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26 of 34 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Part cookbook, part polemic--consume with a grain of salt, October 25, 2009
This review is from: Bread Matters: The State of Modern Bread and a Definitive Guide to Baking Your Own (Hardcover)
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Although this book does explain baking, and does contain recipes, it is in large part an attack on industrial bread production, and a call for everyone to eat bread baked from organically grown, whole grain, stone ground, flour; preferably baked yourself, otherwise bought from a local bakery. Parts of his argument are strong and well supported, others less well so. One thing I noticed as he builds his story is that for some parts of his chain of argument he cites studies to support his point, while other parts are argued largely by assertion. If you read the book, watch for this.

In the 1950s bread sales in Britain (from where he writes) and America began to be dominated by industrially-produced bread. Time is money, and the large bakers wanted to turn out the product quickly, not wait all day for the dough to rise. They modified the product by using additives and large amounts of single-culture yeast to speed production; in the process, they changed the nature of the bread.

Additives are a big deal to Whitley. Although all of the additives used in breads are considered safe by health authorities, he presents evidence that some additives are not necessarily good for you. But that isn't enough for him, he finds fault with every additive he identifies as used in bread. In some cases it's merely that they add no nutritional value or might be made from genetically modified plants. In these cases he fails to show that they are harmful, they just fall outside his paradigm of what is right.

Whitley discuss the various milling methods and resulting content of flour. In the case of wheat, I think it is well known that white flour is significantly deficient in nutrients compared to the original wheat. He digs deeper, noting that stone ground flour contains all of the original kernel; white flour was originally produced by sifting the flour. Modern roller milling separates the components of the grain, which can then be recombined to produce the type of flour desired. White flours can therefore be whiter (and even less nutritious). He objects to whole wheat flour produced this way because some of the oils are not blended back into the flour, the intent being to produce a flour with a longer shelf life by reducing the fats that quickly go rancid. But there is a legitimate trade off here: while a bakery may go through flour quickly enough to not worry about it spoiling, many home bakers, even if nutritionally aware, may consider a small loss in nutritional quality a reasonable cost for longer shelf life. At times the author seems so focused on his ideal bread world that he unable to evaluate real world constraints that encourage compromise.

His arguments for organically grown grain are also weak. While he mentions limited studies arguing organic wheat is more wholesome, natural products (however grown) vary in makeup, and I'm not familiar with evidence that there is a widespread difference in the quality of organically grown and non-organically grown grain.

His discussion of slow rising bread is very interesting. At one time the rising process included lactic acid bacteria. It turns out that these bacteria break down gliadin, a component of the gluten found in wheat. This is also what people with Celiac disease react to, making them unable to eat bread containing gluten. (Glutens are the proteins that provide the elasticity that allows dough to trap gas and rise.) Celiac disease became known about the time industrial bread making became common. While some sufferers are sufficiently sensitive to gliadin that they can't tolerate any exposure to wheat, there is evidence that some people with Celiac disease can tolerate sourdough breads where the lactic fermentation has broken down most of the gliadin. It is at least possible that Celiac disease is largely a product of industrial baking. (Exposure to large quantities of an irritant can trigger sensitivity that people would not otherwise have. So there may be people who would not have developed Celiac disease if not exposed to large amounts of gliadin, but who are now so sensitive that they can't tolerate it at all.)

Another advantage of long rises is that these bacteria partly digest the dough, which may make some nutrients more accessible to the human digestive system.There are parallels to how cooking makes many foods easier to digest; Richard Wrangham has recently written an excellent book on this topic.*

All in all, Whitley makes a strong case that industrial baking has produced an inferior food product, and that some changes in baking practice would lead to healthier bread. His case against all additives and for organic, stone ground, flour is weaker. Even if his ideal world of bread really does represent the best way to bake for human consumption, it is not realistic. While I can, fortunately, afford to eat such exalted bread if I choose to, not everyone can. We can't feed over six billion people with the kind of labor-intensive cultivation, processing, and baking he prefers. We may be able to do better than we currently are at a reasonable price, but the best possible bread at a price many people can't afford is not the solution. (The core plot of "Les Miserables" grows from a theft of bread. Jean Valjean didn't steal the bread because he wanted to be a criminal, he stole it because he couldn't afford it, and his family was hungry.)

Beyond the polemic, the book does cover baking. It has the typical, and decently done, sections on ingredients, techniques, and tools, as well as a recipes. The number of recipes for wheat bread is modest compared to many baking books. What will appeal to some people is his discussion of gluten-free flours and a good selection of recipes for gluten-free bread.

I struggled between three and four stars. I chose three because I think this could have been a solid four-star, possibly even a five-star, book if the author had managed more balance.

For more extensive collections of recipes consider:

The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion: The All-Purpose Baking Cookbook

King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking: Delicious Recipes Using Nutritious Whole Grains

For another take on baking, consider:

No Need to Knead: Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes

*Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 25, 2009 1:13:16 AM PDT
It's supposed to be a polemic; the issues he discusses are a real problem and need to be dealt with. The main problem with the book is the fact that the author seems unconcerned with the true role of science in food production. If he hadn't been so willing to throw in his lot with the radical organic food crowd as opposed to people who actually study food production issues for a living, I would have rated it much higher.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 25, 2009 3:54:50 AM PDT
Ursiform says:
I don't think we are disagreeing on anything ...

Posted on Sep 16, 2014 12:27:59 PM PDT
gretel says:
thanks for your thoughtful and fair review. I have the book and agree with your insights. It is a book worth purchasing, but your review aptly explains the reader's hesitation at the author's overly strong tone throughout a text about bread.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 16, 2014 6:59:49 PM PDT
Ursiform says:
Thank you for your kind comment.
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