Bread, as the Old Testament and countless scribes have told us, is the staff of life. In its many forms, whether flat or leavened, corn-based or wheat-based, bread has been a fundamental source of sustenance for cultures across the globe, over thousands of years.
But bread is also memory and history. Its components and techniques — grains, milling, water, yeast, salt, kneading, heat — offer us a chance to reconnect to the very beginnings of human civilization. Bread, in fact, is a symbol of civilization, as the Epic of Gilgamesh reminds us: The poem from ancient Mesopotamia suggests that a primitive man is introduced to the civilized life via bread and wine, his evolution implicit in the process of fermentation and transformation.
At its heart, though, bread is personal. Our relationship to bread goes back to the moment we first sunk our teeth into a slice of sourdough, a hunk of crusty baguette slathered with good French butter or a warm corn tortilla wrapped around braised pork, onions and cilantro. Every time we go back to a favorite bread, it is an act of praise, and perhaps hope, as we look to recapture the rush of the first time we tasted something truly magnificent.
[Now is the ideal time to learn to make sourdough bread. Here’s how.]
Bakers, historians, bureaucrats and gastronomes love to argue over the definition of bread. Yet definitions have a sneaky way of creating barriers to entry to the bread world. To some, injera and tortillas are not breads because they’re not yeast- and wheat-based and because they do not assume the shape of loaves, even though people in Ethiopia and Latin American use these flatbreads much like generations of Americans have used Wonder Bread: as a vehicle to carry food.
My definition of bread is loose and open-ended: It involves grains, milled and transformed into doughs or batter, and heated into something bready and wonderful, with or without yeast. After much debate — with myself first, then with friends and colleagues — I’ve whittled a lifetime of eating breads into these 10 favorites. They’re likely not your 10 favorites, which is exactly my point. Bread is personal.
Origin: France. No bread may be more romanticized than the French “stick,” this long, slender loaf with the crackly crust and honeycomb crumb. Film, photography and a general worship of French cuisine have all cemented the baguette’s place in Western pop culture, but in this case, the hype matches the subject. Few breads pair better with food than the baguette: Its relatively neutral flavor complements almost anything on a plate, while its crustiness makes the bread ideal for dipping into soups and stews. Anyone who has walked the streets of Paris with a jambon-beurre in hand also knows the baguette makes a superb sandwich. “It’s the perfect bread,” says Mark Furstenberg, owner of Bread Furst in Washington and a James Beard Award winner for the nation’s outstanding baker.
Origin: Mesoamerica. According to Mayan legend, the gods created humans from a paste of ground maize, or corn, after failed attempts to do the same with mud and wood. The results were so good that the gods feared humans would become divine. The symbolism should not be lost on us: Ground maize and water, the soul of corn tortillas, have nourished and nurtured people across Mexico and Central America. The tortilla’s versatility has few rivals: Fresh off a comal, it serves as a wrapper for tacos and enchiladas. When cut into wedges and baked or fried, tortillas become chips, perfect for queso and salsa, and later, chilaquiles and migas. Fried tortillas also serve as the foundation, and essential structure, for tostadas or flautas. Made of corn like the people who adore them, tortillas have indeed become divine, just as the gods feared.
Origin: Ethiopia. Injera is made with teff, a grain whose name is derived from the Amharic word “yatafa,” which means “lost” in English. This etymological lesson makes sense only when you realize teff is roughly the size of a grain of sand, so small that it’s “easy to lose if you drop it,” wrote author Harry Kloman in “Mesob Across America.” Though tiny, teff is a powerhouse, supplying Ethiopians with enough nutrients and amino acids to sustain them. Traditionally, teff flour is mixed with water, fermented over several days and baked on a mitad griddle until thin, spongy and decidedly tangy. Unique among breads, injera acts as both tablecloth and utensil: Your food is served on it, and extra rolls are torn apart and used as scoops, each length invigorating the stews and salads within its grasp, just like a fresh squeeze of lemon.
Origin: Eastern Europe, probably Poland. You could make a strong argument that no bread has suffered more from its own popularity than the bagel (though pizza crust is a contender, too). In the latter half of the 20th century, eager to satisfy America’s growing appetite for bagels, bakeries, supermarkets, manufacturers and corporate chains alike cheapened the bread to the point where a generation (maybe two) has likely never tasted the real thing. A genuine New York bagel, with its roots in the Jewish bakeries of Eastern Europe, doesn’t take shortcuts. It relies on high-gluten flour, a short period of fermentation and, most important, a brief hot-water bath to give the bagel its shine and outer shell. Once you taste an honest bagel fresh from the oven — warm, crackly, malty, chewy — you’ll never reach into the freezer case again.
Origin: China. Before chef David Chang started selling pork buns at his original Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York, few Americans had sampled steamed lotus leaf buns, these downy pillows that, in China and Taiwan, come folded around a variety of meats and garnishes. But Chang’s invention in 2004 set off a chain reaction: Soon no self-respecting ramen shop could be without pork buns, and before long, chefs, starting with Eddie Huang on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, started reinventing gao boa, the Taiwanese street food built on the lotus leaf bun tradition. These days, it’s almost impossible to enter a food hall, ramen house or pan-Asian shop without encountering morsels tucked into a soft, fluffy, slightly sweet bun. The bun, in fact, has become so attractive that chefs outside the Chinese tradition find it suitable for fillings based in Mexican, Vietnamese and other cuisines.
Origin: Ancient Egypt. Thousands of years ago, the first sourdough bread was probably an accident, an unexpected interaction of flour, water, lactic acid bacteria and wild yeast. Why this ancient baker didn’t trash his bubbling container of starter/dough (the etymology of “yeast,” by the way, can be traced to a German word for “froth”) is a mystery. But once the resulting loaf was eaten, there was no turning back. The age of sourdough had arrived. In recent years, many have touted the health benefits of sourdough, which they say is easier to digest than other breads and has antioxidant qualities to boot. Yet to prize this bread solely because of its nutrition, or its potential to ward off disease, is to miss the larger point: People around the world have loved sourdough for centuries because its tang complements so many foods, from so many cultures.
Origin: Denmark. Before wheat flour became widely available, bakers had to rely on grains that thrived in their geographic area. For much of northern Europe, that was rye, which could stand up to the cold, wet and sometimes unforgiving climate. Like the grain that serves as its principal ingredient, rugbrod is a hearty product — dense, a little bitter and usually fortified with seeds. This Danish rye bread is technically a sourdough, though it doesn’t have the airy crumb of a typical sourdough because rye flour has a lower gluten content. Rugbrod serves as the base for the Scandinavian open-face sandwiches known as smorrebrod: buttered slabs stacked with any number of ingredients, sometimes fishy, often acidic, always colorful. Smorrebrod have fed Danes for generations, and unlike so many sandwiches where you can easily substitute breads, these would not be the same without rugbrod.
Origin: Middle East. Recent history has not been kind to the pita. The puffy flatbread, with roots that stretch back to the very beginnings of breadmaking, has been stripped of its dignity and forced to perform duties far beneath it. You can find countless recipes in which cooks treat pita bread like a pack mule, loading it down with anything and everything, including chicken Caesar salad and cheeseburgers. Remember the chip craze of the 1980s, when sliced and baked triangles of pita bread were going to supplant unhealthy potato chips? You could make the case that Americans are merely adapting the pita for their own uses, just as people have in many other cultures. But whether in Lebanon, Israel or Greece, locals have always had a deep respect for the flatbread, no matter what name it assumes. They know the bread, hot and pillowy from the oven, deserves to be paired with only the finest meats, falafel, dips and salads.
Origin: Indian subcontinent. It’s tempting to compare paratha to the French pastries and rolls made from a similarly buttery and folded dough, but this implies an apples-to-apples comparison. It’s not. For starters, paratha has been around longer than the French treats, its ancestry likely tied to ancient India. Second, paratha doesn’t have the rise of croissants, puff pastry and the like. It’s in a class of its own, separate from even similar flatbreads prepared with fat, such as Indian roti or Sonoran-style flour tortillas. Paratha can be made any number of ways — with oil or clarified butter (ghee), with whole-wheat or refined flour — but the one we’re talking about is a whole-wheat beauty, brushed with ghee and folded and pressed into a pancake that’s griddled till brown and irresistible. It can be stuffed or just eaten with a dollop of butter. Is it any wonder Indians eat paratha any time of day?
Origin: Europe/Roman Empire. The word “biscuit” is derived from the Latin “panis biscoctus,” which translates into “bread twice cooked.” This gives you some insight into the history of biscuits, which can be found in almost every corner of the globe in some form or another. For much of their history, biscuits were basically the fuel that propelled soldiers, explorers and people of little means. Biscuits went by unappetizing names such as hardtack, rusks and ship’s biscuits, their durability their main asset. The industrial revolution changed everything, however, introducing refined flours and leavening agents to bakers across all levels of society. The American South became ground zero of the biscuit revolution, driven largely by the soft winter wheat grown in southern states. The low-protein flour gave rise to tall, flaky, buttery biscuits, which separate with the tines of a fork and accommodate a whole world of flavor between their fluffy halves.
[How to make your best biscuits by mastering the basics]
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Photos by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post; illustrations and typography by Laurène Boglio for The Washington Post; design and production by Lizzie Hart and Amanda Soto; photo editing by Jennifer Beeson Gregory.