Grinding Grains

A Brief History of Bread

At Panera Bread, a long tradition of bread-making is baked into every loaf.

It's a long way from the Stone Age to your local Panera Bread bakery-cafe. But our bakers are part of a line of artisans stretching back more than 10,000 years to the very first loaves of bread that ever emerged—warm, crusty, and fragrant—from the fire.

Nobody's sure of the exact date when people began bread-making, but scholars think it probably got started by accident, when the caveman cuisine—a thin paste of wheat and water—got left out in the air, attracted some free-flying yeast spores, and baked in the hot sun. And bingo! So began a love affair between people and bread that continues to this day.

But, says Cynthia Clampitt, a historian with 20-years research experience in food history on six continents, the history of bread is a lot more complicated than it looks when you're munching on a piece of toast. "It's fascinating the amount of technology—and the centuries of experimentation—that were needed to get from the first simple flat breads to the bread on our plates today." Here are the tools, improvised over the millennia, that Panera bakers put into every loaf of bread. 

Wheat. It wasn't until farmers did a little genetic engineering—developing strains of wheat, the husks of which could be removed without heating—that the grain could be used for bread, sometime around 8,000 B.C. 

Grinding. To produce bread, you need a fine, consistent flour. Pounding wheat with rocks was the apex of ancient technology, followed by a mortar and pestle, and then, around 800 B.C., a mill that used flat, spinning stones to grind the wheat. Steel grinders were invented in 1865 A.D., giving us ultra-refined flours that made pastries and cakes possible. 

Yeast. Ancient bakers set their dough out and waited for the yeast to show up and make the bread rise. Later, they saved a bit of yeast-infused dough from one batch and mixed it into the next, creating what's now referred to as a "starter." Or they skimmed off the yeast from the foamy top of their beer. But it wasn't until the late eighteenth century A.D. that commercially prepared yeast became widely available. 

Ovens. Cooking on a hot stone is all well and good, but "real" ovens are needed to bake bread evenly and efficiently. The first clay ovens, powered by wood fires, appeared in central Asia around 5,000 B.C. Sounds pretty simple? Maybe, but Clampitt says raising grain changed the world forever—and the first grains grown led to the first simple breads. "Growing grain made civilization possible," she says. "It's the thing that allowed our ancestors to give up the hunter-and-gatherer life and form communities - grains are a reliable source of food that don't require following herds or getting lucky hunting. You could build a house, plant your grain, and settle down. Bread making is as old as raising grain, and is a key part of the rise of civilization. To this day, bread is tied up in our culture. It's a symbol of our traditions, it's comforting, and it really tastes good."