Grains have been the most important staple food in the human diet since
prehistoric times, so it is only a slight exaggeration to say that baking is almost
as old as the human race.
Because of the lack of cooking utensils, it is probable that one of the earliest
grain preparations was made by toasting dry grains, pounding them to a meal
with rocks, and mixing the meal to a paste with water. Later it was discovered
that some of this paste, if laid on a hot stone next to a fire, turned into a
flatbread that was a little more appetizing than the plain paste. Unleavened
flatbreads, such as tortillas, are still important foods in many cultures.
A grain paste left to stand for a time sooner or later collects wild yeasts and
begins to ferment. This was, no doubt, the beginning of leavened bread,
although for most of human history the presence of yeast was mostly
accidental.Eventually,people learned they could save a small part of the dough
to leaven the next day’s batch. Not until relatively recent times, however, did
bakers learn to control yeast with any accuracy.
By the time of the ancient Greeks, about five or six hundred years BCE,
enclosed ovens, heated by wood fires, were in use. People took turns baking
their breads in a large communal oven, unless they were wealthy enough to
have their own oven.
Several centuries later, ancient Rome saw the first mass production of
breads, so the baking profession can be said to have started at that time.Many of
the products made by the professional bakers contained quantities of honey and
oil, so these foods might be called pastries rather than breads.That the primary
fat available was oil placed a limit on the kinds of pastries that could be made.
Only a solid fat such as butter enables the pastry maker to produce the kinds of
stiff doughs we are familiar with, such as pie doughs and short pastries.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire, baking as a profession almost
disappeared. Not until the latter part of the Middle Ages did baking and pastry
making begin to reappear as important professions in the service of the
nobility. Bread baking continued to be performed by professional bakers, not
homemakers, because it required ovens that needed almost constant tending.
In much of Europe, tending ovens and making bread dough were separate
operations. The oven tender maintained the oven, heated it properly, and
supervised the baking of the loaves that were brought to him. In early years,
the oven may not have been near the workshops of the bakers, and one oven
served the needs of several bakers. It is interesting to note that in many
bakeries today, especially in the larger ones, this division of labor still exists.
The chef who tends the ovens bakes the proofed breads and other products
that are brought to him or her and may not have any part in the mixing and
makeup of these products.
It was also in the Middle Ages that bakers and pastry chefs in France
formed guilds in order to protect and further their art. Regulations prohibited
all but certified bakers from baking bread for sale, and the guilds had enough
power to limit certification to their own members.The guilds, as well as the
apprenticeship system, which was well developed by the sixteenth century,
also provided a way to pass the knowledge of the baker’s trade from
generation to generation.
Bakers also made cakes from doughs or batters containing honey or other
sweet ingredients, such as dried fruits. Many of these items had religious
significance and were baked only for special occasions, such as the Twelfth
Night cakes baked after Christmas. Such products nearly always had a dense
texture, unlike the light confections we call cakes today.Nonsweetened pastry
doughs were also made for such products as meat pies. In the 1400s, pastry
chefs in France formed their own corporations and took pastry making away
from bakers. From this point on, the profession of pastry making developed
rapidly, and cooks developed many new kinds of pastry products.
The European discovery of the Americas in 1492 sparked a revolution in
pastry making.Sugar and cocoa,brought from the new world,were available in
the old world for the first time. Before, the only significant sweetener was
honey. Once the new ingredients became widely available, baking and pastry
became more and more sophisticated, with many new recipes being
developed. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many of the basic
pastries that we know today, including laminated or layered doughs like puff
pastry and Danish dough,were being made.
The nineteenth century saw the development of modern baking as we
know it. After the French Revolution in 1789, many bakers and pastry cooks
who had been servants in the houses of the nobility started independent
businesses. Artisans competed for customers with the quality of their
products. The general public—not just aristocrats and the well-to-do—were
able to buy fine pastries. Some of the pastry shops started during that time still
serve Parisians today.
The nineteenth century was also a time of great technical progress.
Automated processes enabled bakers to do many tasks with machines that
once required a great deal of manual labor. The most important of these
technological advances was the development of roller milling. Prior to this
time, flour was milled by grinding grain between two stones. The resulting
flour then had to be sifted, or bolted, often numerous times, to separate the
bran. The process was slow. Roller milling is much faster and more efficient.
This was a tremendous boost to the baking industry.
Another important development of the period was the new availability of
flours from the wheat-growing regions of North America. These wheat
varieties were higher in protein than those that could be grown in northern
Europe, and the export of this wheat to Europe promoted the large-scale
production of white bread.
In the twentieth century, advances in technology, from refrigeration to
sophisticated ovens to air transportation that carries fresh ingredients around
the world, contributed immeasurably to baking and pastry making. At the
beginning of the twenty-first century,the popularity of fine breads and pastries
is growing even faster than new chefs can be trained. Interestingly enough,
many of the technological advances in bread baking have sparked a reaction
among bakers and consumers alike, who are looking to reclaim some of the
flavors of old-fashioned breads that were lost as baking became more
industrialized and baked goods became more refined, standardized, and—
some would say—flavorless.Bakers are researching methods for producing the
handmade sourdough breads of times past, and they are experimenting with
specialty flours in their search for flavor.
Those entering a career in baking or pastry making today find opportunities
in three areas: restaurants and hotels, retail bakeries and pastry shops,
and large-scale bakeries and industrial production of baked goods.