How Bread Became a Rising Star

(And a Delicious Coping Mechanism)

By Wendy Greenberg | Photography by Jeffrey E. Tryon

Denis Granarolo arrives for work at Terra Momo Bread Company in Princeton when the usually-bustling Witherspoon Street is empty and dark. He goes home when everyone else is beginning to stir. The veteran baker is rarely seen. The bread is the star.

“I like bread because it is alive,” Granarolo says, leaning on the bench, or prep table, in the back of the retail space, a comfort spot like others’ living room chairs. Although making bread from scratch every day is a job — a job he does well — he found himself baking bread at home when the store was closed last year during the pandemic. “Even if you have nothing else, you have a piece of bread,” he says.

Bread takes time, he emphasizes, and he is concerned that others want to rush. “If there are too many shortcuts, the bread is bad,” he says.

Granarolo imparted this basic wisdom to Mercer County Community College students who attended a class at the bakery this fall. The culinary arts students aspire to be professional chefs or bakers, but Granarolo just hopes to infuse in them a respect for the process of baking bread. The four-hour class doesn’t really allow enough time to pace the bread baking, but they make do and have turned out delicious challah, baguettes, croissants, pullman loaves, and, recently, jalapeno cheese bread and cinnamon raisin bread. His own favorite? Baguettes, hands down.

Bread maker Denis Granarolo imparts his experience and knowledge to a Mercer Community Community College culinary arts student in a class held at Terra Momo Bread Company in Princeton.

Bread – It’s Alive

The pandemic has kindled many new interests and reinvigorated dormant passions, including bread baking. (You may have seen loaf after loaf on Instagram.) It may be the result of avoiding supermarkets or spending hours at home, but the wellness benefits of baking may have prolonged the enthusiasm.

When Princeton Magazine featured local cookbook authors last summer, LiLLiPiES’ Jen Carson observed that “during the pandemic, everyone wanted to bake. Who would have guessed that everyone would want to learn to make sourdough bread in 2020?”

But they did. And they didn’t only want to make sourdough bread, but whole wheat bread, rye bread, pumpernickel, and breads with added raisins, caraway seeds, or perhaps cranberries. What a delicious coping mechanism.

Carson explains her own love of the process. “For me, working with bread is both an exercise in meditation and an exercise in letting go,” she says. “The actual process of feeling the texture and temperature of the dough, smelling the yeast, even hearing the slapping of the pre-shaped loaf on the bread bench is extremely satisfying to the senses. Shaping the dough into loaves is a repetitive movement that allows my mind to shift into a different place — similar to meditation.”

Carson, like Granarolo, uses the term “alive.” Making bread, she says, “also pushes me — as a self-professed ‘control freak’ — to let go and allow the yeast to do its thing in its own time. Bread’s fermentation can’t always be slowed down or rushed to fit the schedule I want — but that is what bread is! It is, or at least the yeast is, alive until it is loaded into the oven. We can give the yeast the best environment and care we can, but can only control it to a degree.  It is the ultimate exercise in letting go.”

Mental Wellness

Reports of bread baking’s mental health benefits abound. Affirmations cite the upper body exercise of kneading and folding the dough, which releases mood-regulating chemicals in the brain, and the stress-reducing act of aggressively kneading the dough. Some bloggers say they turned in the past year to books like baker Ken Forkish’s 2012 Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza, which outlines his baking techniques using the title’s four ingredients.

In general, the bread-making process is a regimen of mixing of dry ingredients, adding wet ingredients, forming the dough, letting it rest, folding and kneading it, rolling and forming the bread, letting it proof or rise, and baking it, finally letting our senses give in to the aroma, the texture, and the flavor. The feeling of empowerment that comes with baking seems to be related to its technological cousins, makerspaces, designed for the satisfaction of creation.

In a recent broadcast of The Pulse, an NPR health and science program from WHYY Philadelphia, host Maiken Scott tackled this theme. She interviewed materials scientist Anna Ploszajski, whose book, Handmade: A Scientist’s Search for Meaning Through Making, explores the experience of “hands-on,” and the “surprising effect it seems to have on our well-being.”

Scott also interviewed University of Southern California physicist Clifford Johnson, who discussed his hobby, baking, and his favorite part — kneading by hand. “There’s something rather meditative about that,” he said. He pointed out that the feedback is immediate, as opposed to using a connector, like a spoon or blender.

CNET.com, a news website, reported on why so many people began making bread in 2020. Writer Erin Carson noted in “The Psychology of Stress Baking: Why So Many are Baking Bread in 2020” that she has witnessed her friends engaging in “stress baking,” and reported on how forcefully kneading made her feel better in general. She quoted Vaile Wright, senior director of the American Psychological Association: “It engages just about your whole body: Your senses of touch, taste, and smell; your brain, which is required to follow a recipe; your muscles for kneading, shaping, rolling.”

The phenomenon of working out stress by baking is not limited to the United States. The United Kingdom’s Wise Living Magazine reports that bread baking is being used as therapy in the Real Bread Campaign’s “Together We Rise: Bethlem Baking Buddies” at England’s Royal Bethlem Hospital for resident mental health care patients. The therapy is based on the Real Bread Campaign’s 2013 report on social and therapeutic baking. One conclusion of the study is that kneading helps release tension. Wise Living concludes that baking bread stimulates the senses; is a great way to focus your mind; and can have a positive benefit on those around you, especially if they participate.

A wall painting of an ancient Egyptian making bread. 5th Dynasty (2500-2350 BC). (Shutterstock.com)

Bread in History

New home baker Larry Robinson, a manager at Terra Momo Restaurant Group, shares how he began to love baking bread in the last two years.

When the company started 24 years ago, he had never baked and “didn’t understand the world of bread.” But during the pandemic Robinson himself baked a loaf a day, to supply his family. “It required my undivided attention,” he says. “A love affair began. It’s hard to explain.”

A love affair with bread is not new. Bread has been a staple in books since the Bible, which cites bread as a gift from God, as a spiritual and physical provision. Bread has turned up in literature, history, and theater — after all, theft of bread prompts the action in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

Bread has a history almost as long as civilization itself. The late Lynne Olver, a New Jersey food historian who was director at the Morris County Library, launched a food timeline in 1999. (Virginia Tech University’s Special Collections and University Archives is in the process of overseeing it, plus her collection of 2,300 food-related books.) Her straightforward and well-referenced timeline traces the history of food for some 20,000 years (foodtimeline.org).

Bread shop, Tacuinum Sanitatis from Northern Italy, beginning of the 15th century. (Wikipedia)

Emmer grain (a type of farro, 17,000 BCE) and einkorn grain (a wild grain, 16,000 BCE), debut on the timeline just after rice and millet, after the first undated foods (salt, shellfish, bear, venison, and mushrooms). Flour and bread show up around 10,000 BCE. The domestication of wheat in Mesopotamia is said to have instigated the end of a nomadic lifestyle and the forming of towns across Europe and Asia.

Some of the earliest bread was made in or around 8,000 BCE in the Middle East, with the quern, an early grinding tool, according to the plethora of information about bread history on the timeline. According to the Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford University Press), wheat flour was made by grinding, accomplished with a pestle and mortar, dating around 10,000 BCE. The roots of flour are prehistoric and cross all cultures (except perhaps in the Arctic regions), and grains ranged from wheat, rye, oats, barley, buckwheat, millet, rice, and corn, depending upon the region. Flour also may have been made from starchy roots (potatoes), nuts (acorns), and legumes (peas). But wheat seems to have always been the grain of choice.

The timeline shows that bread evolved according to ingredient availability, technological advances, economic conditions, and cultural influences. The earliest breads, which varied in grain, shape, and texture from culture to culture, were unleavened.

Brewing and a warm climate likely produced the first sourdough, and soon wild yeast was added to the bread mixture. The Romans invented water milling around 450 BCE, and the Persians, by 600 BCE, developed a windmill system for milling grain.

Yeast as both a leavening agent and for brewing ale was first used in Egypt as early as 4,000 BCE, a date generally cited to mark the beginnings of leavened bread. The timeline tells us that scholars generally agree that the process of fermentation took place accidentally, according to the Cambridge World History of Food (Cambridge University Press).

Modern Bread

The science of bread is a longstanding science. Simply put, carbon dioxide helps bread rise. The yeast organisms expel carbon dioxide as they feed off sugars. As the dough rises and proofs, the volume increases because the carbon dioxide expands and moves while the bread is baking. The yeast also emits an ethanol byproduct. The yeast helps develop the gluten, which helps the bread’s texture. For optimum bread, some production can go from six to 24 hours.

When bread slicing and wrapping machines were invented in the early 20th century, bread baking became industrialized. The milling process tended to discard some bran and wheat germ, which improved shelf life but removed nutrients. That process prompted the required adding of nutrients to white flour.

Sociologists have noted that, for generations, white bread was considered the bread of the rich while the poor ate whole grain bread. Today, in most Western societies, that scenario has been reversed.

Until the late 19th century, all bread was artisanal, according to Julia Moskin in the New York Times in March 2004. White bread made an appearance in the 1920s and took over in popularity in the next decades, until whole grains were again celebrated in the health food revival of the 1970s. In fact, Wonder Bread celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

Rising Bakers

As bread evolved, Americans developed their own love affairs with the baking process. Now baking classes and books and online instruction abound.

“We need more bakers. Not everyone can be a chef,” says Granarolo, who has been offering his expertise to rising bakers.

As an instructor he continues a bread legacy from France, where he had two shops in the South of France and a bakery in Paris before deciding to move to the United States. When he met the Momo brothers (Raoul, Carlo, and Anthony), Princeton area restaurateurs, he started at the bakery, which was then the Witherspoon Bread Company. He has been there since 1998.

Granarolo is focused more on the bread than biography. “Mix for 15 to 20 minutes, finish, fold, wait to do it again,” he tells the students. “You have to respect the process.”