Friday 24 March 2017

The full story behind your daily 'freshly baked' bread

It's the middle of the night and you're tucked up in bed dreaming of that crusty loaf of freshly baked bread you'll be buying at the shop later today; you can almost get a whiff of it. You turn over and as you do, you smile. There's just something that makes freshly baked bread irresistible.

Meanwhile, a baker is busy turning that dream into reality, mixing flour, water, yeast and salt to form dough, then kneading and shaping it by hand, and leaving it to rise for just the right amount of time to create a heavenly loaf that's baked to crusty perfection.

Now, picture a different scenario: a factory -- possibly in another part of Europe -- where flour improver and developer are added to those same basic ingredients. The loaf is then machine-formed, part-baked and stored in the deep freeze for a period of time, before being delivered to your local supermarket where baking is completed.

When you walk into that supermarket and the aroma of baking bread fills your nostrils, you're probably smelling this part-baked, previously frozen factory bread being 'baked-off' to brown the crust.

This kind of technology makes large-scale standardised production and centralised storage and distribution of the frozen dough possible.

Smell

The loaf can then be crisped up in the local convenience store or supermarket where customers walk in and see -- and more importantly smell -- what appears to be bread baked from scratch.

Mass production of part-baked bread is in complete contrast to traditional artisan methods, as master baker Derek O'Brien, director of the Baking Academy of Ireland, explains.

"A crust forms but it's not coloured. Then the loaf's put into a flash freezer, then into a box and finally into a holding freezer. Eventually it's sent to the shopkeeper who simply puts it in the oven to finish the baking process."

O'Brien understands how the product could appeal to some customers.

"One thing part-baked bread has going for it is that it's coming straight out of the oven and by the time the customer gets it home it's still fresh. That's what people like."

Many consumers happily purchase bake-off loafs knowing it's delivered to the shop partially baked and frozen.

However, not all of them realise the baguette they are purchasing could have actually been kept in the deep freeze at -19C for a period of time before being browned in the shop.

There's little nutritional difference between the two kinds, says Derek O'Brien.

"With flour fortification, there isn't a huge difference. However, there is a big difference in taste."

Eating a baguette made from scratch is completely different to consuming a part-baked product.

The crumb, or the inside, has a nutty-flavour because the open-holed and irregular texture has allowed the gluten strands to be exposed fully to the heat in baking.

Creating such a loaf requires quality ingredients, skill and time. Fiona Brown, who runs The Corner Bakery in Terenure with her brother and sister-in-law, says: "Our night baker comes in at midnight and works until seven in the morning. Making bread from scratch is time-consuming. A loaf could require two separate rising periods of up to an hour depending on the variety of flour -- heavier types take longer to rise."

"If you were to cut a part-baked baguette bought in Ireland, you'd find it to be the same as a sliced pan in texture," says Derek O'Brien.

"While in France, you can put your little -- even sometimes your big -- finger into the holes of a baguette.

"Traditional bakers go to a lot of trouble to ensure those holes are there because they are an indication that the dough has been slowly fermenting naturally for anything up to 24 hours.

"Because the dough of traditional baguettes goes through all the stages of bread making, the finished loaf has an open crumb or texture and a complex, fermented grain flavour."

With part-baked baguettes, they mix the dough straightaway without fermenting it and include additives like emulsifiers, that act as crumb softeners, and ascorbic acid, which speeds up the development of the dough.

The flour in part-baked bread is different to that used by traditional bakers. In the former the flour must be standardised in order to create a consistent product that can be, as Brown explains, "machine extruded". It must also withstand being partially baked, suspended at -19C, then thawed and browned.

Because of stress placed on dough by freezing and thawing, the wheat flour used in bake-off bread must also have a high gluten content for strength.

So how do you know if you're buying a part-baked product?

According to Anne-Marie Boland of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI): "General labelling rules apply to pre-packaged foods only.

"Foods that are packed on the premises, where they are sold or packed at the request of the consumer, are considered loose foods and in Ireland the only mandatory information required for such foodstuffs is product name."

Labeling

Traditional bakers make their bread without additives. They argue some supermarkets are taking advantage of less rigid labeling regulations in order to avoid telling consumers about additives used in their bake-off bread.

UK artisan bakers have been attempting to get bake-off bread labelled as 'defrosted' or 'previously frozen' to distinguish it from the product they make from scratch.

"I would not consider that a product which is produced from defrosted dough would be required to be labelled as 'defrosted bread'," says Boland.

Based on recent trends, most consumers in Ireland are likely to continue buying their bread in supermarkets.

"I think we're probably American in the respect that people like to hop into the car and drive down to the local supermarket," observes Fiona Brown.

"Although travel to places like Italy and France has encouraged more people to seek traditional artisan breads, I can't imagine, given the number of convenience stores around, that you'll ever see a bakery in every village again," she says.

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