Whether toasted, buttered, made into a sandwich or eaten plain, bread will always hold a special place in our hearts. It’s the most widely consumed food on the planet, yet there is still so much to learn about this household staple. Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft CTO, food scientist and founder of The Cooking Lab, was so curious about the foodstuff that he co-authored “Modernist Bread,” a five-volume, more than 2,000-page mini-encyclopedia on the craft and science of making bread.“Through all our experiments, we found that many conventionally held beliefs about bread are just plain wrong,” says Myhrvold. Whether you’re an avid baker, a wannabe or prefer to buy your bread from your local grocery aisle, these eye-opening discoveries just might change the way you look at your next loaf.
1 Whole-Grain Isn’t Necessarily Better Than White Bread
It turns out that we can’t absorb all of the nutrients touted in whole grains. “The primary difference between whole and refined grains is wheat bran, which mostly consists of fiber that largely passes undigested through the intestines,” says Myhrvold. “In particular, a set of compounds in bran called phytates have a strong ability to block nutrients like iron from being absorbed.”Although fiber has some weight-loss benefits, when it comes to the claims that the fiber in whole-grain bread will help protect you from colon cancer and heart disease, more research is needed. “Those claims became popular before there was definitive proof, and there have not been any large randomized trials that show that whole grains have any special health benefits,” adds Myhrvold.
2 The Jury Is Still Out on Sprouted Grains
An alternative to white and whole-grain, sprouted breads are made with grain that has been allowed to soak in water until they grow a sprout before being milled into flour. Research suggests sprouted breads may have higher levels of some essential amino acids and B vitamins, and that enzymes released during the sprouting process make nutrients easier to digest.There's one problem: The definition of “sprouted grain” is unregulated. This means different manufacturers can use different techniques, which could alter the nutrition profile of the bread. Regardless, Myhrvold believes it may be worth buying sprouted bread just for the flavor. “Dry-milled sprouted-wheat flour produces loaves that have a tighter, denser crumb structure and a sweeter flavor than those made from regular whole-wheat flour.”
3 Kneading Isn’t Necessary
“We made a lot of incredible discoveries in ‘Modernist Bread,’ one of them being that kneading does not actually do what we thought it did,” says Myhrvold. The practice of kneading was long believed to help aid gluten production. Found in wheat, gluten is a mix of proteins that help maintain the elasticity and structure of a variety of foods, including bread. The idea was that warming and stretching the gluten strands through kneading would help to make dough stronger and more springy.However, Myhrvold’s experiments found that the only thing necessary to help gluten develop is for flour to get completely wet. So while that can happen faster through traditional kneading techniques, it’s completely optional. Now we understand why there are all those no-knead bread recipes on Pinterest!
4 Rye Bread in the U.S. Isn't True Rye Bread
Surprise! Most of the rye bread you eat in the U.S. is just wheat bread flavored with a little rye. According to Myhrvold, “Our biggest revelation was that there is no good rye flour in the U.S. In order to have good rye flour, it needs to be superfine, and this has been known in places like Austria and Germany. For some reasons, however, these findings never made it to the States. Rye in the U.S. is grown for livestock, and only a small portion of it is given to people to eat, and so it’s not meant for bread baking here.”
5 Bread Should NEVER Go in the Fridge
The fridge is a great place to keep your produce fresh. But bread? Not so much. In fact, low temps in the fridge can actually make bread go stale faster. So where should you stash your loaf to stave off staling? Of all the airtight bread-storing options, testing revealed that clear plastic wrap works the best to keep your loaf from drying out or getting soggy.To truly guarantee freshness, the freezer is the only place to store bread for an extended period. Myhrvold suggests cutting your loaf into pieces you’ll use in a day, then wrapping them twice in plastic wrap — that way you can thaw what you need without having to eat the whole loaf.
6 Stale Bread Can Be Refreshed
“Even an intact loaf of bread will dry out if left unwrapped,” says Myhrvold. Fortunately, there is a way to bring life back to even the toughest baguette. If you forgot to wrap your bread in plastic and are now stuck with a stale slice, Myhrvold recommends reviving it with a little help from the microwave. Simply put the bread in the microwave next to a small cup of water and zap it on high for 30-second intervals until it softens to the desired texture. How does this work? Turns out that heating the water creates steam that rehydrates the bread, making it feel and taste fresh again.
7 Bread Doesn’t Have to Be Baked
Yep, you read that right: You can make bread without an oven. “Almost any kind of dough — from French brioche to German rye to American sandwich bread — can be cooked in a steamer [or any device that traps steam around the bread, like a dutch oven or pressure cooker], and the results are surprisingly delicious,” says Myhrvold. “Whole-wheat and rye bread usually emerge from the oven unpleasantly dry or tough and can be far moister and more tender when steamed.” It’s also a clever alternative when an oven isn’t an option. “You can steam bread over a hotplate in a dorm room, over a wildfire at a campsite or even in a rice cooker,” adds Myhrvold.
8 Gluten-Free Bread CAN Be Delicious
Giving up gluten shouldn’t mean giving up delicious-tasting bread. Unfortunately, gluten-free loaves are notoriously firmer than flour-based ones. Why? The wheat proteins are what provide the structure to bread dough that allows it to expand and rise, giving it that light, airy quality we all expect and love. Without gluten, breads are inevitably denser, more crumbly and less fluffy than traditional loaves.Fortunately, after much experimenting, Myhrvold discovered a simple trick to make gluten-free slices more palatable: toast them. The research found that “toasting the bread before serving almost always improves the texture.”
9 Gluten-Free Doesn’t Mean Low-Carb
Avoiding gluten may seem like an easy way to cut down on carbs, but that’s not always the case. Many gluten-free alternatives contain starchy carbohydrates like rice flour, potato starch and tapioca starch. And gluten-free bread may even cause a higher spike in blood sugar levels than regular bread. Myhrvold and his team aren’t exactly sure why, but their research suggests that the “gluten protein network protects starch granules from being broken down by enzymes in the small intestine. So when the network is absent, the enzymes can digest the starch into sugars, which then enter the bloodstream.” So before you buy gluten-free bread from the market, check the ingredients and nutrition label to make sure it's a product you want to put in your body.
10 Yes, Even You Can Make Bread
According to Myhrvold, making good bread is both an art and a science. “During our research, we discovered many things that will help you achieve success more quickly, but, still, successful bread making is going to take some practice,” he says. “The best way to learn to make good loaves of bread is to make many loaves of bread. If you’re new to baking, your first loaves may not come out perfect, but the good news is that even a flawed loaf of homemade bread is better than most of the bread you’ll find at the grocery store.” As if we needed another excuse to make crusty, fresh-baked bread at home.