A possible answer to a common European question (Atomic bread baking at home)

by on February 14, 2012 at 1:38 am in Food and Drink, History | Permalink

Thus, in 1954, USDA investigators journeyed from Chicago and Washington, D.C., to the shores of the Rock River to select two test groups, each comprising three hundred families “scientifically representative” of a typical American community. Over the next two years, the market researchers would deploy all the techniques of their emerging field on these six hundred families. They tracked bread purchases, devised means of weighing every ounce of bread consumed by the test population, conducted long interviews with housewives, and distributed thousands of questionnaires. Most important, they created a double-blind experiment that asked every member of every family to assess five different white-bread formulas over six weeks. Four years and almost one hundred thousand slices of bread after the project’s conception, a clear portrait of America’s favorite loaf emerged. It was 42.9 percent fluffier than the existing industry standard and 250 percent sweeter.

…In early twentieth-century consumers’ minds, fluffier bread seemed fresher—even if it wasn’t. Squeezable softness had become consumers’ proxy for knowing when their bread had been baked. By the 1920s, market surveys revealed that consumers didn’t necessarily like eating soft bread, but they always bought the softest-feeling loaf. By the 1950s, softness had become an end in itself, and savvy bakery scientists set about engineering ever-fluffier loaves—like USDA No. 1.

That is from Aaron Bobrow-Strain, interesting throughout, I just pre-ordered his new book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.  For the pointer I thank Michael Rosenwald.

Here is Alex in 2006 on bread in Paris.  In the comments I wrote this:

Alex’s response is, as you would expect, right on the mark. But most of the differences in ingredients *can* be traced to underlying economic causes. For reasons of rents, commuting distances, and city design, the French are better situated to consume fresh breads right after consuming them. Cheaper bread alternatives, in the U.S., also stem from economics, although this is a long and complicated story. The best salts come from France, for complex but largely economic and geographic reasons. Non-pasteurization makes French butters better, plus French farm subsidies keep many more small farmers in business. This raises price but also improves quality and shortens supply chains. Freezing foods, including dough, is much cheaper in the United States, again for economic reasons. We have a more dispersed population and longer supply lines, both of which favor freezing, plus we have much cheaper transport.

Again, I would stress that American bread is getting better and French bread is probably getting worse. We are seeing convergence, though I would not expect this to ever be exact.

Steve Sailer February 14, 2012 at 2:00 am

The rise of “white bread” as an ethnic slur is an interesting story.

vm February 14, 2012 at 8:37 am

I’m not sure if this is the real Steve Sailer or a parody.

msgkings February 14, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Outstanding.

TGGP February 14, 2012 at 9:33 pm

I’m not sure if I’d categorize it as “ethnic”, but I suppose it’s moreso than “plain vanilla”, which you might expect to hear applied to Jimmy Stewart era financial products.

Rob February 14, 2012 at 3:19 am

I’ve always thought that the incredible sponginess of supermarket bread was a sign of poor quality rather than high. I don’t really know anything about bread, so I guess I’m making that assumption based on correlation with other facts about supermarket goods. I tend to assume that something which has been optimised for a particular characteristic (fluffiness, in this case) has been under-optimised for other characteristics which I might find more valuable (taste, nutritional value).

Did nobody in the 1950s ever think “if it looks or feels too good to be true, it probably is”? Were we all more optimistic and willing to believe in miracles of modern technology then? I suppose my attitude is actually somewhat Luddite, in believing that it should not be possible to make bread that is incredibly soft without some kind of sacrifice in the nutritional value of the bread. And maybe I don’t know what the tough bread of the 1920s was like, and would prefer the modern stuff if confronted with the choice. Still, I think it’s likely that I’m not alone and that whatever set of tastes were driving bread purchases in the 1950s are unlikely to hold so much power now.

Lord February 14, 2012 at 8:59 pm

Note it was the best of five, Five! Not exactly mass testing. And it was for one standard, like no one would want anything different or for any other use. And it may have been confusion between soft and fresh.

Boronx February 15, 2012 at 12:46 pm

This is an example of marketers latching on to secondary characteristics then forgetting that their secondary.

In Washington State many decades ago marketers realized that a deep red color was the primary factor in people’s choices in apples. Red is, of course, just a signal to the buyer about how ripe and sweet an apple is. But how convenient, since color is very easy to measure.

The result is the modern varieties of Red Delicious that turn dark red all over in the middle of July, 8 or 10 weeks before they’re ready to be picked. These varieties have pretty much ruined the reputation of the Washington Apple.

yoyo February 17, 2012 at 10:22 pm

The word we use round these parts is ‘signaling’

Blaise February 14, 2012 at 3:45 am

I had a look at your post on the quality of French bread and I may have an additional explanation. The price of bread was controlled by the government until 1978. Maybe if bakeries were not able to compete on prices they competed on quality. I’m not sure the price control meant that it was illegal to sell cheaper than the legal price. But, even if it was not the case, bakers may have found easier to compete on quality of there was no room to decrease the price. It would be an unexpected effect of price control.

Schoolmaster February 14, 2012 at 6:37 am

so just like the development of airlines in USA

joshua February 14, 2012 at 7:15 am

Hmm. If they could afford to sell the bread below the controlled price, then the controlled price was irrelevant. If they could not afford to sell the bread at the controlled price, why would they compete on quality, e.g. Spend more resources to increase their loss margins and increase their market share on a losing product?

Rahul February 14, 2012 at 8:03 am

You are assuming it was a maximum price control? The argument makes sense if it was a minimum price control.

joshua February 14, 2012 at 8:58 am

Hmm. Perhaps I should not attempt to comment about classical economics so early in the morning.

Rahul February 14, 2012 at 10:33 am

….not that my credentials are any stronger, any time of day. I might be wrong about my above comment; willing to be corrected.

GW February 14, 2012 at 3:56 am

French bread baking has also had major changes over the past century. The typical white loaf seen today was a large-scale urban product and gradually displaced the darker and grainier breads which had been the norm, then became associated with the rustic countryside. With the consolidation of baking into regional bakeries as suppliers or even chains (in which partially cooked frozen or chilled dough is only finished in the local store), it is now the countryside which has become dominated by the standardized white loaf, while one has to go to the cities to find the country-styles, now rebranded as “artisanale” and sold in high-end bakeries.

(BTW, although preferred in some top restaurant cooking, non-pasteurized raw creme is not commonly used for butters used in baking. Pasteurized or not, French (and even more so, Irish) butters taste better due to better fed cows.)

Rahul February 14, 2012 at 6:33 am

I think this describes a lot of food evolution. First, peasants aspire to eat what only the elite can afford. With time, many people start eating the “refined” product that its exclusivity is lost and it now becomes fashionable amongst the elite to eat what the peasants used to. It’s a full circle.

Urso February 14, 2012 at 11:16 am

At first food standardization is highly valued. That is, the white bread is good because you can be sure it’ll be the same every time, and it was made to good quality standards. The truly old style rustic loaf may have been great but it also may have been full of grit or just poorly made. By moving the bread production to factories you can guarantee that, at the very least, this loaf was made with the flour and water in the right proportions, and baked at the right temperature for the right amount of time. This tends to be forgotten by those who buy into the Whole Foods rustic nostalgia.

Now of course we can get the best of both worlds. The rustic, natural style, with higher quality ingredients, plus the quality assurance we’ve come to expect. As a bonus, we get the social cachet that comes from having your neighbors see you with a seven grain loaf poking out the top of a bag from your local artisanally sourced bakery – a mark of your impeccable taste and the ultimate exemplar of 21st century inconspicuous consumption. Truly there is no TGS.

Patrick February 14, 2012 at 6:41 am

Unpasteurised butter is never used to make bread since it is not flour water yeast or salt. It does however get spread on the bread. Beurre d’Isigny is usually pasteurised but excellent, particularly with whole salt crystals.

I get a better crust at home than most American bakeries

Oreg February 14, 2012 at 3:08 pm

It seems Alex included croissants in the bread category. They are made with lots of butter.

Oreg February 14, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Oh yes, Irish butter is the best! And what a difference it makes as a bread spread.

rkillings February 14, 2012 at 4:58 am

“Non-pasteurization makes French butters better”? I agree that most French butters are better, but the fact is that by far most of the butter produced and consumed in France is made from pasteurized milk. Raw cream butter is highly prized — and rare. It doesn’t keep well. I have no production statistics to cite for raw cream butter, but I have found one for raw milk cheese: in 2008, in the fromage affiné (ripened cheese, not ‘fresh’) category, only 9.5% was made from unpasteurized milk, and this percentage has been falling (source: Fromage de terroirs).

As for salt, I seriously doubt that artisanal sea salts like fleur de sel account for much of the sodium chloride in the French diet, and I’m skeptical that food grade salt made industrially by brine evaporation of recent sea water is detectably different from salt mined from ancient seabeds and processed to the same Codex alimentarius standard. In any case, I’ve stopped carrying fleur de sel back from France because it’s now so easy to find here.

As for shorter supply chains, yes, France is small compared to the US. But the distribution system for an awful lot of French produce appears to be a star topology centered on Rungis outside Paris.

Rahul February 14, 2012 at 6:46 am

Of all the variables that might cause French bread to be better I’m skeptical pasteurization and salt quality are high on the scale. It amuses me, this trend to attribute differences to sub-subliminal causes.

dearieme February 14, 2012 at 6:24 am

We never eat supermarket bread, except for the finish-baking-them-yourself baguettes, which were a welcome innovation.

Slocum February 14, 2012 at 7:27 am

Shrug–we visited France a number of times and the bread, while excellent, just doesn’t strike me as notably superior to the craft bread available here. And all those french baguettes and croissants are white breads, which we generally avoid as a regular thing anyway.

crozie February 14, 2012 at 7:40 am

I found it interesting that in most small French shops sandwiches from white sliced bread (most similar to US supermarket loaves) were noticeably more expensive than those made with baguettes.

Bill February 14, 2012 at 8:06 am

Ah, but bread is even more interesting.

You could do a story about prohibition and the bread industry: yeast was the common element of baking and beer, and some of the breadmakers (and yeast makers) were secret brewers and early brewers.

Or, you could do a study about economies of scale in bread baking during the 50’s through the 90’s: first starting with economies of large ovens, packaging lines, and, as the interstate highway system emerged, larger geographic delivery markets, excess capacity, and price fixing conspiracies during the 60s as the industry shook out.

And, then, after the industry became more concentrated, you could look at micro bakeries using whole grains and in store baking, either from scratch (less today than before) and more from frozen dough.made in some distant factory.

And, then you could end with the history of store door delivery and slotting allowances.

If you made a book out of this, I am sure you could make some dough.

Benny Lava February 14, 2012 at 8:42 am

Carbs are the enemy!

I kid…

anon February 14, 2012 at 9:02 am

Except refined carbs and wheat are not friends to most people. See William Davis at The Heart Scan Blog:
http://www.trackyourplaque.com/blog/.
His advice is pretty simple:
“eliminate wheat, don’t indulge in junk carbohydrates, normalize vitamin D status, supplement omega-3 fatty acids, supplement iodine and correct any thyroid dysfunction”

His advice is echoed all over the place by people who have lost weight and “cured” themselves of Type 2 diabetes. See, e.g., Diabetes – Warrior Net at
http://www.diabetes-warrior.net

YMMV.

dearieme February 14, 2012 at 9:42 am

If you eat mackerel, sardines and smoked salmon, why would you need to supplement your omega 3?
If you don’t eat those, why not?

Rahul February 14, 2012 at 10:39 am

Taste?

IVV February 14, 2012 at 12:39 pm

I’ve not known wheat to be a problem, except for those with celiac disease (a minority of the population). Otherwise, wheat’s fine. It’s the refining (removal of the germ and bran) that causes the health problems outside celiac, but that’s true of any grain.

Merijn KNibbe February 14, 2012 at 8:49 am

I never understood why American sitcoms and other televisions series always showed toasters in kitchens – till I travelled around in the USA and bought so called ‘bread’ in supermarkets. These ‘wheat products’ from the supermarkets were just not ready to eat.

Mark Thorson February 14, 2012 at 11:30 am

During the Cold War, toaster production was a favorite statistic to cite for the difference between the United States and the Soviet Union in manufacturing consumer products. For some reason, nobody seemed to notice how far we lagged in samovar production.

Oreg February 14, 2012 at 2:39 pm

Nice! :-)

dead serious February 14, 2012 at 9:05 am

The bread in the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia area is on par with, if not superior to (and cheaper than) bread I’ve had in Paris.

Marie’s in Hoboken makes the best bread I’ve ever had. Local wisdom says that the water makes the bread.

zbicyclist February 14, 2012 at 11:40 am

“Rocky Mountain spring water”. Oh, wait. That’s beer.

But there is a connection here. The golden age of tasteless American white bread was also the golden age of tasteless American beer, probably for much the same reasons.

Chris February 14, 2012 at 9:26 am

There’s a good deal of interesting information about the industrialisation of breadmaking in Andrew Whitley’s excellent book Bread Matters.

His website is here : http://www.breadmatters.com/

Mark February 14, 2012 at 10:32 am

“I would stress that American bread is getting better”

“American bread” designates such an enormous swath of products that this statement cannot possibly mean anything.

Gary February 14, 2012 at 11:27 am

Expectations definitely play a “roll.” I grew up in New Jersey, but went to college at Virginia Tech. Surprisingly, I did find a very good Italian restaurant in Blacksburg. When I went, my waiter was also from New Jersey. We both knew what good Italian food is (New Yorkers may beg to differ, but relative to southwestern Virginia, our knowledge was considerable). We talked for a long time about the food at the restaurant and food in Blacksburg in general, and food back home. My date, who was from Tennessee, had no idea how we could talk about food for the better part of 1/2 hour. One thing I asked him was why the bread was not good crusty Italian bread. He said that the first two weeks the restaurant was open, the restaurant had crusty, fresh, authentic Italian bread, but they received massive complaints about it.

The complaint, and I am sorry I am not making this up: the customers thought the bread was stale.

Laserlight February 14, 2012 at 1:59 pm

In Southwest Virginia, we’re used to sipping our grain from a jar :-)

anon February 14, 2012 at 6:56 pm

had no idea how we could talk about food for the better part of 1/2 hour.

If you are Chinese, or if you are not Chinese and you marry into a Chinese family, you talk about food for the better part of 1/2 your life.

JKB February 14, 2012 at 12:05 pm

I’ve often wondered about the saying “The next best thing since sliced bread.” I wondered just how bad the bread or perhaps the slicing was before the invention in 1928 of the slicing machine. I assumed it had something to do with pre-slicing leading to stale slices. Now, I know. The fluffy white bread and factory slicing go hand in hand.

MikeinAZ February 14, 2012 at 12:41 pm

French bread is good but can be almost reproduced in US craft markets…what is truly missing is German bread – thick crusted dark bread made with nutty tastes, bread that doesn’t even really need toppings or butter because it’s so good. I’ve spent a lot of time in France and while frech baked French bread is really tasty, the German is better and all but the most stuck up Frenchman agrees. Sadly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any bread in the US that can match it.

Out of curiousity, does anyone know if they put Niacin in European breads?

Oreg February 14, 2012 at 3:03 pm

I guess the discussion so far has been really only about white bread. I agree that German bread is in a class of its own. The closest I’ve found in the U.S. is whole-grain bread from Jewish bakeries in New York City. But it’s still a far cry from the real thing.

In Europe they don’t add supplements to their food as routinely as in the U.S. I don’t think they add Niacin.

I’m grateful for the explanation why American bread is so spongy. (I don’t think this consumer preference applies outside of the continent–in large parts of Europe it is rather the opposite.) Is there a similarly compelling reason why they like their bread so extremely sweet? They add honey to it, for crying out loud!

IVV February 14, 2012 at 3:33 pm

We’ve been purchasing Mestemacher products for most of our German bread needs, but spend some time asking around local bakeries for really dense pumpernickel can turn up a few gems on occasion. There’s a place in Sussex County, NJ that produces good rye breads that we learned about from last year’s Christkindlmarkt in Lake Mohawk.

The big thing for me, being American, is getting used to the Germans using rye, rye, rye for all their breads. I’m not a big fan of rye.

Doug February 14, 2012 at 2:00 pm

“the French are better situated to consume fresh breads right after consuming them.”
That’s gross. French people are weird.

Steko February 14, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Agree with Mike above re:German bread although I ate the best siegle loaves I ever had in Geneva. Also I’m shocked no love for the high quality of Japanese bakeries. Heat up the bread nationalism, the Coupe de Monde (baking olympics) is next month in Paris.

Rahul February 14, 2012 at 3:39 pm

I’m starting to hate this post as it has made me crave bread all day. I’m hallucinating a seeded boule.

DK February 14, 2012 at 10:58 pm

The best salts come from France

LOL. Tyler, do you ever pause before writing this sort of obvious BS?

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