58

This may be a history question so please move it if appropriate.

Culturally, local ingredients dominate cooking recipes and national dishes (e.g., soy in SE Asia), but why do Europeans add a raising agent to bread items to make loaf bread whilst people from the Middle East still favour flat breads?

Were raising agents discovered in Europe and never migrated? Is there a taste difference?

  • 13
    It’s not an either/or. Plenty of flatbreads, such as pitta, are leavened with yeast. – Mike Scott Jun 28 '18 at 19:11
  • 1
    It is pretty much an either/or though. You have a few examples, it does not overturn the basic point. – Venture2099 Jun 28 '18 at 21:08
  • 24
    Um ... pita, the most common bread of the Middle East, usually uses yeast. As do naan, Lebanese bread, and several others. So you're off-base with the "raising agent" thing completely. – FuzzyChef Jun 29 '18 at 0:29
  • There is a lot of good answers here with a lot of overlap. @Mods - can we make this a community wiki with a number of factors listed? – Venture2099 Jun 29 '18 at 9:02
  • 1
    I've cleaned up some discussion of whether this should be community wiki. tl;dr, community wiki is for allowing the whole community to edit answers (hence the name), and although it historically was used for all kinds of other things, at this point it's reduced to that infrequently useful purpose, and it is definitely not for questions where there's more than one plausible-seeming answer. – Cascabel Jul 2 '18 at 22:36
99

I'm going to agree with Szczerzo about this being an anthropologic question, but I'm going to disagree about the cause. While nomadic lifestyles was an influence, it's not causative.

I'm also going to ignore the distinction made about raising agents in the OP, because it's factually incorrect; most Arab/Levantine/Turkish/Kurdish breads use yeast. Instead, I'm going to answer the distinction between loaf bread and flatbread.

Specifically: loaf bread is an aberration, not flatbread. You find flatbreads around the world in every society that has access to any kind of grain anywhere. Europe, Asia, Africa, Americas, Malaysia, everywhere. Some are raised (yeasted) and some are not. Some are filled and some are not. All grains are used: wheat, barley, millet, rice, lentils, corn, etc.

Whereas: loaf bread pretty much only shows up in Egypt (and nearby) and in Europe, and there's good reason to believe that the latter two regions learned it from Egypt. Thing is, loaf bread requires several different things to be easily and cheaply available in the same place:

  • Wheat or barley (high-gluten flours)
  • Ability to build brick, stone, or earthen ovens (this is where nomadism isn't compatible)
  • Ability to cultivate starters (both the right grains and the right weather)
  • Inexpensive, but hot, fuel for ovens (e.g. wood)

This combination simply didn't happen in too many places; either people lacked suitable grains, lacked cheap fuel, didn't build ovens, or simply never got started (the Babylonians appear to only have made flatbread, for example, despite having all the right ingredients and tools).

So it's really not so much a question of "why did X culture only make flatbread" as "why did these three places make loaf bread?"

If you're interested in this, I highly recommend the book Six Thousand Years Of Bread.

  • 17
    Incidentally: Ancient Palestine/Israel, which had wheat, contact with the Egyptians, ovens, and wood, did in fact have loaf bread. Loaf bread only disappears from the Levant after Kurdish invaders take over the region, since they came from areas that lacked abundant hot fuel, or contact with Egypt. – FuzzyChef Jun 29 '18 at 0:37
  • 14
    +1 I can't tell you how puzzling a phrase like "the best thing since sliced bread" is to the rest of the world who doesn't live on sliced bread. Our flat bread is already pretty thin so it's really weird to see people celebrating being able to make thin bread... – Mehrdad Jun 29 '18 at 22:13
  • 5
    @Mehrdad I'm from Europe, and sliced bread is still just a thing of rare convenience - all the people I know buy whole bread, unless there's a good reason not to (e.g. on a trip where you don't have a knife available). Can't speak for the Americans, though :) – Luaan Jul 1 '18 at 10:37
  • 2
    @Luaan: Haha, I guess that says a bit about the culture difference :-) – Mehrdad Jul 1 '18 at 11:19
  • 1
    @Mehrdad Pre-sliced bread (sandwich bread) is the rule rather than the exception in the US. Most people get their bread from the bread aisle of the supermarket, which is all pre-sliced. Generic big box stores that have a grocery section (Target, Walmart) would just have this. Supermarkets may have an in-house bakery, too, where the bread is often unsliced (but equally often sliced or they will slice it if you ask). Sometimes you can even get your bagels pre-sliced. (Good if you take bagels to the office, no worrying about the clumsy coworker trying to slice it...) – user3067860 Jul 3 '18 at 18:08
35

It's actually an anthropologic question.

It's more due to Europe being settled down while Middle Eastern peoples were still nomadic. Raising bread, even with agents, is very hard when you move or don't have much time. For a raised bread you need a starter and few hours; for a flat bread you need a few minutes.

Not to mention flat bread can be baked ON an oven or grill while you cook other food alongside within minutes (it takes me around 10 minutes to prepare 20 flats) while European bread needs its own oven and around 1 hour to make.

  • 12
    Not just time to cook, but also fuel costs -- areas in Europe tend to have more wood for fuel than areas of the Middle East, so something quick cooking would have significant benefits – Joe Jun 28 '18 at 15:42
  • 85
    Well this is a nice story. Do you have any sources on this? The middle east has some of the oldest cities in the world, with communal ovens entirely suitable for leavened breads (i.e. they're enclosed, and the bread rests on a surface). I don't believe that it's this. – Marcin Jun 28 '18 at 18:54
  • 9
    In 1000 BC, the Levant had forests; they actually had quite cheap fuels. – FuzzyChef Jun 28 '18 at 23:26
  • 21
    The explanation may have some truth on it, but it should be noted that the hours need to make bread are tiny compared to the months needed to grow wheat. If you have bread, you need to have wheat and to have wheat you need to be somehow sedentary. – Pere Jun 29 '18 at 12:07
  • 9
    (-1) This answer is just based on an entirely fictional view of Middle Eastern (agri)culture and cooking. – Relaxed Jul 1 '18 at 11:34
13

It's also worth mentioning that many flatbreads have a rather long storage life. For instance, the Sardinian pane carasau is split and cooked a second time so that it could be used on months long trips.

It's quite possible that the different climates and jobs led to differences in bread making.

  • You would enjoy reading about Hardtack. – Craig Hicks Jun 30 '18 at 5:48
  • 6
    @CraigHicks : I make hard tack (well, technically the recipe is 'hardtack you can actually eat' as it has increased fat in it). But it's just not the same until you get it infested by insects for that extra protein – Joe Jun 30 '18 at 13:17
  • 4
    Later that year [1974], the U.S. exhumed 20 tons of crackers — hidden in an old streetcar tunnel under Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. that had been used since the Cuban Missile Crisis to store civil defense supplies — and shipped them to Bangladesh to feed survivors of a monsoon there. Other cracker caches were dispatched to Guatemala to aid victims of a devastating 1976 earthquake. The recipients of the disaster food reported developing what one newspaper described as “severe gastric disturbances” (eater.com/2017/12/12/16757660/…) – Craig Hicks Jul 1 '18 at 1:26
  • 1
    Do you happen to have any sources to support this explanation? – Cascabel Jul 1 '18 at 16:56
  • @Cascabel : nope, pure conjecture based on knowledge of the areas, and spoilage rates of various bready items. – Joe Jul 9 '18 at 19:14
8

Perhaps the difference is not so much between leavened and unleavened as between flat and loaf. In colder climates, there is an existing need for a persistent fire, which has been lit for heating, as well as cooking. In those cultures, ovens and baking are more likely to arise. Even the leavened breads of the Middle East and South Asia tend to be flat, and more quickly cooked.

Given a persistent fire and an oven, loaf breads have the advantage of economy of scale. More weight of them can be produced, without the need for constant attendance, in larger simultaneous batches, than of flat breads.

  • 1
    You're right about the economy of scale, but wrong about the "cold climate" part, since loaf bread seems to have been invented in ancient Egypt. – FuzzyChef Jun 29 '18 at 21:36
  • 4
    Source for egyptian loaf bread: historicalcookingproject.com/2014/12/… – FuzzyChef Jun 29 '18 at 21:38
  • 5
    @FuzzyChef Why ... thank you! It 's always good to be dragged out of speculation into fact. I love this question. For me, it reaches right to the heart of a ton of things. – Robin Betts Jun 29 '18 at 23:53
  • 1
    It does raise some interesting questions that suggest I need to find yet another "history of bread" book. – FuzzyChef Jun 30 '18 at 0:35
  • 1
    Do you have any sources to support your explanation? – Cascabel Jul 1 '18 at 16:55
6

As @Marcin stated in the comments above, there are no sources for the answers given, and many of the answers have issues:

  • Materials, it may not be the prairie, but wheat, spelt, barley, and rye were all available and used for breads even in the ancient Middle East
  • Resources, sure, there's less wood for ovens and flatbread cooks more quickly, but desert temperatures are higher, ovens hold heat more efficiently, and the Middle East had plenty of ovens and kilns. Not only that, but plenty of things other than wood burn, having fire in the freezing night temperatures of the desert is essential, and nomadic desert folk still keep campfires going and cook food.
  • Lifestyle, yeah, lots of nomads, herders and the like, but like @Marcin stated, cities existed. Not only that, but cities tend to be cultural centers as well. We tend to define a people's cuisine and culture by what large centers of life do, not by their more sparse and scattered population.
  • Shelf Life, c'mon, if anything, the dry Middle East is going to have a longer shelf life for goods than all the moisture up north.

But, all that is unsourced speculative rebuttal. If I had to pick a reason, it's yeast. Even in Europe, when you look at the fairly well-documented history of beer and wine (http://www.thecomicbookstoryofbeer.com), people relied on wild yeasts. The microscopic world wasn't a concept and yeast was obtained by luck mixed with trial-and-error. Wild yeasts may be more abundant in the moist, plant-rich environment in Europe; they are spread in the air and in the foliage. While some Middle Eastern beer was made from fermented bread, it is possible that much of the yeast for beer and wine may have come from imports. While beers and wines were made in the Middle East, yeast from one batch is used to make the next (even today, wherever they are made). Unlike in spirits, in breads much of the yeast dies in the baking.

How much more convenient it must be to mix together some flour and water, maybe some oil and salt, throw it on a sheet of metal that's been sitting in the sun or over your campfire, and watch it turn into a pita.

  • 2
    Interesting. Any evidence for "wild yeasts were more abundant"? – FuzzyChef Jun 29 '18 at 0:33
  • 7
    I mean, they're more abundant now, but 3000 years ago the Middle East was a more temperate, and wetter, climate. – FuzzyChef Jun 29 '18 at 0:41
  • Interesting that you would use a bread made with yeast to support an argument that there is too little yeast available to use for bread. – 8bittree Jun 29 '18 at 21:50
  • 2
    @8bittree If you're referring to pita, the word "pita" is an Aramaic term for "bread" ... which could refer to any kind of bread. The fluffy pita pocketbread that you see in stores is not really like a pita you'd find made in the desert in the Middle East. It's debatable, of course, but my experience has been that those don't have leavening agents. – undrline Jul 1 '18 at 2:39
  • 1
    I appreciate you noting that sources are important here, but then it seems that you've followed up with an unsourced claim of your own - yes, it's clear that yeast usage for fermentation varied, but there's nothing to connect that to breadmaking. – Cascabel Jul 1 '18 at 16:53
0

Tandoor style ovens commonly used in the Middle East and Central Asia where you cook the dough sticking it to the walls only work with flatbreads.

The process of leavening Uzbek non, for example, is similar to most Western loafs but it is flattened with a bread stamp right before going into the oven.

I don't think the lack of fuel is the reason since there places with thick woods but still baking flatbreads (The Caucasus or the Southern shore of the Caspian Sea.)

-1

Passover has potentially played a large role in the development of a culture that uses unleavened breads more often, starting (as mentioned in Exodus in the Old Testament of the Bible) when Moses led the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage.

Passover is a religious observance among the Jews commemorating the departure of their ancestors from Egypt. They were to eat unleavened bread for seven days each time they had the Passover. The observance was also for the other eleven tribes of the House of Israel (not just the tribe of Judah, known as the Jews).

Deuteronomy 16:3 tells us this about the Passover:

"Thou shalt eat no leavened bread with it; seven days shalt thou eat unleavened bread therewith, even the bread of affliction; for thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt in haste: that thou mayest remember the day when thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of thy life."

Of course, there are a lot more people in the Middle East than the Jews, and unleavened bread may have plenty of other reasons for being popular—but I'm sure Passover contributes to that (including in cultures that don't celebrate Passover, since they may have been influenced by the food habits of their neighbors, much as those in the USA have been with Mexican food).

  • 6
    The problem I see with this is that an exception is being made for an annual festival - which implies that leavened bread is normal (or at least common) the rest of the year. – neil Jun 29 '18 at 20:07
  • 9
    Ah, speaking as a Jew who went to yeshiva ... no? Pesach actually proves the opposite of your point; unleavened bread would not have been a hardship if the Israelites weren't used to eating leavened bread (in fact, loaf bread if you scroll up to my other comments). – FuzzyChef Jun 30 '18 at 0:38
  • 3
    @neil - it is. Assuming Shule is even half way correct, and I'll defer to FuzzyChef for an absolute confirmation, but one of the four questions the youngest present at the seder dinner asks during the service is "On all other nights, we eat chameitz and matzah. Why on this night, only matzah?" The chameitz being leavened bread, and matzah being well... matzah. Definitely unleavened. So depending on when the questions were originally written, that may indicate that leavened breads were in fact common. – ivanivan Jun 30 '18 at 0:51
  • @ivanivan That was what I was trying to say but obviously failed to be clear. I agree that leavened was normal the rest of the year. – neil Jun 30 '18 at 0:54
  • 1
    Seven days of unleavened bread is about 2% of the year. – Erica Jul 2 '18 at 12:30

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.