The Art of Bread Making


Sleep Aid

It’s late, and you’re still awake. Allow us to help with Sleep Aid, a series devoted to curing insomnia with the dullest, most soporific texts available in the public domain. Tonight’s prescription: a chapter from The Bread and Biscuit Baker’s and Sugar-Boiler’s Assistant, an 1890 book by Robert Wells.


When we reflect upon the present conditions under which the bread-making industry is carried on in most of the large cities and towns of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and remember the importance of that industry to mankind, we cannot but be impressed by the little progress that has been made in the art of bread-making. Whilst other industries have been marked by important improvements, we find bread being made in much the same manner as it was five hundred years ago. The mystery is how—by accident, it would seem—we get such well-made bread as we do. There are very few even now who have the slightest conception of what yeast really is, and fewer still who know how or why it makes bread light. But it will surprise me if the trade does not undergo, in the course of the next ten years, a complete and beneficial change. 

Master bakers and confectioners are everywhere complaining of the incompetency of their workmen; and it cannot be denied that there is some ground for the complaint. Proper training in the baking and confectionery trade is of great importance. A trained servant gives satisfaction to his employer, and receives a responsive good feeling in return.

Let us see what is meant by “training.” In its broadest and best sense, it is knowing what to do, and when and how to do it.

Take the first condition—What to do. This may be considered on two grounds, generally known as the practical and the theoretical, though the latter is sometimes confounded with the scientific, and people are led to sneer at science. Much has been said lately in our trade journals about introducing scientific chemistry to the journeyman baker in connection with his daily work of making bread. But how many journeyman bakers could we find that even understand the meaning of the word chemistry, without expecting them to understand mysteries to which years of study have been devoted by such men as Liebig, Graham, Dumas, Darwin, Pasteur, and Thoms of Alyth?

Chemistry as applied to Bread-Making.

It is not my intention to depreciate the great good that would be derived from scientific chemistry if properly applied to bread-making. But who is to study and apply it? Surely not a man who earns from 20s. to 30s. per week, and works twelve, fourteen, and sixteen hours a day in an overheated atmosphere. What hours of rest he has should be used to recuperate his lost vitality. Not till scientific chemistry is taught in our Board schools and made one of the elements of a scholar’s ordinary education, can we hope to see it used successfully with bakers in making bread.

Chemistry, I believe, is destined to play as important a part in the annals of the baking trade as did the substitution of machinery for hand labour. But at the present day how many bakers know that the decomposition of sugar produces fermentation; that fermentation destroys sugar and produces alcohol; that maltose assists fermentation; that starch, however obtained, has always the same characteristics, though there are different kinds from different sources; that dextrine is soluble in water and insoluble in alcohol; that protoplasm, the basis of all life, consists of protein, compounds, mineral salts, nitrogen, &c.? And do not the meaning and use of terms familiar in scientific chemistry—such as diastasecerealingluten, and others—only perplex the ordinary journeyman baker, and make him think that the less he has to do with science, the more easily he will get his life “rubbed through.” It is impossible for working bakers to become acquainted with these things while in the bakehouse; and while there are in many towns such valuable institutions as free libraries, mechanics’ institutes, &c., they are not available to the ordinary baker, as his hours are so exceptional. The baker’s hours of labour, indeed, are shorter in many places than they used to be, and he is no longer called “the white slave.” Still, the spirit of competition is so strong that a baker has to work much harder proportionally than other working men, and his mind is in no condition, in the little spare time he has, to study the problems of science; and nobody can expect the baker to know, as it were by intuition, the whys and the wherefores of chemistry. However, what he has learnt in the practice of his art, and what the common custom of the trade has handed down to him, he may use to more or less advantage, according as he has more or less personal skill. In the case of fermentation, which may be described as the very backbone of bread-making, a baker will find plenty to study and to think about, from his first “setting the sponge” until his bread is out of the oven, without perplexing himself over problems about which he can understand little or nothing.

With time and money at his disposal, however, the study of chemistry opens up a wide field to the studious baker, and would no doubt reward him for his pains, and at the same time prove a great gain to his trade; and I believe there are not a few earnest workers labouring at the present time to afford that knowledge and help to the journeyman baker which will eventually lead to an easier way of earning his daily bread.


The process of fermentation, which has for its object either the manufacture of bread, or of an alcoholic product in a more or less concentrated form, is very similar in action during its earlier stages. It commences with the growth and multiplication of the fermenting germs contained in the minute organisms floating in the air, the inorganic constituents of the water, and the protoplasm (essence of life) of the yeast; and all the changes brought about are accompanied by heat. Fermentation is caused by the decomposition of the starch and gluten of a solution of either potatoes, flour, or malted barley, which decomposition is accompanied by an evolution of gas. There is also a peculiar vibration given to the various bodies in contact, which agitates the whole. This agitation is increased by the bursting of the starch-cells and the formation therefrom of maltose, and also by the changing of the maltose sugar into carbonic acid gas. Substances in a state of decomposition are capable of bringing about a change in the chemical composition of bodies with which they are in contact. Most of the vegetable substances used in fermentation have a constituent part—sugar, starch, or some other substance—which is easily converted into a fermentable sugar by the action of yeast, or of diluted mineral acids, or by a constituent of malted barley, called diastase. The sugar produced by these means is resolved into carbonic acid gas and alcohol by vinous fermentation. It will be seen, therefore, that fermentation is started by the saccharine element in the ferment, which is termed maltose; the process is then kept up by the gluten, which, becoming decomposed, aids the sugar and starch in the work of providing food for the yeast as soon as the latter is brought in contact with it. The fermentation then takes place very rapidly, and carbonic acid gas is generated and given off in proportion to the amount of the products contained in the ferment, or sponge, and also to the strength and freshness of the yeast: especially is this so with gluten, which is the great agent of fermentation, when in a state of decomposition and when in contact with yeast.

Process of Bread-Making.

It will be useful to give here some remarks by the great scientist, Liebig, on the best process of making bread:—

“Many chemists are of opinion that flour by the fermentation in the dough loses somewhat of its nutritious constituents, from a decomposition of the gluten; and it has been proposed to render the dough porous without fermentation by means of substances which when brought into contact yield carbonic acid. But on a closer investigation of the process this view appears to have little foundation.

“When flour is made into dough with water, and allowed to stand at a gentle warmth, a change takes place in the gluten of the dough, similar to that which occurs after the steeping of barley in the commencement of germination in the seeds in the preparation of malt; and in consequence of this change the starch (the greater part of it in malting; in dough only a small percentage) is converted into sugar, a small portion of the gluten passes into the soluble state, in which it acquires the properties of albumen, but by this change it loses nothing whatever of its digestibility or of its nutritive value.

“We cannot bring flour and water together without the formation of sugar from the starch, and it is this sugar and not the gluten of which a part enters into fermentation, and is resolved into alcohol and carbonic acid.

“We know that malt is not inferior in nutritive power to barley from which it is derived, although the gluten contained in it has undergone a much more profound alteration than that of flour in the dough, and experience has taught us that in distilleries where spirits are made from potatoes, the plastic constituents of the potatoes, and of the malt which is added after having gone through the entire course of the processes of the formation and the fermentation of the sugar, have lost little or nothing of their nutritive value. It is certain, therefore, that in the making of bread there is no loss of gluten.

“Only a small part of the starch of the flour is consumed in the production of sugar, and the fermentative process is not only the simplest and best but also the cheapest of all the methods which have been recommended for rendering bread porous. Besides, chemical preparations ought never, as a rule, to be recommended by chemists, for culinary purposes, since they hardly ever are found pure in ordinary commerce. For example, the commercial crude muriatic acid which it is recommended to add to the dough along with bicarbonate of soda, is always most impure, and often contains arsenic, so that the chemist never uses it without a tedious process of purification for his purposes, which are of far less importance than making bread light and porous.

“To make bread cheaper it has been proposed to add to dough potato starch or dextrine, rice, the pressed pulp of turnips, pressed raw potatoes, or boiled potatoes; but all these additions only diminish the nutritive value of bread. Potato starch, dextrine, or the pressed pulp of turnips, and beet-root, when added to flour, yield a mixture the nutritive value of which is equal to the entire potato, or lower still, but no one can consider the change of grain or flour into a food of equal value with potatoes or rice an improvement. The true problem is to render the potatoes or rice similar or equal to wheat in their effects, and not vice versâ. It is better under all circumstances to boil the potatoes and eat them as such, than to add potatoes or potato starch to flour before it is made into bread, which should be strictly prohibited by police regulation on account of the cheating to which it would inevitably give rise.”

Brown Bread.

With regard to the nutritive qualities of brown bread, Professor Jago (who I think one of our highest authorities) says that whole meal, and flour from which the bran and germ have not been removed, do not keep well. These bodies contain oil and nitrogenous principles which readily decompose, producing rancidity and mustiness in flavour. Not only do these changes occur in the flour, but they also proceed apace in the dough. The diastastic bodies of the bran and germ attack the starch, and more or less convert it into dextrine and maltose; they further attack the gluten, and that remarkably elastic body which confers on wheaten flour, alone of all the cereals, the power of forming a light, spongy, well-risen loaf. The gluten, under the action of the bran and germ, loses its elasticity, and becomes fragile and incapable of retaining the gas produced during fermentation; the result is heavy, sodden, indigestible bread.

Evidence of this is found in the fact that while whole-meal loaves are so excessively baked as to produce a crust two or three times the ordinary thickness, the interior is still in a damp and sodden condition. This is the effect of bran in whole-meal.

“Not only, then, on the ground of nutritive value may the use of a pure white loaf be urged, but such bread is more healthily made, and will be sweet and free from acidity when whole-meal and dark breads are sour and unwholesome. It has also been pointed out that the nutritive constituents of the bran are so locked within it that they escape unaltered from the human body.”

Such, in brief, is Professor Jago’s opinion of whole-meal, and bread made from it. My own opinion is that Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest is very forcibly illustrated in the milling of cereals, and the adoption of food most proper for the human system. We have had brown bread and white bread before the public from time immemorial, and what is the result? Why, for every sack of wheat-meal bread which is baked we have a thousand sacks of fine or white bread. And what of our hospitals and our army and navy, with medical men at the head of them, watching the results of this food or that food, and its effects on the human body? I admit that brown bread does suit some constitutions; but to the majority of people it is nauseous, frequently causing flatulency. I will just quote another good authority—Professor Charles Graham.

In his lecture upon “The Chemistry of Bread-Making,” delivered before the Society of Arts in December, 1879, he said: “As regards the importance of the constituents of bran, I say that the analyst, and the physician who makes use of the analyst as his supporter, in bringing before us the importance of brown bread as compared with white, and who assert that in rejecting the bran we are guilty of a serious waste of flesh-forming and bone-forming material, should not take a mere chemical analysis as all-sufficient to establish their point. A table showing, from an analyst’s point of view, the comparative merits of various substances for feeding purposes, shows hay to be of high value as a food, and even oat straw—as, indeed, every farmer knows from experience. Still more valuable for their heat-giving, and especially for their flesh-forming, materials, are linseed-cake, rape-cake, and decorticated cotton-cake. Now those who hold, from mere chemical analysis, that bran is of such high value as a food material that its omission from flour would meet with grave censure, should, from a similar analytical standpoint, urge us to eat hay, oat-straw, linseed and cotton cakes. Doubtless these substances are of high value as food for cattle, because the herbivorous oxen can digest and utilise them with ease; not so with man, who would starve in a field where a cow or a sheep would fatten. As with hay or linseed cake, so with bran; I hold that the best mode of digesting such food substances is first of all by the aid of our hoofed friends, to convert them into milk or cream, or bacon, beef, or mutton.”

Now these are the scientific opinions of two of our very highest authorities. But of late I have been making brown bread out of a blend of cereals made and milled by an enterprising firm of millers in the North of England, and I must really say that it meets a long-felt want, as it produces a brown loaf which is free from that nauseous taste of which complaint is so often made with brown bread, and has a good nutty flavour of its own.

In conclusion, let me say that we have reason for great hope for the future of the Bread and Confectionery trade. Many earnest minds are devoting both time and money to the development of this important industry, and their efforts cannot fail to result in bettering the knowledge and lightening the labour of the practical baker.

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