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Give us this day our daily bread

It was writing about sourdough bread a few weeks ago that finally did it.

We all realise that India (the world, even) is going through a baking boom.


But not everyone is baking interesting breads and selling them on the Internet. Many of us are thoroughly confused by the wide range of breads that have suddenly become available for delivery on the web.


   The names can be unfamiliar. And because we have not tasted them before, we may not even know what they are supposed to taste like. This should not worry us unduly; many Indian bakers have thrown away the Western guidelines and because they are not overtly fond of — or familiar with — the classic versions of the breads, they are just doing their own thing with Internet recipes.


   I kind of admire the creative chaos in the bread market. But here, for the record, is a rough guide to some of the breads you will come across.


Industrial bread: This is the stuff most of us grew up eating. We remember going to the shops to buy Britannia, Modern or other much-loved breads. This is bread made in industrial quantities, using a variation of a British process called Chorleywood, which cuts down on traditional fermentation times and yields a bland, uninteresting bread that can sometimes stick to the roof of your mouth.


Commercial bread: Indians are great patissiers but we are not necessarily great bakers. At some upmarket bakeries and even at a few five-star hotels, bakery chefs will cut corners and use a variety of industrial products to speed up the baking process.


  In France, they would be summarily fired (if not ceremonially shot) for doing this. But they get away with it in India because we are too intimidated by fancy places to complain. So always remember: just because a loaf of bread is expensive, that does not mean that it is any good.


Sourdough: I won’t bore you with a summary of my sourdough article. But essentially, sourdough is a country bread that depends on a bacterial starter culture to give it a certain sourness. Sourdough should have thick, hard crusts, should not be milky-white and the loaves should not be too dense: there should be little air holes on the surface of each slice.


   If it is all white, tightly packed and uptight, then it is not the real thing.


Baguette: A narrow French loaf. It should be thin (about 2 to 2.5 inches) and long (around two feet). It is not a traditional bread but was popularised by Parisian bakers after the World War. It must be eaten immediately. It is usually pretty useless by the next day.


Ciabatta: A relatively new bread. This was created by Italian bakers in the 1980s to compete with the popularity of French baguettes. It was originally meant for sandwiches because Italians feared that locals were making too many baguette sandwiches. The best panini (sandwiches) are still made from ciabatta. Good ciabatta is easier to make than good sourdough but Indian bakers, conditioned perhaps by Britannia bread, pack it too tight without the alveolar holes that are its signature.


Focaccia: One simple way of looking at focaccia is to see it as pizza bread. It is a flat, oven-baked (often in a pizza oven) bread. At some restaurants they will load slices of focaccia with ham, cheese or tomato.


   The trouble with generalising is that there are many Italian styles of focaccia, which vary from region to region but the pizza-like flat bread is the one you are most likely to find.


"For many years, Indian chefs would add caramel to the flour and slyly suggest that the brown bread that resulted was healthier than white bread."

Black Bread: This is a term usually employed for German bread which can be thick and dense. It is an ancient bread and should be made with rye, a grain related to the wheat family. (Pumpernickel is a rye bread.)


   Outside of Germany, the term rye bread is also used. But it means different things. In Germany, bread has to be made of 90 per cent rye to be called rye. In America and England, rye bread may contain only 25-30 per cent rye. The rest is normal flour.


   You can buy rye-flavoured bread (which is what most of the rye bread in India is) but if you do choose it, then do it for the taste alone. The health benefits are the subject of some dispute.


Brioche: A brioche is basically a pastry that thinks it is a bread.


   It is made like a cake with egg, milk butter and even cream. As people like the taste of real bread, brioche bread is not popular except with those who like a cakey-flavour. But you will find brioche buns used for hamburgers by fancy chefs, and at upmarket places they will make French toast with buttery brioche.


Grissini: We have all eaten it even if we don’t call it by that name. A Grissini is an Italian bread-stick.


Whole Wheat Bread/Brown Bread: This is often taken to mean the same thing. But it is not. Brown bread can be used to describe any bread that is brown in colour.


   For instance, bread that has been coloured by molasses can be called brown bread. For many years, Indian chefs would add caramel to the flour and slyly suggest that the brown bread that resulted was healthier than white bread.


   The theory behind whole wheat bread is that while maida/refined flour uses only a part of the grain, whole wheat flour is made from the whole grain and is therefore more nutritious. Plus, say some experts, maida is bleached and refined so that further damages its healthy properties.


   There was a time when the world went whole wheat crazy which annoyed the hell out of bakers who could never get the flavours they wanted from whole wheat. (Good bakers, sadly enough, don't have much time for anything other than maida.)


   Now, whole wheat bread is widely available though most whole-wheat breads at Indian bakeries contain at least a little maida but of course bakers are not eager to tell you that.


   Whole wheat is supposed to be better for you in terms of the way in which the body releases insulin. In my personal experience, however, measuring blood sugar after having had both whole wheat and maida, I find that whole wheat has roughly the same effect on my sugar levels as maida bread.


So what should you order: Well, if you like bread, don’t order industrial bread. Buy it from an artisanal operation. Whether you want ciabatta, rye, sourdough etc. is up to you but make up your mind after trying everything. There are no set rules. And even if there were, the new generation of Internet-taught home-bakers would not follow them.


   So just make your choices based on taste. Don’t be intimidated by the names and always remember that most bread will still be maida bread. Even bread that claims to be made from rye, quinoa, whole wheat etc. will still have maida at its core.


   Which is fair enough. If you don’t want to eat maida, then give up bread. There are perfectly good options. Eat chappatis instead. And if that doesn’t work, switch to rice.




  • Rao 13 Apr 2021

    Well, I gave up wheat based bread altogether. I'm waiting for Gluten-free nutritional bread to take shape like the Sourdough revolution happening in the EU & in the US. I'm also quite interested in seeing gluten-free Naan, phulka & regular artisanal bread. Let's dream shall we...

Posted On: 10 Apr 2021 02:25 PM
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