Who Needs Yeast?

Reader Jen writes:

For reasons that have nothing to do with baking, I recently stumbled on the 19th/early 20th-century technology called “aerated bread,” which used carbon dioxide instead of yeast for industrial baking – as I understand it, was intended to preserve the comparatively low quantity of protein in British-grown wheat, while still achieving something fluffy and bread-like. Have you ever heard of this? Do you know anything about what it was like?

I certainly have heard of it, Jen! In fact a short history of the “ABC” (Aerated Bread Company) of Britain would have made a good post last week when I was talking about carbonation, since that’s what ABC bread was really all about. The company was founded in 1862 by a fellow named John Dauglish, who envisioned a bright, shining future where bread yeast was a thing of the past.

Dauglish, a medical doctor, considered fermentation tantamount to rot, and bakeries some of the least sanitary places on Earth. And he wasn’t wrong. Technically, fermentation is a sort of controlled rot, and in his day urban bakeries were often disgusting places where big sweaty dudes (frequently loaned labor from the local mad house) kneaded bread in big troughs, pounding the dough with bare hands and feet. Vermin of all sorts generally had free run of these establishments, which more often than not were operated by unscrupulous businessmen who diluted their flour with chalk and/or bone meal. Loaves of bread in that day might have just about anything baked into them, from pieces of wood or hardware to local wildlife.

So Dauglish had what you might call a market opening. After literally going to school on the chemistry of bread, he determined that a flour paste could be mechanically “aerated” with CO2 vis-à-vis the old fashioned way where yeast did it. In short order he invented a kneading machine that injected pressurized gas into dough via specially designed mixing paddles. The CO2 dissolved into the water in the dough and collected in small pockets in the mass, inflating it as the mixing process wore on. When it was over the dough could be baked immediately and the finished loaves wrapped and shipped.

It was an ingenious process that had several advantages. First, it was fast. Second, most of the work was done by machines so production was far more sanitary. Third, it required far less labor than a traditional bakery. And fourth, it was efficient. About five percent of the flour that goes into bread is “wasted” — eaten by yeast. The way Dauglish saw things, if his method were employed across Britain it would save decades of man hours each year, millions of pounds in wages, and ton upon ton of starch and protein that would otherwise be lost down the gullets of microbes. (Of course at the time no one knew what a “microbe” was, but you get the drift).

People loved it. Sure is wasn’t terribly tasty, since in addition to CO2 natural fermentation produces many flavor-giving compounds, from alcohol and lactic acid to sugars and glutamates. However ABC bread was extremely nutritious, safe and sanitary. The little tea shops Dauglish set up to serve the stuff were extremely clean and welcoming, in fact some of the first places in Britain where single women could safely go to enjoy a meal out of the house. ABC’s were Britain’s first fast food restaurants.

In the ensuing decades ABC shops spread around Britain and down to Australia. By the 1920’s, the peak of the empire, there were some 400 of them. ABC’s fortunes declined thereafter as the Great Depression, World War II and the post-war economic downturn put pressure on the ABC business model. Added to that, other mass-production methods including the famous British “Chorleywood” process soon came along, which were just as fast and delivered lighter, more flavorful products that were even less expensive. But ABC’s are still remembered fondly by many.

I’ve often wished I could have tried the stuff, if only because ABC was such a significant company in the history of food. No, the product probably wasn’t “good bread” by our standards, but in its time it met a critical customer need: safety. These days we take food safety mostly for granted, but once ABC’s bland, clean, vermin-free bread was a godsend to the Brits.

12 thoughts on “Who Needs Yeast?”

  1. Trying to imagine that makes me think of Wonder Bread. Remember that? (and hooray for you if you can’t!)

      1. Wonder Bread! I could never eat it again after being in a commercial for it as a child. Zip down a slide holding a slice, taking a bite when I reached the bottom, and stating, “Umm, it’s good!” and then finishing the slice. Swinging high holding a slice, taking a bite, “Umm, it’s good!” again eating the slice. On a merry-go-round, a see-saw, the sandbox, slice after slice, I and several other children must have each eaten three loaves. My mom had to buy whole wheat from then on.

        1. I don’t wonder why! My sister had a similar experience eating bananas as a child, and I have one with gin martinis in college. Lordy…sometimes you just can’t go back.

          – Joe

  2. Thanks, Joe, that’s fascinating! It’s too bad there’s no museum of industry somewhere with one of the machines still churning out the stuff for visitors! Sort of a “pioneer village” experience for the industrial age 🙂

    1. Wouldn’t that be great? Rotating doughnut machines and hard tack perforators…such a museum might get upwards of twenty visitors a year!


      – Joe

  3. If it’s invaded by microbes and ends up toxic, it’s rotten. If it’s invaded by microbes and ends up tasty, it’s merely fermented. Words of wisdom for all bakers, brewers, cheesemakers, and so on.

    On the topic of vermin being kneaded into bread dough – I’m reminded of the section in the Saga of the Volsungs where Sigmund is testing his nephews to see if they’re brave enough to help avenge Sigmund’s father. He leaves each of them in turn behind to knead the bread while he goes out to gather firewood. The first two are put off by the fact that there’s something squirming in the flour, but the third, Sinfjotli, just kneads it regardless. Afterward, Sigmund explains that it was a test, and advises against eating the bread, because the flour contained poisonous snakes!

  4. What a great post! Yet another remarkable tale from the history of food that we only know about because of the great J.P.

    1. Ha! Thanks reader Lee! I greatly appreciate that…and may see you in SF this fall!

      – Joe

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