Better Eating with Umami: The Bread Experiment

Fresh Baked Bread

By Eileen O’Toole | Updated May 13, 2023

My Mom baked bread every weekend. The rising bowl of dough in the oversized green Tupperware on the countertop every Saturday morning is a clear memory in my mind from my childhood.  My Mom let us portion out rolls, apply egg wash, and smear hot from the oven bread with butter.  Like the green Tupperware implanted in my mind’s eye, the smell of baking bread remains, inducing spontaneous drooling, even when the oven is empty.

Now that I have my own family, this memory is more like a big poke saying, “Eileen, bake your own bread!”  “Eileen, your bread is so much better than anything you can buy.”  “Get your butt off the couch and into the kitchen!” A poke I still ignore most days because even though I bake bread once a month or so, I just don’t have time every week. Actually, I don’t make the time.  So I ignore the poke and head to the grocery store to buy bread for the week.

What’s In Your Bread

Bread at it simplest, is just a few ingredients; flour, salt, yeast, and water. There are variations you can make by adding eggs, seeds, and nuts, whole wheat, or oatmeal, but the four ingredient combination is all you need to make really good, crusty bread.

As it turns out, four ingredient bread is incredibly difficult to find out in the world.

In the grocery stores, I shopped at over the course of a few weeks, I haunted the bread aisles. The large, popular, middle of the road grocery stores had long bread aisles alongside their own bakeries, with around fifty types of bread available.  In the bakeries, I found sliced bread that presumably was baked off or finished in the store, and in the bread aisles, I found shelf after shelf of bread in plastic bags. I assume both areas appeal to different buyers and that the bread in the bakery seems fresher to people than the plastic bags of bread in the regular bread aisle.

The ingredients in both types of bread were a little surprising even after reading about bread in Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food.  I expected some things added to the bread to help keep it soft, to extend shelf life, and to keep the cost down, but the number of added chemicals shocked me.

Partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, potassium bromate, tricalcium phosphate, calcium sulfate and monoglycerides to name a few are added to make the bread soft and to give it extra days on the shelf. Ingredients that aren’t in any bread recipe I have ever used and if you Google any of them to find out what they are you might be a little freaked out.

After a pretty hard search, I did find bread that I would be ok buying as a substitute for homemade bread. I found a few baguettes, some very rustic, baked in the store loaves, and some plastic bag breads that have a few less ingredients and fewer chemicals than others. But I had to really look for these “better” breads and even at the high-end grocery stores, with higher prices, they are few and far between.

Making Good Bread Last

I also had to treat these “better” breads differently.  Breads without chemicals and simple ingredient lists stale, mold, and get hard pretty quickly.  They are not made to last.  For these breads, I rely on my freezer for storage and only take out what I am going to use for the day.  Doing this, I can make a good crusty loaf of bread last all week.

To make good bread last, I quarter large rustic loaves, freeze them in a plastic bag, and take out a quarter every evening before I go to bed.  You can do the same thing with sliced bread.  Just take out what you will use the following day to thaw overnight.  The freezer is your best friend for bread without preservatives.

Of course, there are beautiful bakeries that make glorious, chemical free bread and even use non-enriched flour from heirloom wheat that probably tastes more like what bread tasted like a hundred years ago before we started making our flour white and taking out its natural nutritional properties. But that is a story for another time.

I have learned, by simply thinking about bread, that eating real food can entail a trade-off. Good bread costs more and takes more time to bake (or find).  The great loaves of bread I could buy take more time to manage once they get in the kitchen.  They also cost a couple dollars more than the plastic bags of “bread.”  But spending a little more time and money, in this case, seems really worth it. During this experiment, I asked myself several times who was benefitting from these cheap, chemical-laden breads. It certainly doesn’t seem like it’s us.

Learning From the Great Bread Experiment

Here is what I learned during the Great Bread Experiment

  • It’s worth knowing what’s in your bread. Read a few labels and ask yourself, “Is this the best I can do for myself and my family?” Do I need to be eating artificial preservatives and additives?
  • Learn how to manage preservative free bread in your kitchen. The freezer is your friend.
  • Strive to bake a couple more times a month.  A great place to start is The New Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day. This is something I will make happen by finding easy recipes and committing to a baking schedule, remembering that 30 minutes less of TV = dough for one loaf of bread.
  • I am ok spending a little more for high-quality bread and will make a special trip to the best bakery to purchase it.  Bread is a high-consumption item in my house, and I want to get it right.  The quality of bread affects our health, so it’s worth extra time, effort, and money.

In his book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan talks about real food.  He defines it as food that has very few ingredients, isn’t highly processed, and is purchased from the outside edges of the grocery store instead of the center, processed rich aisles.

In one section, he lists the ingredients of a loaf of bread that has 25 ingredients, ingredients you can’t pronounce, and ingredients that certainly aren’t in any homemade bread recipes. Ingredients are added mostly to increase shelf life so the bread can sit on the shelf for eternity without becoming stale or rancid.  It’s a list that got me thinking and inspired me to conduct my own great bread experiment.

Better Eating with Umami is a series of stories about trying to find ways to incorporate some of the bigger ideas around eating healthy into our homes.  

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