Saturday, 23 June 2012

Is sliced white bread and good taste an oxymoron?

The challenge

Bread doesn’t taste as good as it used to! There are so many bread varieties that we will assume that the challenge is about production line sliced white wheat bread produced in Australia.

“Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.”
Isaiah 55:2 New International Version (©1984)


Bread in its various forms has been the staple diet of the western world for over thirty thousand years and although many grains are available is now made predominantly from wheat. Depending on your social status bread is either the main component of your meal or a specially crafted accessory to your meal. Bread is so ubiquitous that it has generated countless phrases, idioms and parables that have been in general use for centuries, if not millennia. Probably one of the most misquoted phrases is ‘bread is the staff of life’ which to my surprise in not in the Bible.


What hasn’t changed over the centuries is people grumbling about the taste, quality and price of bread, with evidence of heavy fines being levied on cheating bakers way back in the Medieval Period. What has changed is the concept of a baker’s dozen (thirteen for the price of twelve); I haven’t seen that offered in a long, long time.


If we look at the cost of your daily bread, prices for a loaf of bread go up in a predictable way at regular intervals and at this date in Australia a normal sliced loaf from ‘Tip Top’ or ‘Goodman Fielders’ will cost about $4 from a supermarket, with specials at 2 loaves for $5 quite common. The supermarket wars between Coles and Woolworths have seen in-house sliced bread offered at $1 a loaf on special, it is now $3. The big manufacturers say that a normal sliced loaf costs them $1.50 to make and distribute. I have ignored specialty shop prices as they usually charge ‘what the market will bear’ for their product.

What changed?

There is no doubt that the flavour and quality of bread changed when production went from cottage industry production to machine intensive production lines, and wheat was bred to give more grain per hectare.

New wheat strains

The type of wheat grown in Australia generally changes with each generation of farmer, and there are now more than 450 types of wheat grown in Australia. Each specific type is chosen to suit the climate and rainfall of the growing area, and whether or not the farm is mixed. The Australian wheat board categorises these grains into ten different groups suitable for various purposes, generally based on protein content. The high protein wheat is hard wheat, and the low protein wheat is soft wheat which also has the most flavour. Wheat quality varies enormously with the amount of rain and sun, and when it occurs in the plants life cycle, rain at harvest time can turn a bumper crop into cattle feed.

Different milling methods

Way back in the last ice age, our clever and inventive ancestors decided that the best way to consume wheat was to grind it into a powder and make a paste from the powder. The grinding process eventually evolved into the millstone which we have used until relatively recently. The late nineteenth century saw the introduction of roller mills which allowed the constituents of the wheat to be separated using a rolling and filtering process and created superfine white flour which, unfortunately, is not as nutritious as the flour produced by the millstone method. Whereas the roller method is fast compared to the traditional millstone, care has to be taken to reduce the heat created in the crushing to avoid damage to the components of the flour. The separated constituents of the grain can be blended to produce wholemeal flours. Sadly, the miller is no longer needed for the machines, just a machine minder. The millstone method is still used by some boutique millers, but as it slowly disappears so will the old idioms that were spawned by it, for instance, a millstone around your neck, more grist for the mill, and so on.

Flour quality

The quality of the flour eventually determines the quality of the bread as my wife, who is an excellent baker, can attest. She has tried all types of flour and finally standardised on no nonsense, economically priced, plain flour. The flour changes throughout the year and a good baker automatically compensates with the ingredients according to the feel of the dough. For those with only basic skills there is the bread-making machine and special flours tailored specifically for the machine.

Baking bread

Bread making has evolved from a skilled cottage industry to a fully mechanised production line with machine minders. The ultimate bread making machine was designed in 1961 by the British Baking Industries Research Association based at Chorleywood and is known as the Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP). The CBP produces a loaf of bread quicker than other processes and can use low grade flour, flavour of course suffers in the process. The damage to the starch grain caused by the grain rolling mill actually helps the CBP. The flour on its own cannot survive the CBP due to the intense mechanical stress, and there is the usual list of additives to stop the dough from becoming a starchy mess on the bottom of the high speed mixing machine.

What goes in production line bread?

Acidity regulators  

Commonly used are citric acid (330), acetic acid (vinegar, 260) and lactic acid (270), for slowing the growth of mould and bacteria.


Esters of monoglycerides and diglycerides are used as emulsifiers and anti-staling agents. They improve the crumb colour, texture, volume and softness of the bread; help delay staling by increasing the initial softness of the bread, and also by combining with starch reduce the rate of crystallisation and hardening of the crumb.


Starch enzymes and protein enzymes are used to rapidly break down wheat starches to sugars to feed the yeast and to soften the gluten to allow for reduced mechanical mixing times. Enzymes are also engineered to survive baking temperatures and great variations in pH to impart anti-staling and softening qualities to the finished products. De-natured enzymes used for baking do not need to be labelled.

Fats and oils   

Improve the flavour of the bread; also make it more tender, aid in the browning of the loaf and keep it feeling fresh. Vegetable oils, such as canola, are most commonly used and some manufacturers tout the use of Omega-3 oils. Saturated fats while more efficient are no longer used for health reasons.

Flour treatment agents   

Improve the fermentation process and improve the texture of the bread. Some of those used include ascorbic acid (vitamin C, 300) and calcium carbonate (170).


The protein component of wheat normally sourced as a yellow powder; it strengthens the structure of the crumb. Added gluten augments the low gluten levels of cheap low-protein wheat. CBP can use cheaper, lower protein wheats.

Malt flour / extract  

Derived from barley; it adds flavour and contributes to the colour, softness and moistness of bread.

Milk or milk solids   

May be added to the bread to help keep it moist, add flavour and soften the crust.

Oat fibre

Oat fibre may be added, with or without sourdough lactobacilli, to reduce the GI of white bread. Bread enriched with oat fibre, has higher specific volume, better crumb structure and improved taste and aroma.


Calcium propionate is added to some bread to prevent the growth of mould, but it’s also recently been linked to possible behavioural problems in children. Vinegar is added to some breads as a preservative.


Salt must be iodised in Australia and is added to inhibit mould, to assist fermentation and for flavour.

Soy flour   

Enzymatically active soy flour contains lipoxygenase enzymes that create whiter crumb, softens the texture, keeps the bread fresh and helps to improve the volume.


Used by the yeast to grow, thus producing carbon dioxide; responsible for making the dough rise. It also flavours the bread, helps to keep it moist and helps the crust brown.

Vitamins and minerals

Calcium is optional in Australia but mandatory in the UK.
Folic acid must be added to wheat flour (a form of the B vitamin folate) for bread-making purposes. It reduces the risk of spina bifida.
Iron is optional in Australia but mandatory in the UK.
Thiamin must be added to bread by law, to help prevent a condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, mainly suffered by alcoholics.
Vitamin D may soon be required by law.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant that helps protect cells in the body from damage; may also protect against heart disease


Water is a very important ingredient of bread; too little water results in a heavy cake texture crumb, whilst too much water produces large voids in the crumb giving bread that is ‘all crust and no crumb’. Some bread rolls are deliberately made this way, but they do need milk additives to avoid overly large voids. Before the common use of filtered water the dough ingredients had to be modified to accommodate hard and soft water. Water, as dry steam, is used to modify the crust to produce a nice shiny surface that is caramelised.


Saccharomyces cerevisiae is the most common form of yeast used for bread making. The yeast was originally skimmed from the top of vats of beer but since brewers now use bottom fermenting yeasts, baker’s yeast is produced using various syrups. Yeast is mainly used to generate carbon dioxide which causes the dough to rise and gives the bread its final texture. The other by-products from yeast impart aroma and flavour to the bread. Complex flavours can be obtained by mixing a number of yeasts and bacteria.

Eating bread

To misquote a popular clichĂ©, the proof of the bread is in the eating. The flavour of food and drink is a complex interaction between taste and smell, and the appreciation is often more subjective than objective. People with colds often complain that they cannot taste anything so don’t serve your best bottle of ‘Grange’ to them. The aroma of freshly baked bread makes most people’s mouth water in anticipation of a taste delight, and I must say I enjoy the taste of bread while it’s still warm from the oven. Bread loses its appeal when cold and a packet of sliced bread doesn’t seem to attract the same enthusiastic welcome as a slice of warm oven fresh bread. The insipid taste of cold bread may have encouraged the practice of toasting bread. Toasting to a light to medium brown colour produces complex caramelised flavours in the newly formed crust and releases aromas in the crumb recreating the ‘just baked’ experience. Some cultures believe that the taste in the crust not in the crumb and produce bread varieties with thick flaky crusts and crumb with large voids.

Conclusion, bread taste has changed!

There is no doubt that the constant evolution of wheat varieties, additives, and milling and baking processes changes the flavour of bread, sometimes negatively. The change cycle seems to mimic the clothing fashion cycle of about fifteen years and there is no sign of it stabilising. There is a way of turning back time, if you have the money. Buy from a boutique bakery that makes bread by hand, and sources flour from a boutique stone miller who in turn uses grain from a specialist farmer.

What’s on the label?

Food manufacturers like to have as ‘clean’ a label as possible on their products. Ingredients that are denatured during manufacture do not need to be on the label. Rather than choose a big brand manufacturer I chose a supermarket in-house brand to see what was on the label.
The label ingredients in ‘Woolworths’ brand white sliced bread have been carefully chosen to give a white, evenly textured, well flavoured crumb with a reasonable shelf life:
Wheat flour, water, oat fibre, yeast, wheat gluten, vinegar, iodised salt, canola oil, soy flour
Vegetable emulsifier 481(Sodium oleyl or stearoyl lactylate)
Vitamins: thiamin, folate, niacin, B6, E)
Minerals: iron, zinc

What’s next?

Frozen part baked bread products made overseas are available in the supermarket freezers. Some breads are part baked overseas, frozen, and finished in Australia, one importer is Goodman Fielders. This allows ‘made in Australia’ to be on the label. The frozen part baked bread can be stored for more than a year before use.
With the carbon tax in Australia, competition, and the increasing use of frozen products it seems possible that your daily bread may soon be made overseas and imported by the big brands. Even your local baker may just ‘warm up’ frozen bread.

Bake your own

Handmade bread is always considered the best tasting bread, an electric bread maker using a designed for bread making mixture will only produce the taste you are trying to avoid.
Learning to make bread is like learning how to ride a bicycle. The first efforts are often a dismal failure but practice makes perfect.
For your first attempts start small and keep it simple. Do not use expensive ingredients or so called bread flour, the standard plain flour works very well. As you get used to working the dough you will understand the ‘feel’ of the dough and how to adjust the water and other ingredients to get the ‘feel’ right. Do not use a dough mixer as stresses the dough and you lose flavour.
This recipe by Maria Magee for soft white bread rolls was the simplest that I could find, you can adjust the ingredients to make less rolls, just look at the comments section here at

Ingredients serves: 24

* 625g (5 cups) plain flour
* 3 tablespoons caster sugar
* 2½ teaspoons salt
* 1 tablespoon dried instant yeast
* 50g butter, melted
* 375ml (1½ cups) cold water
* 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Preparation method

Prep: 40 minutes | Cook: 13 minutes
1. Mix together flour, sugar, salt and instant yeast. Mix in butter, then the water.
2. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead by hand for 20 minutes. Cover dough with oil. Place dough in a bowl, cover and prove for 1 hour.
3. Form into 24 rolls, and place on a greased baking tray. Prove for 45 minutes.
4. Bake at 200 degrees C for 12 to 14 minutes until golden and firm to touch.

To 'prove' your bread means to allow the yeast time to work and raise the dough, to do this cover your dough with a damp tea towel and put it in a warm place.


  1. This is really nice blog, I appreciate the hard work which you got to make this blog useful, Keep it up, Thanks


  2. I have a friend who says you can judge how civilized a country is, by the number of different breads available on the local supermarket shelves!!! Hmmmm ...Something to think about!