Is bread good for you or bad for you? The answer is: Yes.
The food category we call "bread" ranges from extremely unhealthy junk food to extremely healthy superfood.
As you might have guessed, Spartan Diet bread is pegged at the extreme Superfood end of the spectrum, and my recipe this week tells you exactly how to make it.
But first, I want to clarify what’s wrong with how people think of bread.
Bread is the staple of Western Civilization. It's the food that built the pyramids. It's the food that built the ancient world. When Aristotle invented logic, when Jesus returned to Jerusalem, when Julius Caesar conquered Gaul — they no doubt had bread in their bellies.
Bread has been an uncontroversial good for at least 10,000 years — maybe 100,000.
We know from archeological and genetic evidence that people in the Middle East had already domesticated barley more than 10,500 years ago. It's possible that the domestication of grains coincided with the use of those grains for making bread. But we know that people had been eating grains — either for bread or other uses, for much longer than that.
Mortars and pestles with grains embedded in the pores were found in Israel dating back 23,000 years. And Paleolithic-era flour residues have been found on 30,000-year-old grinding stones found in Italy, Russia and the Czech Republic. (The grain residues are from a wild species of cattail and the grains of a grass called Brachypodium, which both offer a nutritional package comparable to wheat and barley.)
And stone tools were found in Mozambique with thousands of wild grain residues on them dated to 105,000 years ago -- during the Middle Paleolithic. The grain was sorghum, an ancestor of modern sorghum used even today in porridges, breads and beer.
Sorry, Paleo Diet. Paleolithic people ate grains.
Bread was good until we ruined it in three separate events. The first event was the discovery in the European Middle Ages that beer brewers’ yeast could also leaven bread. Because brewers’ yeast was more convenient and controllable than naturally leavened bread, some bakers used it. Yeast-leavened bread and sourdough bread coexisted for centuries in Europe.
The second event was the radical industrialization of bread. Instead of buying bread from the baker near your house, people started buying bread made in factories, wrapped in plastic and shipped across vast distances. The bread had to be indestructible and long-lasting, so it was jam-packed with chemicals and preservatives.
And the third event was the creation of modern wheat.
The myth you might have heard is that at some point a mutation occurred, and an ultra high gluten form of wheat was discovered, and all modern mainstream wheat is derived from this mutation. But that's not really what happened.
In fact, all varieties of bread grains are constantly undergoing improvements, changes and hybridizations that improve various attributes of flavor, texture, health qualities and others. This is true even of ancient grain varieties.
But the focus on bread wheat has been particularly intense, and this activity peaked in the 50s and 60s as advanced science focused on extremely high yield crops, which used industrial farming methods, plenty of herbicides and pesticides, hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizer and other high-tech interventions. Most baked products made with wheat are the result of this intensive effort, and this modern wheat is in the bread that we find everywhere.
Modern wheat, also called common wheat, is a highly modified species called triticum aestivum. For industrial and professional bakers, this wheat is a high-performance product that is extremely easy to work with, and results in the soft, airy crumb we expect in French baguettes, Italian ciabatta, American hot dog buns, blueberry muffins, pancakes and waffles, those scones you buy at Starbucks and everything from Wonder Bread to the country loaves you might buy at the local artisan bakery. Some 95% of the wheat foods consumed worldwide use modern wheat.
The creation of modern wheat fits the larger theme of food industrialization. To oversimplify: Food is changed (by selective breeding or genetic manipulation in the case of a staple crop like wheat) to make it a better product (higher yield, easier to farm at scale, easier to transport, better for factory production, longer lasting, cheaper, etc.) at the expense of being a better food in taste and health. Industrialization of food is why starvation is rare and why people spend less on food than ever before. But it's also why our food supply is so unhealthy.
This kind of bread — made with modern wheat, leavened with yeast — is ubiquitous. It's easy to eat. It's easy to overeat. It's a little unhealthy in small quantities. It's extremely unhealthy in the large quantities that are "normal" in modern life.
A person might grab a muffin at Starbucks on the way to work, have a sandwich for lunch, then have bread with dinner, and a slice of cake for dessert. Without even thinking about it, they've had four large helpings of modern, industrial wheat that has not been made compatible with human biology through the process of fermentation. Do this every day for ten years, and we know what happens.
People notice that they don't feel so great. They feel bloated after eating. They can't seem to lose the excess weight they've been piling on over the years. They hear about anti-grain diets and try them, and notice that they feel way better without grains and bread in their diets. The conclusion: bread is bad and grains are bad.
Another way this story ends is that people conclude that they're "gluten intolerant" because eating bread makes them feel bad. So they start eating gluten-free products.
The tragedy is that bread, which was eaten in great health for thousands of years, is suddenly blamed for changes in the human diet that have nothing to do with grains or bread, categorically.
Imagine if everybody started eating only artificially preserved, colored and sweetened Maraschino cherries instead of real fresh cherries. Imagine if we ate them every day, and forgot that fresh cherries existed. Then imagine how sick everyone would feel. Then imagine that everybody concluded that cherries are bad for you.
That's what we've done to bread in our culture. We swapped a healthy natural product for an unnatural, unhealthy product, then we blamed the healthy product for our troubles.
It's time to stop being confused about bread, and understand that bread can be a superfood.
There are five attributes in bread that make it a delicious, nutritious, healthy superfood:
Natural leavening and fermentation
Zero non-food ingredients
All this is pretty straightforward, except the part about ancient grains.
Ancient grains is a big of a misnomer. All grains are "ancient" and "modern" at the same time. Every grain available on the market today has ancient roots, but botanical modifications, especially in modern times. In general, however, modern wheat is by far the most meddled with, and those interventions have not been made for health, for the most part.
So by "ancient grains" — the grains on The Spartan Diet, we mean the following grains and wheat varieties (in no particular order): spelt, einkorn, emmer, rye, barley and any other grain that can be used in the making of bread. You can buy organic flour made from these grains online, or find them at your local health food store.
These grains are more interesting, tasty and healthful than industrial bread. They also have a more wholesome relationship to human physiology.
Modern wheat products — the white bread, muffins, cakes, pies, buns, croissants and tarts we encounter everywhere not only often contain sugar, or invite the addition of sugar. The unfermented white flour itself hits our brains like sugar. Which is to say: Eating some makes us want more, more, more. It makes us hungry shortly after eating. We crave it.
Spartan Diet grain rules, where organic ancient whole grains are transformed through fermentation, do the opposite: We eat a reasonable portion, and we're left feeling… satisfied and energized. We love the taste while we're eating them, but don't crave them when we're not.
Our Spartan Diet bread recipe is designed to be flexible, easy and fun. You don't have to weigh anything. You don't need special equipment.
What you need to know is that bread baking is very forgiving. There are thousands of ways to make bread, and they're all fine. Don't worry too much about amounts, temperatures, timing or any of the rest. You'll find your own method after you make bread 20 times.
The only part that's non-negotiable is the ratio of flour to salt. Over-salted or under-salted bread is a bummer, and so our recipe makes sure this never happens. Beyond that, you can play and experiment with hydration, fermentation times and other factors all you want. And we encourage it.
I'll spell out the recipe below, but the important ratio is the ratio of flour to salt. You'll add a teaspoon of salt for every two cups of flour. So you can make a small loaf with two cups of flour and a teaspoon of salt. Or you can make a regular loaf with three cups of flour and a teaspoon and a half of salt. Or you can make a big loaf with four cups of flour and two teaspoons of salt. The recipe below is for making two regular loafs with six cups of flour and one tablespoon of salt.
One more point about our recipe: Pro bakers, and even most serious home bakers, do everything by weight. They weigh the flour, water and even salt. The reason for this is that it's more precise. a baker can publish a recipe and the reader can exactly produce the loaf.
The problem with this method for The Spartan Diet is that we want a single, simple recipe for all kinds of very different flours. The amount of water you need varies according to the flour type, and in the world of alternative and ancient grains, there's even variety within grain types — so emmer from one source may need more water than emmer from another source.
And so our recipe is simple. It's very specific about the ratio of salt to flour. But beyond that you'll be eyeballing and experimenting with the hydration. Note that a high hydration loaf is great. And so is a low hydration loaf. They're different, but both delicious. The point is that you'll try something, judge the result, then do it again by increasing or decreasing the water in a way that makes you happy.
Let’s make some bread.