Bread is one of the oldest prepared foods. Evidence from 30,000 years ago in Europe and Australia revealed starch residue on rocks used for pounding plants. It is possible that during this time, starch extract from the roots of plants, such as cattails and ferns, was spread on a flat rock, placed over a fire and cooked into a primitive form of flatbread. The world’s oldest evidence of bread-making has been found in a 14,500-year-old Natufian site in Jordan’s northeastern desert. Around 10,000 BC, with the dawn of the Neolithic age and the spread of agriculture, grains became the mainstay of making bread. Yeast spores are ubiquitous, including on the surface of cereal grains, so any dough left to rest leavens naturally.
There were multiple sources of leavening available for early bread. Airborne yeasts could be harnessed by leaving uncooked dough exposed to air for some time before cooking. Pliny the Elder reported that the Gauls and Iberians used the foam skimmed from beer, called barm, to produce “a lighter kind of bread than other peoples” such as barm cake. Parts of the ancient world that drank wine instead of beer used a paste composed of grape juice and flour that was allowed to begin fermenting, or wheat bran steeped in wine, as a source for yeast. The most common source of leavening was to retain a piece of dough from the previous day to use as a form of sourdough starter, as Pliny also reported.
The Chorleywood bread process was developed in 1961; it uses the intense mechanical working of dough to dramatically reduce the fermentation period and the time taken to produce a loaf. The process, whose high-energy mixing allows for the use of grain with a lower protein content, is now widely used around the world in large factories. As a result, bread can be produced very quickly and at low costs to the manufacturer and the consumer. However, there has been some criticism of the effect on nutritional value.