1 March 2015

Trouble with gluten?

I have been baking bread at home now for several years. I find it a deeply satisfying process. There is something magical about taking four basic ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast (sometimes in the form of a sourdough starter), and with a bit of kneading, fermentation, shaping and baking, turning them into a loaf of bread. And what bread too! The flavour of home-baked bread far surpasses that of supermarket bread and much of that found in high street bakeries.

Bread has been a staple in people’s diets for millennia, ever since humankind started cultivating grains in the fertile crescent of the Middle East in about 10,000BC. Indeed, for more than a hundred generations, bread has formed the mainstay of the diet of the bulk of society in Europe and the Middle East. Containing a good whack of carbohydrates, protein and a range of vitamins and minerals, bread has always been a nutritious food. Yet these days bread (and other grain-based foodstuffs) are treated by many people with suspicion and distrust, mainly because of the presence in bread of GLUTEN. Could a food that people have been eating in abundance for years really be so bad for us?

About 1 in 100 people in the UK suffer from coeliac disease, an auto-immune condition triggered by a protein found in wheat and other grains. Coeliac disease can have serious symptoms and those with the condition are well-advised to follow a gluten-free diet. There are others who whilst not coeliacs, feel that products containing gluten make them feel unwell in some form or another, something known as non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. Of course we should all listen to our bodies and avoid foodstuffs that seem to disagree with us; I would however, challenge the increasingly common belief that gluten itself is in some ways bad for us. There is evidence that the increased incidence of people claiming to have some kind of gluten intolerance coincides with the development of fast, modern bread production methods. Could it be that, coeliacs aside, the answer lies not in cutting out bread altogether, but in eating bread produced in a more traditional way.

I was recently invited to a workshop at Bake with Maria, a baking school based in St John’s Wood, to discuss this issue. Present were Maria Mayerhofer herself and some of her team, along with Emmanuel Hadjiandreou, author of ‘How to Bake Bread’, Tom Russell, from Shipton Mill, and a group of food bloggers. It was an interesting and informative evening, plus we got to bake some bread too. The aim of the workshop was to kick-start an informed discussion about gluten.

What is gluten and its role in bread

Wheat and other related grains contain two important proteins: glutenin and gliadin. When mixed together with water, and particularly when helped along with a little kneading, these proteins mesh together to form gluten. Gluten forms an essential role in traditional bread-making. As bread dough ferments, the yeast feeds on starches in the flour, producing carbon dioxide. The gluten matrix in the dough traps the carbon dioxide within the dough, causing the dough to rise. Different flours contain different amounts of glutenin and gliadin. Strong or bread flour contains fairly high levels of these proteins, which allow for a good rise in the bread. Older varieties of grain, such as spelt and emmer contain less. Rye flour does contains gliadin and a little glutenin, but also pentosans, a sort of carbohydrate, which inhibits the development of gluten, which is why 100% rye bread is so dense.

By doing a gluten wash, it is possible to wash all the starch out of a dough to see how much gluten is left. Emmanuel demonstrated this at the workshop, and it was amazing to see how much more gluten there was in a dough made with strong white flour than with emmer. In a freshly mixed dough, once separated from the starch, the gluten has a dense almost rubbery quality.

Bread made in the traditional way is allowed to ferment for several hours or even overnight. This allows the dough to rise. It also starts to break down the gluten, making it softer and easier to digest. This is particularly so with sourdough, which contains lactic and acetic acids which aid this process. Emmanuel demonstrated this with a gluten wash of an overnight fermented sourdough. Although it contained about the same amount of gluten as the freshly mixed dough, the gluten had a softer texture.

Modern bread production - the Chorleywood Bread Process

Britain’s biggest gift to the bread world is the Chorleywood Bread Process, or 'no time' method, the way in which sliced, packaged bread is made the world over. This method was developed in the early 1960s, and was seen as a huge technological advance. It allowed bread to be created quickly and cheaply. It also enabled bread to be made with British wheat, which at that time was not well suited to traditional-bread making; a situation that made the UK worryingly dependent on wheat imports from North America. In a post-war country seeking to feed itself, with rationing and food-shortages a recent memory, it is easy to understand the attraction of the no time method.

The Chorleywood process involves high-speed mixing and does not require the lengthy fermentation found in traditional bread-making. The air is essentially pumped into the bread. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, impossible to make bread in this way with just flour, water, salt and yeast. Most sliced loaves contain about 15 different ingredients, including chemicals to give the loaf the right level of squishiness, and preservatives that stop it going stale. A whole host of other enzymes and enablers are also used in the process that, because they are classified as processing aids, don’t have to be declared on the ingredients list, but traces of which remain in the loaf. If you crush a slice of Chorleywood bread enough, you can turn it back into the dough it was made from.

The most immediately obvious problem with Chorleywood bread is that it is pretty tasteless. It is not very filling either, so you can eat quite a lot by volume compared to traditionally produced bread. A less obvious issue is that the lack of fermentation time means that the gluten is not broken down by fermentation in the same way as in traditional breads. It is this, combined with the array of funky ingredients, which some people suggest can cause an adverse reaction.

A number of gluten-free sliced loaves are now available, which try to mimic the Chorleywood loaf. Because they lack gluten, they contain even more ingredients: 22 on one I found in my local supermarket. Of course such products are useful to those who genuinely need to avoid gluten and crave sliced bread; however I would question the assumption that these heavily processed loaves are a healthy alternative to traditional bread.

Modern wheat varieties

Heritage grains aside, the wheat varieties grown today are really quite different from those our ancestors grew years ago. Modern wheat varieties have been developed to maximise yield and ease of harvesting. Half a century ago, many wheat varieties grew to 5-6 feet tall, nowadays, they are more like 12-18 inches. As a student I worked for a thatcher who had to grow his own straw, because the modern wheat varieties are no longer suitable for long-straw thatching. Some people have suggested that modern wheat varieties lie behind the increase in reported cases of gluten intolerance. Anecdotally, some of those who have adverse reactions to wheat-based products don't have the same reaction to products made with older varieties of grain, such as spelt and emmer, even though such products do still contain gluten.
Artisan bread

I would challenge the notion that gluten itself is bad for us (coelicas aside). Given the coincidence of the rise in people claiming to have gluten intolerances with the rise of the Chorleywood Bread Process, it would seem to me that it is credible that the answer lies not in avoiding products containing gluten, but in eating proper bread. Luckily there are more and more artisan bakeries opening, making bread in the traditional way. It is also easy, and satisfying, to bake bread at home.

Baking your own bread

I found that going on a bread-making course was a great way to learn the basics of bread-making. It also possible to learn from a book, and I would recommend both Emmanuel Hadjiandreou’s ‘How to Make Bread’, and Richard Bertinet’s ‘Dough’. For a much more detailed book (aimed primarily at professional bakers), which has an in depth explanation of the science of bread-making, as well as a plethora of recipes, try Jeffrey Hamelman's ‘Bread’. Finally, for a discussion of the history of grains and breadmaking, Asmund Bjornstad’s ‘Our Daily Bread - A History of Cereals’.

Spelt and rye loaf - recipe

This is a tasty loaf made using heritage flours. If you prefer, you can omit the strong white flour and add in another 100g of spelt flour, although this will produce a slightly denser loaf. For ease, I often use instant yeast. It is worth pointing out that all instant yeast contains a number of additives. I prefer to use either Dove's Farm or Shipton Mill's instant yeast, both of which keep the additives to a minimum. Because of the high proportion of spelt and rye, neither of which will hold a good shape if baked free-form, I bake the loaf in a tin.

400g wholemeal spelt flour
100g wholemeal rye flour
100g strong white flour
9g salt
4g instant yeast
450g water

Weigh out the flour, salt and yeast into a large bowl. Measure out the water (I always weigh water when baking bread, as it is more accurate). During cooler weather, temper the temperature of the water so that it is tepid rather than cold. I aim for about 32C. This helps kickstart the yeast. Add the water and mix together until the dough comes together. The dough will be fairly wet, but this means that the resulting bread will have a nice soft texture.

Wipe a gentle smear of sunflower oil onto a work surface. Tip the dough onto the work-surface, using a dough scraper. Knead the dough for about 5-10 minutes to develop the gluten.

Place the dough in a bowl and cover. Leave to ferment for 2-3 hours until doubled in size.

When the dough had doubled in size, lightly flour a work surface then tip the dough out. Leave the dough to sit on the work surface to give it a couple of minutes' bench rest. Meanwhile dig out a medium-sized bread tin, and lightly grease it with sunflower oil.

Using your knuckles, press the dough out into a rough rectangle. Fold the sides of the rectangle in over each other. Turn the dough 90 degrees, then press out again into a rectangle which is slightly less wide than your bread tin. Roll the rectangle up into a tight log, then place in the tin, seam-side down.

Pre-heat your oven to 240C. Place a metal roasting tray in the bottom of the oven.

Cover with a clean tea-towel, and leave to prove for an hour or so, until doubled in size. When the dough has adequately proved, if you gently push your finger into it, the dent should remain rather than spring back.

Place the loaf in the oven. At the same time, pour about half a cup of hot water into the tray in the bottom of the oven, being careful of the steam. The steam in the oven helps the loaf expand.

Bake for about 35 minutes. After about 15-20 minutes, take out the tray of water, and vent any steam remaining in the oven. When the loaf is done, it should sound hollow if you tap the bottom of the loaf.

Allow the loaf to cool before eating.

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