Science makes bread taste better
Renegade bakers and geneticists develop whole-wheat loaves you’ll want to eat
BY VERONIQUE GREENWOOD BOSTON GLOBE
riving up through the rolling farmland north of Seattle this July, I was thinking about my next meal. I arrived in the small industrial park, home to the Washington State University Bread Lab, for a gathering of wheat geneticists and other grain professionals. I’d missed the explanation of the items on the buffet tables, made by attendees. I loaded my plate with about a pound of cookies from the dessert end and steadily consumed the lot. They were soft and nutty, with a rich ruddy color and a delicate crumb. I wiped buttery crumbs from my fingers. I went back for more.
“What are these?” I asked the volunteer by the coffee pots, brandishing a blondie bar. “I’m not sure,” she said. They must be made from some delicious heirloom grain, or something, I thought, surreptitiously loading my pockets.
They’re whole wheat, the lab’s head, Stephen Scott Jones, later told me. One hundred percent. That was a surprise; whole wheat baked goods are often eaten more out of obligation than pleasure. They are not known for their can’t-stop-eating flavor. And yet, the Bread Lab is making its name by doing something that is almost unique in the industry: Breeding wheat — especially wheat for whole wheat flour — for taste. They and their collaborators across the country have quietly launched an effort that they hope will create something new — a whole wheat loaf that people would actually like to eat.
Wheat breeders who develop new strains for the global market aim for traits like the right height for mechanized harvesting, the right texture for mechanized baking, and a high yield. As odd as it sounds, flavor more or less faded from breeders’ awareness somewhere along the line. Jones says that for most of his decades-long career as a breeder, it was not discussed. At the same time, knowledge of the importance of whole grains has been on the rise: Eating whole wheat and other unrefined grains correlates with better heart health, healthier weight, and even longer life, according to epidemiological studies.
So maybe the time is right. At the Bread Lab’s headquarters this summer, a plucky group of about 40 bakers, millers, breeders, and others met to test-bake a loaf they’ve been discussing and fine-tuning for the last two years. They call it the Approachable Loaf.
The loaf they’re all dreaming of has a simple recipe. Start, first of all, with the right wheat for the job. The lab grows thousands of newly generated strains of wheat every year to test them. Steve Lyon, the Bread Lab’s head technician, took me out to one of the experimental fields this summer, where the stalks stood in a patchwork of yellows and tans, all different heights and shapes. The researchers make the same basic test loaf from the freshly milled flour — whole wheat goes rancid quickly, so using fresh-milled is important — and then they taste it. They have identified one new wheat, which they’ve dubbed Skagit 1109, that makes a reliably tasty whole wheat bread. For the moment, a bakery making the Approachable Loaf will likely have to use commodity wheat, but ideally, they’ll develop better options.
The story of bread as we’ve known it is the story of our food system as a whole: In the 19th and 20th centuries, the advance of technology on farms, in mills, and in factories allowed the mass production of foods from an ever-longer list of ingredients, both natural and artificial. The Approachable Loaf symbolizes something else — the possibility that, through the application of science, even a food as humble and maligned as whole wheat bread can be both simpler and tastier.
Nutritionally, whole wheat flour is better for you than white. The germ and the bran, the portions of the wheat kernel with the most fiber and other nutrients, stay in whole wheat flour when it’s milled, giving it its distinctive dark color. But they usually curb your desire to put it in your mouth. Compared to the seductive quality of a good white sourdough — tangy and just a little stretchy — or even the gentle squish of a soft white grocery store loaf, melting seamlessly into a slab of grilled cheese, the ashy, faintly bitter whole wheat loaf is no competition.
The battle between light and dark in the matter of bread is longer and weirder than most people realize. While many might assume the rise of whole wheat bread as a health food started with the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s, anthropologist Aaron Bobrow-Strain traces it back far earlier. Over thousands of years, the color of bread has carried various meanings, he writes in his book “White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.” Hearty dark loaves were better for building a society than wimpy white ones, Plato argued in “The Republic”; Socrates, on the other hand, felt whole-meal bread was essentially animal food.
By the 19th century in the United States, activists claimed whole wheat would bring people closer to God, and thus to health. One influential obsessive was Sylvester Graham, the New England minister who gave his name to the graham cracker. A sickly child, he eventually turned to vegetarianism as an adult. Today, he might have started a blog about clean eating. Eating foods in their most natural form, like whole wheat, was what God intended man to do, Graham argued in lectures that caused riots in Boston and New York, and anything that was wrong with you could be taken care of with whole wheat bread and water.