Bread is quite possibly the reason that modern civilization exists. The places where civilizations sprung up around the world were all places where wheat or some other form of grains could be cultivated and grown. In places where this didn’t happen, people remained nomads and hunter-gatherers.
Our farmer ancestors would take the grains, mash them up, mix them with water, and eat them as a porridge. Eventually they realized that if the porridge was kinda thick, they could toss it on a hot stone over a fire and cook it into a flatbread. One bite of a fresh flatbread and they decided that all of the hassles of civilization – taxes, plagues, crappy commutes – might just be worth it.
It’s strange then that we so rarely make or even eat our own fresh bread anymore. It is, after all, the original civilized act. And it’s also crazy easy.
Why on earth aren’t we all baking bread?
I started cooking bread about a year ago on a whim. Before then, I’d had fresh bread a handful of times in my life. Nice restaurants would serve fresh bread, but I didn’t go to them that often, and no one I knew cooked bread. It was, I understood, a pain in the ass. The story that always stuck out to me was that of the Jews fleeing Egypt and not being able to wait for their bread to rise. I had no context for understanding what that meant, but to me, it sounded like a primitive chore like milking cows or beating the dirt out of your clothes with a stick.
So one Sunday morning, I found an email from the New York Times Cooking page in my inbox offering a “Simple Crusty Bread” recipe. I had nothing else to do, so I went to the store, bought the ingredients (“What? There are really only three essential ingredients including water?”) and went home and made it – put active dry yeast in warm water until it bubbles. Mix water in with the flour and a pinch of salt. Stir it up. Let it rise for a few hours. Punch it down. Form your dough. Let it rise again. Cook.
All of the time in between those steps I was playing GoldenEye 64. And once it was finished, my wife and I ate the entire loaf in about an hour. It tasted spectacular, it made our apartment smell amazing, and the actual time it took to create and knead the dough was maybe 15 minutes tops.
When people come over to eat now, I cook either that recipe or a simple baguette recipe I found online. They are invariably impressed when I tell them it’s homemade. “Oh my gosh, you didn’t have to do that for us!” they say, not knowing that it took more effort to slop the French Onion dip into the bowl. I modestly shrug in a way that suggests I spent all day slaving over a cooking stone and definitely not playing retro video games. “It’s nothing,” I say.
Bread is a staple of our culture. We can take more pride in it
As with so much of the food we eat, we’ve become somewhat divorced from where it’s come from and how it’s made. Most people today don’t get their bread fresh from bakeries, but from the bread aisle of the supermarket. And while that bread is all you really need to make a great sandwich, it’s a world apart from anything homemade. Even the artisanal bread sold at most grocery stores pales in comparison to something fresh out of the oven. It may simply be that because most of us have lost this most basic piece of civilized knowledge, we don’t realize just how easy making bread is, or just how much it can be used to impress friends.
To be clear, there are very difficult types of breads to bake. Sometimes the yeast doesn’t work great, sometimes the recipe calls for working the dough in a way you might be unfamiliar with, and sometimes it just doesn’t come out as nicely as it did the last time. And sometimes you try and make your own homemade sourdough starter and it explodes all over the top of your fridge.
But the very basics of making bread are still quite easy. Simple crusty breads are more of a matter of time than effort. Baguettes are a matter of learning how to roll dough into the familiar-looking baguette shape. You can even make a pita-like flatbread out of equal parts flour and greek yogurt that is perfect for dipping or making pizzas. So why put all this effort into showing off by cooking something elaborate and strange for your guests, when you could just cook the first simple food civilized humans ever ate?