In Praise of White Bread

Joe, I don’t like white bread. Yes you do. If you like bread, you like white bread. You might not like it when it’s pre-sliced and sold in plastic bags at the supermarket, but you like it in other shapes and circumstances, I’ll bet you money. If you like baguettes, focaccia, pita bread, fougasse, bagels, brioche, flour tortillas, naan, bialys, pretzels, pizza, pancakes, matzoh, ciabatta, sourdough bread, English muffins, olive bread, chapati, challah, lavash, breadsticks or dinners rolls, you like white bread. In fact if you prefer wheat or rye I’d still argue that you like white bread, because if that loaf is at all light and fluffy, it’s probably made with a least 50% white flour.

So you like white bread. Ain’t no shame in that. White bread is very good stuff. It’s high, light, soft and tender. It’s sweet and mild-tasting and nutritious. It doesn’t wear your teeth down or give you gas, nor spasmodic or insanity-producing diseases like ergotism or pellagra. The flour it’s made from, because it has no oily germ in it, will keep for years if necessary rather than weeks or months.

So with all it has going for it, is it any wonder that wheat eaters from Europe to the Middle East and Asia have prized white bread for millennia? The trouble has always been that prior to about 100 years ago there was precious little white bread around. To make white bread you needed to be able to grow the right type of wheat. You needed the technology to mill that wheat finely and consistently, and then, ideally, the expertise to age and treat it, then mix, leaven and bake it into something, well…lovely.

Very few people in, say, Europe, could amass all that wealth, technology and expertise in one place. Certainly not the peasants in the countryside, who were the majority of the population prior to the 20th century. Even at the best of times their breads were made from coarse ground, inferior quality wheat….assuming they had access to proper bread wheat at all. Often the peasantry was forced to make do with far less bread-worthy grains like rye or barley. As a result their breads were almost uniformly dense, dark and tough, with millstone grist and other impurities in them that were hell on dental work.

So is it any wonder that when the poor bread lovers of the world finally arrived in America, fluffy white bread was at the top of everyone’s grocery list? Nope, it isn’t. When you move to the land of plenty, you have rich people’s white bread at every meal. And for the most part we did. The great irony now of course is that white bread is so plentiful it’s only poorer people who are really proud to eat it, while we elites have moved back to breads of the peasantry, or at least refined imitations thereof (who really needs millstone grit, insects, or pieces of wheat stalks in their boule, I ask you). Again, ain’t no shame in that. Whole grain flours have nutritional, taste and textural advantages over white flours, and peasant levains and starters bring flavors that quick-acting brewer’s yeasts can’t.

These days we mix and match all those ingredients and techniques to produce breads with the best characteristics of rich and poor. We can eat 12-grain bricks one day and mass-produced fluff the next. It’s nice that we’re affluent enough to have the choice, no?

35 thoughts on “In Praise of White Bread”

  1. How important is aging the flour? How long does it take, and what are the effects on taste and baking?

    1. Hey Sandra!

      Millers have known for hundreds of years that aged flour makes lighter bread than fresh-milled flour. Exposing milled flour to the air causes the sulfur groups at the ends of gluten molecules to oxidize, and when that happens they more readily bond with each other. Better bonding means stronger gluten networks, stretchier dough and more gas and steam capture. In other words: lighter bread! From what I know millers of old used to age their flour for several weeks. An added benefit of the aging was that it also whitened the flour to some extent in the process.

      Nowadays it’s too expensive and time consuming to warehouse flour for weeks on end. In the late 1800’s it was discovered you could achieve similar effects by bubbling chlorine gas and/or potassium bromate through it. So-called “bromating” was eliminated in the 80’s. Nowadays millers use vitamin C (acsorbic acid). And actually now that I think about it they also use enzymes for the same purpose….enzymes found fava and/or soy bean flour. Where was my head this week? I blanked on a very similar question on Tuesday or Wednesday!

      Silly me,

      – Joe

  2. I may have gotten this from Elizabeth David, or someone else, or I may have made it up myself:

    Another attribute of milled and whitened flour which made it attractive to those who could afford it was that you could ascertain that it did not contain bugs and other debris before you made it into bread.

    On the other hand, a little extra protein never hurt anyone?

    1. Well said, Steve. Nowadays we just assume flour is and always has been as fine and consistent as it is today. There are few alive today who remember that the primary purpose of sifting was to screen out various, er….”impurities” which could range from large un-ground chunks of wheat berries and wheat stalks to bugs, even nuts and bolts. We don’t know how spoiled we all are! 😉

      Thanks, Steve!

      – Joe

  3. Thank you for your sensible words, Joe. I’ve made most of our families bread for close to 40 years. And almost all of it has had a goodly percentage of white, umbleached flour in it. why? I wanted my school age kids–who already had to put up with hippy parents who raised their own everything– to have sandwiches that they would eat; at school or when their friends come over! given the high quality of all our home grown home raised, home butchered diet what the hell bad could good quality white flour do to us? Consequently I still have four adult children that are good cooks and eat good diets, three grandkids who love Grandma’s toast and I still bake all our own breads and pizza and foccocia and pastries.

  4. I love whole grain breads. Hell’s bells, I love all bread! But I make much more white bread.

    As you say, it can have wonderful flavor and texture that’s as light or as hearty as you wish. My go to recipe is a Poilaîne style country bread that, if you ask me, is perfection whether it’s white bread or not.

  5. Joe, you are 100% right, as always. Another problem with people who say they don’t like white bread is that they probably have never had GOOD white bread. The difference between the average pillow-y supermarket loaf of tasteless white bread and your Pullman bread is the same as the difference between the worst tomato you’ve every had and an heirloom beauty picked at the height of summer ripeness.

    I would also urge my fellow Joe Pastry acolytes to take his excellent advice and buy a Pullman pan. They are everywhere online for about $30. The bread is, just as Joe says, so easy to make, so delicious, so versatile and so darn good-looking that the pan will pay for itself in a month.

    1. Reader Lee, I thank you and trust that you will explain to my wife how right I always am when you see her this fall. She has trouble accepting that base premise for some reason. I simply cannot explain it. And you yourself are very right-on with your tomato analogy. Pullman bread beats the pants off anything you can buy in a plastic bag.

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  6. Do you do requests? There used to be a deli here that served these amazing Russian black rye rolls. When one of the owners died they closed the doors and I have never been able to find the recipe. I have tried many and they all seem to call for coffee which leaves them tasting like coffee. Have you ever played with black rye bread?

    1. Yes indeed I do requests. I’ll look around for some recipes, Frankly. I do know that it’s tough to get really dark rye without some sort of dye like coffee, but I’ll see what’s out there!

      – Joe

          1. Well, as I said, it has espresso powder so you may still detect the coffee flavor. But it’s augmented by molasses and cocoa so maybe that will mitigate the effect.

            For me, Raisin Pumpernickel has always had that dark roasty flavor so I didn’t single anything out as inappropriate.

            In any case, I hope you enjoy it. As I recall — it’s a few years since I’ve used this recipe — I really did.

      1. Joe, this likely isn’t news to you (as it is to me), but the solution to this puzzle may tie in well to your Pullman pan topic. If you’ll pardon a little more of my armchair baking, this Wiki article on pumpernickel offers some insight on achieving dark rye without coloring ingredients like coffee:

        “Traditional German Pumpernickel contains no coloring agents, instead relying on the Maillard reaction to produce its characteristic deep brown color, sweet, dark chocolate, coffee flavor, and earthy aroma. To achieve this, loaves are baked in long narrow lidded pans 16 to 24 hours in a low temperature (about 250°F or 120°C), steam-filled oven.”

        Of course the dark rye rolls that Frankly is looking for couldn’t be produced this way, but the article goes on to discuss the North American commercial approximation that includes molasses, coffee, and cocoa to get the color without the lengthy Maillard producing process. I would guess that the the combination of those three ingredients would produce a more nuanced and balanced flavor profile than coffee alone.

  7. I’m really enjoying your bread series! I’ve recently started dabbling in making my own bread and I must admit that my personal preference for very high whole grain flour content (I do like white bread, but I loooove the flavours you can get in good whole wheat/whole grain) is definitely making texture a problem. Maybe I’ll just have to buy myself a Pullman pan and do some more experimentation. . .

    oh, and a big thanks to Rainey for linking to those bread recipes! But now, where to get pumpernickel flour . . .

    1. Pumpernickel is a coarser grade of rye flour. Depending on where you are a health food store might have it. It was once a choice around me but I haven’t seen it in many many years.
      Then, as with just about everything flour, King Arthur is a great place to start. I hope you’re closer to VT and don’t have to pay the shipping I do to Los Angeles! Bob’s Red Mill also offers it. Maybe a store near you that carries BRM would order some for you.

      But don’t go looking for a light texture with pumpernickel flour. It’s probably the trickiest to work with (subject to Joe’s correction). Rye flour, and particularly pumpernickel, is full of rough edges that can actually slice through the gluten strands as they develop.

      If you’re just starting out in bread making, Joe has a tutorial on whole wheat sandwich bread that will get you a very tasty loaf of bread that has lovely texture suitable for sandwiches and toast (without the need for a Pullman pan). http://joepastry.com/category/bread/sandwich-bread/whole-wheat-sandwich-bread/ It’s his adaptation of a recipe from Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads which is an excellent resource for learning great hearty breads and working with whole grains.

    2. PS Try Reinhart’s Multigrain Hearth Bread (what he once called Struan). It has truly great flavor and you can make it with any old whole grain you have on hand. I like the approach he took in Struan which was some of everything that was in the harvest.

      If you like really whole grain breads you’ll love it. And his “epoxy” method of working with grains will get you the best possible texture as well.

      1. thanks for the tips!!

        and I’m in Toronto, Canada, so I rather think shipping would be exorbitant. I’ll have to do some research on what’s available nearby 🙂

        1. Well, in Canada your health foods stores no doubt have something wonderful from the plains! You just want a coarse grind of rye flour but you can make that MGH I mentioned from regular whole wheat.

          And I must thank you. You got me to pull out that cookbook and remember how great that bread is. I’m working on loaf right now. ;> Wish I could share some with you when it’s done.

    3. Hey Katherine!

      Check out Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Bread book. Whole grains breads definitely present texture problems, but Reinhart has surmounted them as well or better than anyone!

      Let me know how the new pan performs!

      – Joe

    1. Hello Wisnu!

      The type of bread has a lot to do with it. With breads have a firm structure that lends itself to neat slices. T structure of whole grain breads is looser and so it tends to crumble more under the knife. Just try to remember to use a nice, long serrated knife and long, gently strokes. That’ll help!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  8. It’s fun to see how far back people THOUGHT they were eating white bread. The early medieval monks typically got white bread, while the workers on their estates got dark or even rye. In the eighteenth century, Legrand d’Aussy claimed that Paris was so well run that even the poor ate white bread. When August Zang opened his Viennese bakery in Paris in 1839, the French probably found the yeast-leavened bread, made with Hungarian flour, very white.

    Nothing of course could rival bleaching and by the start of the twentieth century American bread was known for its unnatural whiteness. By then, too, people in both France and the States had begun to express severe doubts about its nutritional value.

    Its reputation of course wasn’t helped by the fact that around 1940 the US government decided to “enrich” white flour by putting back in some of the nutrients which were being removed from it. Some white breads indeed are very good – ciabatta, rustic rolls, challah – but give me a darker bread for straight nutrition anyday.

    1. That’s true. It’s said that as recently as the 19th century very white bread was called “cake”. I’m not sure if it’s true, but it gets to the idea that for most of history one man’s “white” flour was another’s wheat. As far enriching goes, there’s more to it than that. The idea was not so much to replace what was lost, but to add nutrients that people might not ordinarily get. Sort of like fluoridating water, it was seen as a way to deliver vitamins via a staple that everyone would consume. There really is plenty of nutrition in American all-purpose flour. Sure the bran and germ are healthful, but it’s not true that white — even very white — flour is nutritionally vacant. Starch, proteins of various kinds, vitamins, there’s a surprising amount in there!

      – Joe

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