pancake is actually a type of lightly leavened bread. Made from a number of different types of flour and baking soda, and often incorporating butter, eggs and milk or cream into the loose liquid-like batter, pancakes are usually cooked in a skillet or on a griddle (and are sometimes referred to as griddle cakes). Often incorporating fruits and nuts into the batter, pancakes are a popular breakfast meal that is often topped with butter, syrup, or some type of fruit compote.
The origin of the bagel can be traced back to the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe in the mid-16th century. Traditionally, a bagel is a lightly leavened round bread usually with a hole in the center. Made from a number of different flours, baking soda or yeast, salt and sugar or honey, and eggs, once the dough is formed into a ‘log’ it is bent into a circle and the ends are pressed together. The dough is then submerged in boiling water for about five minutes after which it is baked; this process gives the bagel a dense, chewy texture. Bagel dough will often incorporate fruits, nuts or seeds within the dough itself or sprinkled on top prior to baking. Bagels are often toasted, and eaten with butter, cream cheese, or jams and jellies.
Dating back to at least the 6th century, the pretzel originated in Central Europe and was most probably first made by monks. Most often made of wheat (and sometimes a wheat/rye mixture) dough, yeast, shortening, water and sometimes sugar pretzels can be either hard or soft, depending on baking time and the amount of leavening used. Pretzels can be straight ‘sticks’, formed into a tradition ‘pretzel shape’, or cut into small ‘nuggets’. Sometimes called mankind’s oldest snack food, pretzels are often topped with salt, or dipped in chocolate. It is estimated that over 300 million pounds of pretzels are consumed in the United States alone every year.
Sweetbreads are actually not a type of bread at all, but rather a pleasant-sounding culinary name for a number of less-pleasant sounding animal organs (mostly lamb and calf, but sometimes cow and pig) that are considered delicacies in some cuisines. Normally encompassing parts of the stomach, throat, pancreas, tongue, ears, heart, ovaries and testicles of the animal, sweetbreads are often fried (sometimes after being breaded), used as stuffing for more traditionally consumed meat dishes, or grilled.