Commercial Bread: What Have They Done With the Taste?

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For the past several years I have been lucky enough to have access to not one, but two really great local bakeries, WheatFields in Lawrence, KS, and Farm To Market Bread Co. in Kansas City, MO. Their bread is everything bread should be – crusty when it’s supposed to be, chewy when that’s called for, and always full of nutrition and flavor.

This rich, satisfying, delicious experience of bread stands in stark contrast to a couple of recent encounters I’ve had with off-the-shelf breads, and the difference is both appalling and sad.

On Saturday, I attended an outdoor art fair and fundraiser for some friends’ church. The art was beautiful and the weather was perfect. When it came time for lunch, I asked careful questions about the hot dogs (Nathan’s All-Beef Kosher dogs, thank you very much) and decided they were OK to be one of my twice-yearly hot dogs (don’t get me started on hot dogs, just Google and get ready to be shocked and disgusted).  I got the dog, and was happy to see that thoughtful, intelligent people had stocked the condiments bar and knew one must have sauerkraut and brown mustard to create a decent dog.

I settled in, took a bite and couldn’t believe my taste buds. What was that in my mouth? There was the yumminess of grilled hot dog, the sharpness of sauerkraut and mustard, but what was that other ickiness?  

It was the bun. It looked like a hot dog bun. It was the color of a hot dog bun, and of the appropriate shape. But as soon as it got to the mouth, any resemblance to bread completely ceased. I don’t even know how to describe it. How do you describe a texture of something completely without texture? Or the flavor of something completely lacking in flavor? It was just … white material taking up space in my mouth.

And as I pondered this alarming “food,” I looked down at the hotdog in my hand, to see the rest of the bun literally dissolving before my very eyes. I’ve never seen a piece of bread surrender so completely and utterly to the moisture in the food it’s supposed to surround. It was like toilet paper, there one minute and dissolved the next.

This morning, to celebrate a co-worker’s birthday, I stopped by the local bagel place. Now, I’ll admit, getting a good bagel in eastern Kansas is not an easy quest in the best of times. But I’ve been to this little deli dozens of times and found the bagels at least somewhat palatable.

This morning, I got back to my office, spread a little shmear on the sesame bagel, took a bite and … patooie! I wanted to spit it out. Again, it was shaped like a bagel, smelled bagel-like and had a relatively bagel-y color. But one taste and I felt as though I had taken a big bite of a stage prop. There was no there there.

I talked with my friend, Cheryl Long, the editor over at Mother Earth News, and she says she thinks it has to do with the quality of the wheat, which is being bred now for more and more quantity with less regard for quality and the amount of protein in the wheat. “How can we get one more bushel out of this harvest?” is more the question than “What quality of wheat are we producing?” (To read more see “Industrial Farming is Giving us Less Nutritious Food.”) Sure enough, I checked my local bakeries’ websites and discovered that at least one (WheatFields) uses heirloom wheat passed down from some of the original white settlers of this area.

I honestly don’t know what else the commercial bakeries are doing that results in such a shoddy excuse for bread. Maybe it’s the quality (or lack thereof) of the yeast, or some additive they include to extend the shelf life of the baked goods. Whatever, they’re producing zombie bread, robbed of its heart and soul, and what I find saddest about the whole situation is that so many of their consumers won’t really know what they’re missing.

When it’s good, nothing is better than wholesome, flavorful fresh bread. When it’s bad, it’s awful.

What about you? Have you noticed a similar loss of quality in the bread you buy? Has this motivated you to start making your own bread? (And if so, do you take care to buy quality flour like King Arthur’s or Bob’s Red Mill? What other flours do you like?)

I think it’s time for a national bread rebellion!