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Modern recipes (as far as I know) for bread includes sugar. Sugar gives the yeast a food source, which supports it growth and allows yeast to give bread many of its qualities. It hit me the other day that sugar (produced from sugar cane) is a relatively new commodity. People did not have this kind of sugar 1000 years ago in Europe, the middle east, etc. How did they manage to make bread without it?

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French bread by law contains no sugar, only flour (a few kinds), water, salt, and yeast. – Phil Frost Jul 15 '14 at 16:38
@PhilFrost You mean, "In France, bread can only be described as 'traditional French bread' if...". A French baker can put whatever he wants in his bread, as long as he doesn't call it "traditional French." – David Richerby Jul 15 '14 at 22:35
Flour has a very high carbohydrate content. The yeast can eat that. – Jodrell Jul 16 '14 at 7:54
I have never heard of bread containing sugar. Would this be the common practice in the U.S. of industrial food producers putting HFCS in everything, given a chance? – Tom W Jul 17 '14 at 9:26
In many countries it is not customary to add sugar to bread. – Andrey Jul 17 '14 at 10:17
up vote 22 down vote accepted

I assume, by sugar you mean sucrose. However, yeast actually prefers glucose and maltose, see nutritional requirements of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and also proofing. Luckily, we get glucose and maltose "for free" from the flour, see this article on bread chemistry:

Flour naturally contains both α- and β-amylases, which between them break down some of the starch in the dough to the fermentable sugars, maltose and glucose

The short answer is thus, bread does not need additional sucrose, as the maltose and glucose we get out of the flour is already sufficient for the job.

On a sidenote, as other answers mention, basic bread dough does not call for sugar in the recipe. Technically, by adding sugar you get an enriched dough (a dough with additional sugar, syrup, butter, oil, eggs, milk, or cream, etc. is called an enriched dough). In this case, the sugar is added for achieving a specific effect, most typically making the dough sweeter or also more tender see What is the purpose of sugar in baking plain bread? and this article and also this paper.

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Making bread without sugar is nothing strange - I do so several times a week! The wheat flour (or whatever you're using) contains enzymes which, when you blend it with water, breaks down starch to sugars which fermenting agents such as yeast or lactobacilli can feed off. The Wikipedia page on sourdough has more info.

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You do not need sugar to make bread. The majority of traditional, rustic breads use just 4 ingredients - water, yeast, flour, and salt. Consequently, rising times are slower (usually resulting in better flavour) and the bread goes stale quicker (hence, for example, the French practice of buying fresh bread every day).

Sugar softens bread by slowing gluten development - contrast a soft white sandwich loaf with a rough French baguette - and at a certain level acts as a preservative, but is by no means essential.

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Note that you can certainly make longer-lasting bread without sugar, e.g. with Sauerteig. – Raphael Jul 16 '14 at 9:01
Interesting point about the bread going stale quicker - the more simple styles of bread from our Farmer's market do go stale quickly (whereas supermarket bread goes mouldy well rather than stale). – standgale Jul 17 '14 at 20:55
Yup - sugar is the culprit in making bread go mouldy quicker. – ElendilTheTall Jul 17 '14 at 21:02

Sugared bread is something mostly specific to the US. There might be a little sugar in European bread, but not much.

From a personal opinion as a Belgian, I have to say that the few time I ate sugared bread (Harry's American bread), I found that it completely ruined the taste of the condiment on my bread, as well as make the bread less suitable to be used in a toaster. And I'm not alone, because I've heard a number of immigrants from EU to US say that they didn't like the bread in the US and had to go to specialty bakers to get sugarfree bread.

So not all modern bread recipes contain sugar. And as others said, we had non-sugar sweeteners in older days. Raisin bread, honey bread and milk bread used to be common and are still eaten in a number of European countries during certain periods.

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I enjoyed reading the story of Harry's American Bread, had never heard of it before. A typical US white sandwich bread recipe might call for about 1 tablespoon of sugar per loaf, which apparently is 12 grams (not a lot of sugar by American standards since there are 39 grams of sugar in one can of Coke ;-) but I can see how odd it would be if you were accustomed to 0 grams... – Spike0xff Jul 17 '14 at 15:49

I would assume the sugar is added for more "optimized" and foolproof bread making (industrialized)

It is not necessary at all.

Also in the "old time", people had access to other types of sugar ( honey,fruits, ... ) and as far as I known, big fluffy bread is quite recent in the history of time.

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Yeast can start faster given simpler carbohydrates (not just plain sugar but also milk sugar and dextrose). However, it breaks down starch into such simpler sugars with some of its enzymes anyway. Since most of the leavening is supposed to happen after the loaves have been properly worked and formed, fast fermentation is not all that desirable anyway for achieving consistent leavening without holes or boils.

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Perhaps they made unleavened bread, like chapatis, tortillas and pitas?

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They certainly made unleavened bread, but this is unrelated to the sugar part. – rumtscho Jul 16 '14 at 12:18
This is a request for clarification in form of an answer. Please use comments to request clarification. (If you don't have enough reputation to post a comment you should not use answers to circumvent rules; just earn enough reputation). – Bakuriu Jul 17 '14 at 20:40
@Bakuriu I know there is a question mark at the end of it, but this is not a request for clarification. It's an answer, saying that if you didn't have sugar and couldn't get yeast to work you could just make unleavened bread. That's either incomplete or inaccurate depending on how you look at it: it is possible to make yeast-leavened bread without sugar. – Jefromi Jul 17 '14 at 20:42

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