Breaking bread is an ancient act, one that is both grounding and nourishing. Bread brings people together, it’s important. So why are we afraid of it? Why, as a dietitian, do I see clients professing they’ve been “good” because they’re not eating bread? I believe the answer lies in the fact that these days, most bread is a heavily processed food-like substance. It’s not really bread. At least not the type that grounds and nourishes. Food should taste good, but it should also make you feel good. Let’s feel good about bread again.
Slow Down and Look Around
The industrial revolution and modern agricultural practices have done incredible things, feeding the world’s growing population and developing techniques to enrich and preserve foods. And some degree of processing is generally necessary to get food from the field to the table. But today’s hungry, profit-driven focus on harvesting high-yield crops at whatever cost is enough to satiate my appetite for muffins. Beyond the environmental concern as we produce, deplete, consume and waste beyond comprehension, there are nutritional considerations. People are sick. They’re sick and scared of bread because they’re loading up on highly processed convenience food that isn’t really food.
Does this mean we should all start milling our own flour and waking at the crack of dawn to bake bread? Not necessarily. The romantic notion of churning butter and grinding flour is not feasible (or desirable) for many of us. But we can afford to do our research and learn about flour and styles of bread, and then court a baker doing rad things. Then, your biggest decision will be what to put on your toast (the answer is usually avocado).
Whole Grain Love
You’ll find that eating a variety of grains, rather than relying on one kind, will support good gut health and keep things tasty. Add nutritionally potent, ancient whole grains like wild rice, sorghum and freekeh to your diet, and go for flours like whole grain spelt. These varieties are loaded with nutrients as the vitamins, minerals, fats and fibre found in the grain are not lost or discarded during processing, which is what happens during the production of refined white flour. High fibre diets reduce our risk of disease and help us stop at one or two slices of bread instead of seven, so that’s awesome. There is a point of anti-nutrients like phytic acid that are present in whole grains, and there are practices you can do to help minimise their impact (such as selecting a long-fermented sourdough bread and soaking your grains), but if you’re eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet most of us will not lose sleep if we forget to soak and sprout (and in fact phytic acid can help in preventing disease). My advice is to go for whole grain sourdough bread and then positively stuff your sandwich with a bunch of vegetables, topped with a thick spread of hummus and drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Oh, and wear a bib while you eat. If you’re keen for wholegrain baking instruction and inspiration, grab a copy of The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book or Chad Robertson’s book Tartine No. 3.
Stone Ground Grain, Sustainably Grown and a word on Spelt
Stone grinding (or stone milling) is an ancient technique that produces flour from grains. It is different from the modern, industrial, roller milling method in that it is a gentler process. Stone grinding controls the temperature and speed at which the grain is heated, which helps retain valuable nutrients. It helps the grain remain a grain, keeping the nutritious layers intact rather than isolating single nutrients, a practice all too common in modern food manufacturing and one which gives me the heebie-jeebies. As the oils from the grain are still present in stone ground flour it is less shelf-stable than roller-milled refined flour, and hence it will need to be used more quickly. But that’s cool, you can just buy flour in small batches, store it correctly (in the refrigerator is a good move) and before you know it you get to try a new flour. This ensures we eat a variety of whole grains and don’t stay in a white wheat rut.
If you want to feel even more rosy about the bread you’re eating, go for sustainably produced grains. Organic and biodynamic farms grow food without chemical sprays, in lush, fertile soil that is abundant in nutrients. This way of farming is beneficial for everyone – the farmer, the consumer and the environment – and I feel it is most definitely something to support. The husk of the spelt grain is particularly protective, allowing you to readily find organically-grown spelt flour and allowing this ancient grain to stay relatively untouched. As Kim Boyce, author of Good to the Grain, recommends, start with spelt and see where you end up. Soon you might be grinding amaranth seeds for wholegrain waffles.
Sample and See
If you’re unsure whether all of this flour flattery is necessary, try a “sample and see” exercise. Buy a bag of fresh, sustainably grown stoneground flour from a health food shop and a bag of the highly refined white flour that dominates the supermarket shelves. Observe the colour, touch and smell the flour… taste and bake with it. Sample and see. And while some baked goods might work best with a finer, more refined white flour, it’s nice to know there is a world of nutty, nutritious and deliciously dark whole grains out there being mindfully grown and ground. These are the flours and grains that I like to buy. They make for a loaf of bread that both tastes good and makes you feel good.