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Breads and more!

Imagine a typical Indian meal without roti? Or its other versions: paranthas or puris? Northern regions of the country boast of abundant harvests of golden wheat as also wonderful variations of wheat dough and refined flour. In fact now that the world is awakening to the nutritious and fibre rich 'brown' bread we can proudly say that Indians have the best 'brown' bread that is the roti! 

The first leavened bread was made in ancient Egypt, where the basic loaf was made of wheat or barley flour with the additions of mashed dates or honey for the wealthier. As India has been under the influence of many rulers it were the Persians that left behind the legacy of leavened bread. One of the few traditional leavened breads you will find in India is naan, which is also eaten in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. There are many different versions of naan: some contain yeast, some baking powder, some bicarbonate of soda and others a mixture. Some contain eggs and some milk. Naan is found only in the north of India where it is baked in the dome shaped clay tandoors which too have been left behind by the Muslims rulers. Later, the Europeans (British, Dutch, Portuguese and French) introduced their own yeast breads.

The Indians called them dubble roti, which means double bread and served them with spiced dishes that had rich sauces in need of mopping up. Chapati is the first Indian bread to be made popular in the west by Indian restaurants.

In the Middle East bread has kept its traditional characteristics and in many of the countries the white sliced loaf, so common throughout the western world, has never been popular. Bread is seen in many Middle Eastern countries as a gift from God and if any piece is found on the floor, it is picked up with reverence and put into a place where it will not be trodden on. Housewives baking bread say a prayer before kneading and again before putting their bread into the oven to make sure that it will be successful. Bread is eaten with every meal. Flat breads are folded over ingredients to become both eating utensil and food. 

Varieties of breads

Brown bread: Brown bread is made from wheat flour with some of the bran removed. Its colour comes not only from the brown part of the wheat grain but also from added colouring such as caramel.

Fruit bread: Fruit breads are usually made from malted or white bread dough to which some sugar and raisins and other dried fruit or rind has been added.

Granary bread: Granary bread (also known as whole wheat) is made with either wholegrain flour or white flour with bran and wheat germ added.

High fibre bread: High fibre white bread is made with white flour with added fibre from non-wheat sources such as rice bran or soya hulls.

Rye bread: Rye breads are popular in the Scandinavian countries, Germany and Russia, these are made with rye flour or with a higher proportion of rye flour mixed with wheat flour and are slightly sour. The low gluten in rye flour makes the bread heavier and denser.

Wheatgerm bread: Wheat germ bread is made from brown or white flour to which at least 10 % processed wheatgerm has been added.

White bread: White bread is made with flour milled from the inner part of the wheat grain after the husk has been removed. It also contains water and yeast along with various additives, preservatives and emulsifiers. The flour is often bleached. 

Different breads of the world

Bagel - is an east European and Jewish roll with a hole, boiled and then baked with proven yeast, often sprinkled with caraway and poppy seeds. Normally made with white flour but whole wheat, rye and onion flavoured versions are also available.

Barbari - they are sometimes called Persian flat breads. They are originally from Iran. They have more crumbs than pita and are mostly flavoured with caraway and cumin seeds. This light, crusty bread is a breakfast favourite in Iran, served topped with crumbled white cheese and sprinkled with fresh herbs.

Brioche - is a light, yeast leavened roll or loaf originating in France, somewhere between cake and bread in texture and taste. Made with white flour and enriched with butter and eggs, making it higher in fat, protein and calories than almost all other breads.

Ciabatta - also known as “olive bread”, this Italian bread is made from white or brown flour bound with olive oil. It is chewy and often flavoured with herbs added to dough or sprinkled on the crust before baking.

Croissant - croissant is the French word for crescent. A rich, flaky breakfast roll shaped as a crescent with a crisp texture on the outside, while it is flaky and layered in the soft buttery centre.

Focaccia - an Italian dimpled flat bread similar to pizza base. It is traditionally oiled and baked in a wood fired oven. Focaccia toppings are generally quite simple. Perhaps the most common one is sliced fresh tomatoes, thinly sliced prosciutto and shredded arugula. Other common toppings include straight prosciutto, just tomatoes, or tomatoes and thinly sliced mozzarella. Olive oil is served at the table so the diner can drizzle some to taste.

Kastenbrots - are small box type breads and the name translates as box breads. The bread is steamed baked in an enclosed tin for 20 hours due to which it turns out to be dense, moist and chewy which has a crumbly texture. It has a slight sour flavour with a sweet and malty overtone. The best-known varieties are pumpernickel, which is the darkest rye bread.

Khoubiz - similar to pita bread. Khoubiz simply means bread in Arabic. It is a flat round bread which is lightly leavened and baked in rounds larger than pita breads.

Krustenbrots - a very popular square German bread. It is a crusty bread. It is often known as German rye but, unlike other rye breads, it has a pleasant, gentle flavour as rye and wheat flours are used in combination.

Lavash - a soft, thin flatbread made with wheat flour, water, yeast and salt. It is the flattest of all the Middle Eastern breads and can be either leavened or unleavened. It is an excellent accompaniment to shish kebab and can be had with dips as well.

Matzo - a traditional Jewish unleavened bread similar to cracker. Made with wheat flour and water and sometimes salt.

Muffin - a traditional British round leavened roll with a mildly sour flavour and chewy crust. White and wholemeal versions are available, as well as cheese, chocolate and fruit varieties.

Panettone - a rich sweet bread is sold around Christmas as a traditional festive cake. Pannettone is made with liberal amounts of butter, eggs and milk, together with sultanas, mixed peel and sometimes chocolate, yet it has a light and airy texture.

Pita - or pide are best known as Turkish and Greek breads. This bread is baked in such a way that it contains a pocket. It is famous throughout the Middle East. It is made with wheat flour and is leavened with yeast. It is baked in an extremely hot oven for a short period of time thus making the bread flat and creating a pocket. They are had with dips like hummus, tahini etc. or are also had stuffed like pita with falafel etc.

Pugliese - this bread was once upon a time the regional bread of Puglia. Like many Italian breads this bread is also enriched with olive oil and is considered to be among the jewels of Italian breads. This bread is popular all around the country and beyond.

Rosquilha - a very attractive looking, ring-shaped white bread. Due to its shape this bread has a pleasant crust, slight chewy texture and salty flavour. The shelf life of this bread is not too long hence has to be consumed when it is fresh.

Stollen - the shape of this bread is said to represent infant Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes. This bread is packed with sultanas and mixed peel and is usually spiced. It is enriched with eggs, butter and milk. Finely chopped almonds are added to the dough or almond paste is rolled into the dough giving it a moist centre.

Tortilla - of Mexican origin, these round, unleavened breads are made by mixing corn or wheat flour with salt and water and baking the flattened dough on a hot griddle.

Weisenkeimbrot - this means wheat germ bread and is made using the wheat germ along with rye meal.

What makes the bread so soft and tasty

You will find a lot of difference in the texture of breads made with whole wheat flour and that made with refined flour. Eventually it’s not only the flour that matters. It is the yeast that plays a major role too. The flour however should be fresh and not stale. That is the secret of good bread, be it white or brown. Why is the choice of flour important? Only because the flour should have sufficient amount of protein that allows the ‘gluten’ to develop when the dough is being kneaded.

Secondly, we do add some sugar to the dough. That gives ‘food’ to the yeast so that it swells and makes the bread rise. Any flour you use will have some natural sugars in it and the yeast is able to break these sugars down but just a little bit more is added in the recipe to really provide a boost for the yeast so that it gets to work faster making carbon dioxide gas. This is what makes the dough rise quickly. The pinch of salt that most recipes recommend acts to change and also to control the action of the yeast. If too much salt is added the yeast will die before it has had the chance to make the bread rise. If there is too little salt and the dough is left to rise for a long time, the yeast may continue to multiply and give the bread a strong yeasty flavour.

A good bread recipe will recommend addition of some fat (like butter). This fat is added to slow down the staling process in the bread. And then as an unwritten rule we have to knead the dough properly. Kneading is necessary to give the final softness to baked bread. While kneading the starch in the flour breaks down. So when bubbles of carbon dioxide released by the action of the yeast make the dough rise, the broken down starch is ready to help increase the bubbles further in size. Hence the dough rises well.

Generally it is said that you cannot knead bread by hand too much. In practice if you knead the bread dough more, the bread after baking will have finer texture. There are no rules about how much one should knead the dough. It is purely a matter of personal choice. Even while making rotis, you will see the longer and better the dough is kneaded the softer are the rotis. 

Best ways to store bread

There is a recent debate going on. On how bread should be stored: should it be kept at room temperature or should it be kept in the fridge? The scientific fact is that bread kept in the fridge goes stale about four times as fast as it does at room temperature!

That is interesting. Let us see why. Staling can occur either when the bread dries out through evaporation or when cooked starch molecules in the bread cool and form a crystalline structure. Crystallization forces water out of the starch molecules and causes the bread to become more firm in texture. We think of staling as being a loss of water when, in fact, the water content may still be the same, just no longer trapped by starch molecules. The cooler temperature of the fridge increases the speed at which crystallization occurs. As long as it has not actually dried out, bread that is stale from crystallization of its starch molecules can be made palatable again by reheating it. This usually only works well one time, though.

So, for soft textured bread, keep it in a bread box or paper bag. This will hold some of the moisture in, while keeping the crust firm. Some people prefer to use a plastic bag, which will keep the bread softer longer but encourage spoilage by holding moisture in. It will also soften the crust.

Indian Breads

One particularly indispensable part of the Indian Menu is the quintessential roti also called chapati, phulka, mani, poli, rotli and so forth. It is certainly an art to be mastered. And practice makes it perfect. As one rolls out the chapati, the final product is a little difficult to be envisaged. First it sits on the fire, and wobbles slightly as it tries to get up on its feet and voila, puffs up with hot air. Nobody would say that a chapati has a big ego in spite of being filled up with air! It is as humble as bread and even when its famous cousins line up proudly in a menu card, the fact remains that in simplicity is the greatest conquest ever.

Chapati - Just a dough of wheat flour with water, rolled out evenly and cooked on a griddle. The kneading of the dough requires a little time for the final dough should be flexible but not sticky! It is an everyday taken for granted accompaniment for most menus. But for some main courses as indispensable as salt for cooking. This plain roasted bread is best had hot, dribbled with a few drops of ghee.

Parantha - The chapati gets a make over! A flaky layered bread it is a simple rolled out delicacy, which is a little rich in fat content. There are more elaborate versions and this is best learning ground. A layer of ghee or oil is lovingly spread on the rolled out chapati. A sprinkling of salt or ajwain adds flavour. The folding over completely encases the ghee. Rolled out and cooked with ghee on the griddle and the parantha is ready to set sights on the gravy!

Bharwan parantha - Ah, have a few of these and allocate time for a nap thereafter! Stuffed with fillings of choice: grated cauliflower, grated radish, scrambled eggs, boiled potatoes, minced meat, or any mashed up leftovers, stuffed parantha is a meal in itself. It finds faithful companions in chilled yogurt and a selection of pickles.

Bhatura - Feeling like a change? For the better? Well, we have a suggestion for the heavier! Try this fried bread made with flour and yogurt. Slightly sour, white and fluffy, bhaturas are traditionally eaten with chickpeas and potatoes. The famous chhole-bhature combination enthralls many food lovers.

Puri - Brown, very light and filled with air! It is the most lucid description of a puri. Best made with a mixed dough that uses wheat flour and maida, puris are an auspicious addition to menus at weddings and formal dinners. Till date I have not come to understand how someone can ask for an aadhi puri? A puri has to be taken poori and going by the lightweight I am sure it slinks into any corner of the stomach!

Luchi - This is a fairer version of the wheatish puri as the dough is made solely with maida. A dash of ghee added to it while kneading gives it an elasticity that increases as the dough is left to rest. A sure-shot hit, luchis are melt in the mouth preparations that are made on special occasions.

Besan roti - A very nutritious breakfast item. One part each of wheat flour and gram flour with the addition of finely chopped onions and green chillies and a dribbling of ghee makes a soft roti that is best had with a smear of butter for breakfast.

Naan - This is an internationally acclaimed Indian bread that is best had hot with heavy dals and non vegetarian preparations. The dough is a simple combination of maida and yogurt to which oil, sugar, salt, baking powder is added and left to rise. Eggs are an optional addition.

Thepla - It is known to be a Gujarati’s staple diet! A very humble chapati with its own tastes and flavours, this is one bread that has a shelf life and keeps for upto a week when well stored. A boon for travellers as theplas go well with pickles, yogurt, or tea. 

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