Tasting bread

JohnD's picture



That bread has a “taste” or should/could infact “taste”, is a reality lost in the Industrial age, particularly post-WW2 and the age of Chorleywood bread. “Taste” was never a parameter in the development of the chorleywood dough. “Fast” “automated” “hygienic” “white” “uniform” “efficient” “pure” yes, but “taste” no, unless we mean absence of taste. The masses didn’t seem to mind. As the bread industry claimed they were only giving the public “what they wanted”, and the camera pans to mass demonstrations demanding pure soft white bread, untainted by the unclean human hand, are we to believe that soft pure white and tasteless is somehow a manifestation of the mass of humanities deep desires?...the resurrection of a deep archetype awaiting release since the Neolithic? The bread should be bland to enable the spread to be dominant, merely an edible plate…opines the industrial designer…in a sandwich, two layers to hold the filling, even through its plasticity, wrap with the hand while held, not breaking as bread used to, or hard or dry…or tasty.

Chorleywood/industrial bread cannot taste because there is nothing in it. …but the no-flavour of industrial refinement, which is highly refined white flour and gluten, held in a matrix with chemicals and water…yum….for those whose taste buds had survived, there was taste, and it was the indefineable flavour of the machine, subtle taints of some E number, and a sniff of the mysterious process which enabled it. Walk through the in-house bakery section of any supermarket and be baffled by the aroma/smell of not-bread. The baking aroma is probably epigenetic…we are “wired”(!), connected genetically, to the flavour of roasting baking cereals…it elicits nature and its transformation into nutritious, sustaining comfort. The difference between the in-house fakery and a bakery is palpable, but perhaps the masses have been re-wired to gain comfort from the sweat of the machine?

Aroma and flavour are intimately linked, sometimes intertwined, and the flavour of the industrial aroma is similarly fused in some dark recess of the olfactory, leading to sensory connections and neural responses appropriate. With the re-birth of real bread, made with minimally refined flours, long ferments as well as sourdough, a whole new set of criteria begin to operate which inspire some of us to attempt to document the complexity in the very varying loaves which are an aspect of real bread. It is why different bakers were preferred by customers in the past, because their breads were actually different to each other. This is not the case with industrial-process breads because of the parameter of uniformity inbuilt. They all taste the same, or have the same lack of taste which does not inspire the animated eater to attempt a description.

We have a rich vocabulary, which insults artisan breads if monosyllabic…”great” “good” “really nice” aren’t enough to match the efforts these bakers put into their bread. Simple terminology does not celebrate  the varying strains of wheat which are blended today to create exemplary flours, which when fermented with artisan-dependant skills and baked according to personal aesthetics, produce loaves so different to the Chorleywood, as to be deposited by Venusians. An attempt to describe the variations and nuances then calls upon our vocabulary and the use of terms which may appear pretentious to those not realising the importance of this type of organoleptic documentation. Simple satisfied grunts are fine, but they don’t allow a comparison for example…a framework within which to analyse  what is happening to bread beyond wow.

When wine is similarly analysed it may provoke disdain, and none would deny the potential for pretentiousness. Beyond that however, the genuine use of rich language to describe sensory factors, particularly if corresponded with others, gives a depth to the experience which celebrates and showcases the excellent work of dedicated artisans. Because bread is newly being tasted and evaluated, it is useful to use some of the vocabulary of the wine taster….which is based on simile and analog…the wine evokes embedded sensorial comparisons , sometimes innocent and spontaneous…oh this tastes like blackberries/plums/chocolate/herbs….as a means of celebrating and discussing the relative merits or qualities.

If we follow this method it enables us to articulate our baking success and failure and to celebrate our best beyond the technical blather about hydration into the sensual of enjoyment. So many of us are unwitting dupes of the mechanical that we forget the pleasure-in–the–eating.

When wheat is made into proper long-ferment or sourdough bread, then baked, a stellar set of circumstances interreact to create firstly the aromas of baking with its expectation, mouth-watering in stimulation and hunger inducing. This is radical chemistry/biology. Properly made bread develops alcohol in the fermentation process. This dissolves as it does, thousands of flavour “chemicals” which are released through the steam escaping the baking loaf. Volatilised esters and bioflavonoids, phyto chemicals and more. Phew. Largely these come from the grain and this is where the provenance of the wheat is significant. Wheat can be described as sweet tasting and the adjective “wheaten” is often used. These aroma/flavours are rarely evident in the raw grain, but are liberated by the alcohol. This is an alchemic profile of flavours unlocked from the grain by the ferment. The more wholemeal used in the dough, the more complex these  become as the germ and bran are even odorous in the raw state. Magically, the aromas escape far and wide, and as a lad, I could often smell the neighbourhood bakery (a mile away) when the bread was being unloaded after baking. It was a smell which informed me, and curiously I never again smelt that particular wheaten vapour until I baked my first batches of commercial “real” bread and was plunged into a reverie, the memory cathedral opened its doors and I realised the bakers of my childhood were still baking in the old way, yet to be absorbed into the bland. The experience was validated for me by an older fellow who commented after I had reopened a village bakery  that it was a long time since he`d smelt the bread coming from the oven over a mile away. These identifiable wheaten aromas are also transformed by the baking, and this is one of the ways the wood-fired oven triumphs because it maximises the organic experience of aroma.

When wheat loaves are subject to the heat of an oven, browning  roasting aromas are released as the grain is toasted by the heat. These evoke many analogs from coffee to nuts to caramel, and the profile of them depends on the particular mix of the baker. Well fermented sourdough has a distinct aroma as the crust browns, and filters through itself the flavour/aroma laden volatiles released from the wheat. The crust can be redolent of wheaten origins, but if baked further releases the dark tones described above. The type of wheat can produce even malty aromas which merge with the sourdough for example morphing into notes of mildly roasted Arabica coffee. Sometimes the bread crusts can smell of  carob or chocolate if sprouted wheat is used in the dough. Sourdough is always distinctive because of the acids produced, which, if the crust is well browned shift the spectrum to Ethiopian yerge cheffe coffee, which is in itself quite distinctive. Depending on the degree of fermentation and the amount of grain sugars remaining in the bread, the shift can be towards other dark notes such as molasses and even date syrup and pomegranate molasses with a hint of acidity.

These are a coalescence really, as ive said, the flavour/aroma entwined ,sometimes an aroma becoming a flavour and sometimes we taste the aroma as it seeps in to our senses, or is so evocative that we taste it as well. These can all be used however fancifully we desire, as there are no rules, but to be free enough to allow the experience to enter and wash over our senses. To be a part of such an dynamic organic experience as baking good real bread and not to fall for the romance is a shame really.

There are distinct flavours to be discerned as well. These often follow from the aromas but are also unique. Often wheat will merge into other cereals in the baking, commonly “oaten” flavours, more often with softer more flavoury wheats, or a skilful blend. Flavours of legumes are not uncommon, notably the grassy notes of soy or chick peas. Some wheats such as the Khorassan are distinctly nutty, usually roasted hazelnuts or even chestnuts, and the hard wheats of Canada may even have clear resonance in cardboard however un gastronomic this may be, but often lack the intense sweetness of softer wheats and are notoriously bland.

The flavours of the fermentation are really the most evident and range from sweet and wheaten in an unleavened bread to overpoweringly acid in a less-skillful over fermented bread. The notes in the famous SanFrancisco sourdoughs can be strikingly acid. The acid tones vary from the less desireable acetic, vinegary to the unusual and complex pleasant acidity of various organic acids. These can be deposited on the crust as well during baking and I clearly remember a quite burnished crust from a long ferment having this twang. Less skilful and over refrigerated doughs often have a damp-sour flavour which is more sour than acid. It is reminiscent of asprin and is very common in ersatz sourdoughs . A striking flavour from Europe is the taste of rye in the background of a wheat bread. This is often musty or even “dirty” and lingers in the background for a while mystifying to me until I realised the process. The acidity in a sourdough varies a lot and there are many opinions as to its place. Obviously some SanFranciscans enjoy the intense acetic flavour of their sourdoughs, but most prefer the twang to be there, but moderated, a flavour which develops after the initial complex-wheaten rush, and then gently cleans the palate ready for more, as this acidity provokes hunger as well. It is curiously alkalinizing in the same way as an acid lemon , and can be used skilfully as a balance to heavier texture. A poorly made sourdough can have bitter flavours which are surely a mismanaged ferment, and often some will confuse the sour with the bitter. The bitterness can also be from bad flour or often through underbaking an already well advanced fermentation.

Sometimes an idiosyncratic sourdough can have distinctly fruity tones which are similar to “musty” but are usually of lemon or sour plums. Yeast  ferments more often have these fruity notes as there is residual sweetness, which in wholemeals can be likened to dates or of brown sugar, or of the yeast itself, which if organic yeast is used, can become like ale or beer and decidedly good, quite distinct to sourdough which has “beery” notes in the leaven stage but this is rarely carried through to the bread.

The salty flavour is often evident in a tasting of breads as the most dominant. This is common practice and is perhaps less skilful though enjoyed by many. Sourdoughs tend to be less salty and their flavour suffers from too much salt as the fermentation is bridled and not as dynamic . Too little salt is also a faulty flavour as the acids aren’t attenuated enough and can move into the bitter zone without the softening effect of the salt. Some yeast bread is overpoweringly salty with salt as the actual dominant flavour which is unpleasant. Skilful bread balances the flavours with a good sourdough being a flavour journey which unfolds from wheaten to salty to sour, with the salt being instrumental not dominant and orchestrating the flavours really.

All of this enables a journey through bread which can be corresponded and is useful in not only assessment but in trouble shooting. Apart from being  a way to describe the terrain much in the same way as any profession describes its facets. It makes the way of baking more complete rather than monosyllabic and allows good bakers to understand and describe what they do and to aim for a particular effect which may characterise their baking, and to transmit this to others or even as their own feedback loop. All of the skilled bakers ive met, have to varying degrees, these criteria embedded in their skill base. Ive spent some time with bakers dipping a finger into the leaven, after first whiffing the leaven-air as the lid is lifted, assessing it sensorially and then embarking on a conversation based on the tasting which from here, leads to the finished product the bread…all from the clues given to the senses.

What is most interesting and illustrative of the place of bread, is that bread was never tasted at the many bread/bakery shows which are a yearly feature. Bread was regarded by the industry as an artefact, not a food. It was judged on its technical features only, and infact the breads on show were often not edible at all, but purely technical creations, often with quite a bit of artifice to even enable them. Most could not be reproduced on any scale, such simulations were they, all of which demonstrates a certain alienation  and is typical of the industrial mindset. I have the honour of winning the first-ever  sourdough category in a bread show in Australia, the Sydney Royal Easter Show, and when the new set of judges brought in to assess the sourdoughs (most of whom were food-writers or chefs), discovered that the breads weren’t to be tasted, just assessed on technical criteria, they were incredulous and mounted a revolution insisting  that the breads be tasted. The results were interesting, with one of the judges telling me that some of the exhibits had to be spat out immediately because they were vile and baked only for the show…simulacra….and when ive judged a bread show, I also have to spit out the breads (as I insist on tasting as well), most are  horrible!.

When I first trod the path and was an obsessed young baker spending hours making and discussing breads, late one such an obsessive night there was a polite knock on the bakery door and an unfamiliar head peeked in to the sanctum from the dark and empty street….who could this possibly be? The man introduced himself in broken English as a maths professor at the Sorbonne in Paris. He was attending a conference at Melbourne university (Australia, then my home town). He gestured towards the wood-fired oven and the bins of leaven and asked if he could taste my leaven. I was very taken aback as nobody had ever made that request and given the hour and circumstance it was a little spooky. Remember that at this time (1985), few knew what sourdough bread was , let alone wanted to taste my leaven…it was almost a pick-up line! He was obviously on a mission and was focused so of course I led him to the bin and raised the lid. He immersed his finger and tasted , went silent then looked at me very hard and expressed his absolute amazement that somebody in Melbourne Australia was making what he clearly knew to be authentic sourdough bread. He then told us he was a very good friend of the legendary Parisian baker Lionel Poilane, whom I revered, again remarked on how amazed he was at what we were doing in the antipodes, wished us well and vanished into the night with a loaf of yesterdays hefty pain de campagne under his arm. Well the gist of the story was that he had slowly and stealthily tracked down my bakery because he could smell the bread AND the leavens from quite afar. He kept walking in an ever-narrowing circle because his senses had picked up the aromas of authentic baking, so distinct were they to the accustomed or trained and he simply couldn’t believe what he was smelling as though he were in Paris.



LeadDog's picture
LeadDog 2011 July 17

 John great story about the math professor from Paris.

I of corse love the wine angle of the article.  Recently I have noticed more and more foods are being talked about in the same manner as wine.  I guess it might take a while for them to catch up but I think it is a good direction to go in.  This article reminds me of a book that I read a number of years ago about wine called "Real Wine".  That book had a large impact on how I make wine and think wine should be made.

Your section on alcohol in the fermentation is right on about the esters.  Wine has many minor acids in it and they combine with the alcohol to make the esters.  This is where some of the many flavors of wine comes from.  We are fortunate to be sourdough bakers because of the acids that sourdough makes and therefore the flavors that we enjoy in our breads are made.

I enjoyed the article.  This is one of my favorites ones so far.  Maybe some one should write a book called "Real Bread"?

TimmyB 2011 July 17

 John,  Brilliant article.  Just this weekend I purchased a loaf of Pagnotta by Baker D. Chirico.  I must admit my vocabulary was limited to "oh my god" and "you have got to taste this" and "this is so yummy" and the final and most revealing comment "this is the type of bread I want to bake".


Your point is well taken, to replicate a bread with such complexity of flavour I really need an informed palate and vocabulary.  I once had the pleasure of attending a darjeeling tea tasting event with the head taster from the india tea board, this guy was simply amazing, his palate and vocabulary was nothing short of extraordinary.  His main role was to taste tea and advise the various gardens on how to improve their tea. He could taste the tea and tell if it had been dried too fast, too slow etc etc.


So hear is my attempt to describe D Chirico's Pagnotta.  Initially I was taken by the soft luxurious feel of the bread on the palate, it seemed to make my mouth feel moist and cool and very relaxed getting my palate ready to explore the depth of flavour that would be slowly revealed.  At first you notice the sweet roasted wheaten flavour from the crust and then a sweetness similar to a rich buttery barley soup, with a little more chewing new layers of flavour appear including wheat grass and sour apple.  


As you can see from my attempt I found it difficult to describe this breads flavour, it had so many layer of flavour and such complexity but remained completely balanced.  The moral of the story, the better the bread the harder it is to describe.


Thanks John.  Great article AGAIN :) 


JohnD's picture
JohnD 2011 July 22

Thanks Tim, thats a great effort on your part as well mate.

Just wondering if you also detected the notes of ascorbic acid chemical additive as I did?

CayoKath 2011 July 18

Nice article!  I understand that Chorleywood bread is similar to that product in the USA known as Wonder Bread.  It is overly soft, doughy, can be formed and dried into sculptures and has nutritional value only by virtue of enrichment.  It truly has the most bland, almost sweet flavor.  Crafted sourdough, though, oh my.  It used to be indescribable until you so artfully typed it.  Cheers!

Geoff D's picture
Geoff D 2011 August 6


 This is a truely fantastic article. We ie lovers of Sourdough bread have a lot to be greatful for your work 

Thanks and best 


case661 2011 September 17

I have heard that Chorleywood bread is better than Wonderbread. I think that it has a different in some ways. I wonder if they have had to deal with any sort of patent infringement since the breads are so similar.  What do you guys know about this?

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