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Leavened Bread: More Than Meets the Rye
Though we take it for granted today, leavened bread made the human diet’s transition from stewed rocks to grains much easier. Read on to see just what makes it possible.
The simplest baguette recipes require only three ingredients: flour, water, and yeast. Yet these basic elements, when placed in a hot oven, undergo a miraculous transformation: the flat, lifeless dough practically grows five times its original size, encasing a fluffy white interior within a crisp outer crust. The metamorphosis happens largely thanks to yeast, which breaks down sugars in the flour and gives off tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide, expanding the bread as it bakes.
The discovery of yeast’s practical application is still somewhat of a mystery. In the days before recorded history, some lucky baker may have left the dough for a simple flatbread sitting somewhere warm and damp. Since baker’s yeast—or saccharomyces cerevisiae—thrives in the wild, some may have then made a home in the dough, suddenly turning it into a fluffy treat.
Still, the process can’t be left entirely to chance; leavened bread also relies on the properties of wheat flour. As Bon Appétit magazine points out, gluten strands trap the gas formed by yeast, allowing it to rise. The “windowpane” test can measure a loaf’s gluten development: after cutting off a small piece of dough, stretch it out until it’s as thin as you can make it. If it falls apart before it’s transparent, it could use a little more kneading before tucking it in the oven.