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And, being one of the oldest human-made foods, it has played an important role in both religious rituals and secular culture. It really is the food of the people - and with access to new ingredients, baking techniques and recipes, it truly can be accessible as well as delicious for all!
The history of bread
There is evidence - in the form of starch residue from pounding plants on rocks - dating back more than 30,000 years, both in Europe and Australia, that suggests forms of bread were being prepared by early human societies - meaning in terms of living civilizations, Australia’s Indigenous population take the cake (to meddle with metaphors) when it comes to being the world’s first breadmakers! Researchers hypothesize that such starch may have been spread onto a flat surface and placed over a heat source like fire in order to create a kind of ‘flatbread’.
Bread has had a long history since, all over the world. In the Neolithic Age - starting from approximately 10,000 BC - the spread of agriculture meant that cereal grains became the most common base ingredient for bread-making. Since yeast is found on the surface of such grains, bread dough left to rest would then rise (‘leaven’) naturally when cooked! In the modern period bread’s production has been industrialized, and this does present problems when considering what ingredients go into mass-produced breads, and how to avoid any nasties.
How is bread made?
Once you’ve got your base ingredients - flour and water - bread usually is made by forming a dough, which is then infused with yeast (naturally occurring microbes) and other chemicals, and often salt, which allow the bread to rise or ‘leaven’. However, bread may also be - as was likely in the earliest times of its production - unleavened (for example, matzo or Ethiopian injera).
Baking soda, leavening agents, fat and salt are however very common ingredients found in bread, creating the fluffier textures many of us are more familiar with. There have been many different processes used for leavening, from Greece to Iberia and the Middle East, but one of the most common - and prevalent today - is to retain dough used to form a ‘starter’ that can be used the next time. In terms of it’s ‘cooking’, while bread dough is usually baked, in some cultures, it's actually steamed, fried, or quasi-baked in a frying pan without the use of oil.
The proportions of ingredients used, how they’re combined, and the time it takes both to prepare and then cook bread varies according to bread type, and of course, the chef!
Is all bread vegan?
At its foundation, bread contains four simple ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast — a type of microscopic fungus used to help bread rise. As such, the core of all breads are vegan. However, where things get tricky is when additional ingredients - like fats or sweeteners - are used in the preparation or baking process, as this can introduce products of animal origin.
For example, some recipes for bread, or bread-like foods, use eggs, butter, milk, or honey to modify the flavor or texture — meaning that not all types of bread are always vegan. Then there are a subsection of ingredients that may or may not be vegan, such as certain fats used to alter the texture or moistures levels in bread - usually for the purposes of shelf life, nutrition, and ease of production. An example of this is lecithin, which, while usually derived from soybeans, can also be sourced from egg yolks.
It can be very difficult to know whether such ingredients are plant-based or not simply from the label - so your options are to avoid any breads that contain such emulsifiers completely, or consider baking your own!
At PlantX, you can rest assured that all bread (and everything else we offer) is 100% vegan.
Common types of bread and whether they are free from animal products
Sourdough: the artisanal favourite of the present day, this bread is characterised by being fermented and made from flour, water, yeast, and salt sometimes uses commercial baker’s yeast, and in some varieties may use milk instead of water - watch out for these non-vegan varieties.
Pita: a simple, versatile flatbread made from flour, water, yeast, and salt. Some varieties that aren’t vegan may contain milk products, eggs, or honey.
Ezekiel: with its Biblical namesake, this type of bread is made from sprouted whole grains and legumes. This kind of bread is often vegan and typically richer in protein and other nutrients.
Ciabatta: of Italian origins, this flat, elongated bread with a harder crust and airy crumb is a favorite. Most of it is vegan although ciabatta al latte features substitute water to milk — something to look out for.
Baguette: need we say more? This iconic French baton-style bread with a crunchy crust and soft fluffy inside is usually animal-product-free.
Focaccia: a piece of Italian flatbread with herbs on top, baked in a flat pan. It's vegan if made with olive oil, but some recipes use butter instead.
By comparison, Indian naan flatbreads more often contain milk or a clarified butter known as ghee, while a specific type of Jewish bread known as challah frequently contains eggs. Furthermore, flatbreads, which are usually savory and/or dry in texture, are more likely to be vegan than fluffier brioche-types, which often contain dairy and eggs. As a very general rule, as with many other foods, the less processed a bread is, the higher the likelihood it’s vegan. Always check the ingredient label to ensure that no sneaky animal products have been added!
Tips on making vegan bread and substituting any non-vegan ingredients
As with most foods, making your own bread is a great way to ensure that it is plant-based since you’re the one deciding what goes into the cooking! As is clear from bread’s long history, the simplest bread recipes are naturally free from animal products. However, if you’d like to try more complicated recipes that use different leavening agents or other ingredients in order to alter flavor, texture or other qualities, there are a bunch of ways to substitute non-vegan ingredients for plant-based ones.
This is where PlantX can help! There are a bunch of fantastic substitute products out there - and some of the most common you may be looking for are those that allow you to avoid eggs, egg whites, butter, milk and honey.
Egg alternatives abound - and if you want to try preparing some of these yourself, stock up on flax seeds, chia seeds and aquafaba. Plant-based oils - think coconut or olive - are a great deviation from butter. Plant-based milk products - soy, almond, oat, and more - are great alternatives to cow’s or other dairy milk, and there are a range of natural sweeteners including maple syrup and stevia that allow you to avoid honey. Olive or coconut oil are a great substitute for butter. Unsweetened plant milk like soy, almond, or oat milk is a good alternative to dairy milk. Finally, maple syrup can be used in recipes calling for bee-products like honey.