2,000 Year Old Bread

A Root Simple reader sent me a link to this video from the British Museum showing a chef recreating a 2,000 thousand year old loaf of bread found in one of the ovens of Pompeii.


Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Bread A Global History by William Rubel. Rubel puts forth a couple of theories about the history of bread. One, that there’s nothing new about white bread. The elites have been eating white bread for a long time. Ironically, healthier whole wheat breads tended to go to poor folks. Also he says that the Pompeian bread would most likely, as this chef proves, look and taste a lot like contemporary “artisinal” sourdoughs. In other words, the bread you buy at a fancy bakery like Tartine in San Francisco hasn’t changed much in 2,000 years.

The British Museum has helpfully provided a recipe should you want to make your own version of this bread.

Virtuosic Bread Shaping

This video proves that to learn a skill one must repeat it 10,000 times. That was the advice of a chef friend when I asked her how she learned to shape pizzas.

The bread being shaped here is called Markook, In Arabic, مرقوق، شراك. It’s a flatbread found throughout the Middle East (an Armenian friend who grew up in Lebanon told us about it). A casual Youtube search will reveal many different Markook shaping techniques. Here’s a pillow free version making the rounds on Facebook:

Back to learning a difficult skill. In the case of shaping dough it’s often best to practice with a sacrificial lump of flour and water that you’re not going to eat. It takes the pressure off and you’re free to try and try again. This applies, of course, to many other skills. Once you get the basic motion down, than it’s time to put some pressure on and try it for real.

Get Baking and Share the Loaves

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San Francisco baker Josey Baker, who is the best example of nominative determinism I know of, was in Los Angeles this week to share his enthusiasm for whole grain sourdough bread.

Enthusiasm is an understatement. Baker always has a big smile on his face and spent hours, at a bake-off and book signing at LA’s new mill Grist & Toll, answering questions and sharing his knowledge. Baker’s love for bread making is infectious. Catch that infection and you’ll go down a very deep and geeky vortex of hydration ratios and cold proofing sessions.

At a panel discussion on Monday, moderated by KCRW’s Evan Kleiman, Baker announced that he’s working on an Einkorn baguette, the bread geek equivalent of proposing a new route up K2 sans oxygen. At both events he dropped a lot of advice for home bakers that I thought I’d share:

  • The refrigerator is your friend. Do a long proof in the refrigerator. This deepens flavor, allows flexibility in your baking schedule and can help a hearth loaf hold its shape in the oven.
  • Are you beginner? Make your bread in a loaf pan. It’s a lot more forgiving than trying to shape a boule.
  • Use a tip sensitive thermometer to determine if your rye bread is done. Baker didn’t discuss the exact temp, but I shoot for 210°F. For wheat loaves let color be your guide–you want just short of burnt. Baker said that most beginning bakers don’t bake long enough.
  • To keep dough from sticking to your countertop use water instead of flour. Wet your hands too. This way you also won’t be incorporating more flour into your dough.
  • Whole wheat soaks up a lot of water. Your hydration ratio could hit 100% or more. Wet dough like this can be tough to handle which is why Baker’s recipes in the book are around 80%. As you get more experienced you can start working with more water in the dough.
  • Baker said that he often gives a loaf of whole wheat sourdough to people who come in his bakery and say that they can’t eat bread. He says they come back and say, “Holy s***, I can eat this bread!”

To pick up the basics of home baking I can’t say enough good things about Baker’s book, Josey Baker Bread. Baker’s previous job was in science education which makes him the perfect person to write a baking cookbook. The book is laid out to teach you all that you need to know about bread sequentially. You go from a simple yeasted bread up almost to the Einkorn baguette level.

As Josey Baker says, get baking and share the loaves!

008 Grind Your Own Flour With Erin Alderson


On the eighth episode of the Root Simple Podcast we speak with Erin Alderson about milling your own flours at home. Erin is the author of The Homemade Flour Cookbook and blogs at naturallyella.com.


In our conversation Erin mentions that she uses WonderMill Grain Mill.

We also discussed where to get unique grains.  Erin mentions a few sources in her book:

Bob’s Red Mill
Arrowhead Mills
Nuts Online
Jovial Foods (source for Einkorn)
Lundberg Family Farms

I’ll add that if you’re in the Los Angeles area you can buy flour and grain at Grist & Toll in Pasadena.

After my conversation with Erin I briefly mention my purchase of a flour mill, the KoMo Classic Mill.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here

An Easy and Healthy 100% Whole Rye Bread Recipe


I’m a huge fan of making your own rye bread. Why? The rye bread you get at the market ain’t rye bread. It might have a bit of rye in it but it’s also got a lot of other stuff: often white flour, caramel coloring, dough conditioners and preservatives.

This recipe that I often teach as a class, has a lot going for it:

  • It’s 100% whole rye. Whole grains, as most of you know, are much better for you than white flour. Nothing has been removed and no strange vitamins added.
  • The use of a natural starter (sometimes called a sourdough starter or levain) predigests substances in the flour that may not be good for us. You can thank lactic acid producing bacteria that work symbiotically with natural yeast for this. Don’t have a starter? Here’s how to make one.
  • That lactic acid also produces a flavorful tang as well as bread that lasts a long time on the counter (acid is a preservative).

This recipe is also super easy. There’s no tedious shaping or worrying about a loaf deflating in the oven. Breads made with 100% rye don’t hold their shape–rye is low in gluten (though, it’s important to note, not gluten free) and that gluten doesn’t behave like the gluten in wheat–you bake it in a loaf pan which makes it easy as cake, so to speak.

100% Whole Rye Bread
Based on a recipe by Emmanuel Hadjiandreou from How to Make Bread
Ingredients Day One
Before going to bed mix:
150 grams/1 1/4 cups dark rye/pumpernickel flour
150 grams/scant 1/2 cup rye sourdough starter
200 grams/3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon cold water
Let sit overnight at room temperature.
Ingredients Day Two
In the morning when you wake up mix in the dough from the previous night with:
200 grams/1 1/3 cups dark rye/pumpernickel flour
1 teaspoon salt
150 grams/2/3 cup hot water
1 teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)
1. In a large bowl mix the 200 grams cold water with the sourdough starter. Add 150 grams of flour. Allow this mixture to ferment overnight.
2. In the morning add the rest of the ingredients.
3. Spoon into a well oiled and floured standard loaf pan. Smooth the top of the dough with a wet spatula. Flour the top of the loaf and cover with a kitchen towel.
4. Allow to ferment for 2 to 3 more hours. The dough will rise a little but not much.
5. Pre-heat your oven to 425º F.
6. Cover your loaf pan with aluminum foil. Put the bread in the oven.
7. After 15 minutes remove the aluminum foil
7. Bake your loaf, uncovered, for at least another 30 minutes, until brown or until the internal temperature is 210º F. Your oven may vary greatly. The best way to check is by internal temperature. Second best is the color of the loaf.
8. Remove bread from the loaf pan and let cool on a wire rack.
9. Let this loaf sit before you break into it! It will taste better the next day if you’re the patient type. At the very least don’t’ slice into it for a few hours.

A note on scheduling

Since there’s no kneading, this loaf goes together quickly. Instead of starting the loaf in the evening, you could start it in the morning and finish it in the evening after work. The fermentation times are flexible since you don’t have to worry about the dough keeping it’s shape. If at anytime something prevents you from completing a step just put your dough in the refrigerator (which is kind of like hitting the pause button).
The longer the bread sits the more sour it will get (note that it could get too sour if you really extend the fermentation). Too short a fermentation will lead to an overly dense loaf. That said, you’ve got considerable flexibility. A few hours in either direction won’t make much of a difference. This is one loaf I’ve never managed to screw up.
If you try this loaf please let me know how it works out. Also let me know if you try any variations such as adding nuts and sprouted grains.