Breadmaking is a pretty straightforward thing to learn. There are countless books, classes, blogs, articles, and friends and family eager to pass on their learning. Even more so during the pandemic. But finding how my Hebrew village in Ancient Egypt would have made bread is much harder.
The actual making of it is somewhat known. The Ancient Egyptians and contemporaneous cultures left instructions, or at least pictures.
We also have the amazing Delwen Samuel of St Mary’s University, Twickenham, England, and many others who have worked to duplicate Ancient Egyptian bread. We’ll get to their work in a moment. What I’ve had trouble deciphering are the daily rhythms of a large household who eats bread as its main source of calories throughout the day.
All of the modern replications use shortcuts (refrigeration, packaged yeast, a sourdough starter from a friend, not to mention ground flour), and always make a single batch.
In my family compound of about 75 people (55 of which are the family and the rest our time travelers), the kitchen is central. Many people come together at various times throughout the day to produce all the food and drink of the family. Some have this as their main job and others come in to help out for short tasks.
In each part of the day they are not only preparing the food for the next meal, but moving the process along for those foods (mostly bread and beer) that require multiple days to make, as well as ferments to maintain.
I’ve calculated the amounts of ingredients used in daily breadmaking. There are other recipes but I’m just going for the basic proportions.
Make the daily bread:
- Flour: 35 kg (77.1 lbs)
- Leftover porridge (up to 2.25 kg (5 lbs) dried emmer, cooked)
- Water: 26.25 kg (57.9 lbs, just under 7 gallons)
- Salt: 1 kg (2.2 lbs)
- Sourdough starter: 12.5 kg (27.6 lbs)
Total: 150 lbs of bread for 75 people.
Feed the starter:
The first starter feeding recipe I saw said to use equal parts starter, flour, and water (after using your starter for the day and discarding any excess). But reading more about it, it seems that’s too much carry over starter, especially in warm weather. So let’s say we want to have at least 15 kg (33 lbs) of starter available to us each day to bake with and to use for feeding the next batch. This gives us a cushion of some extra starter (especially on extra hot days when we might want to use less carry over starter in the feed to slow fermentation a bit).
Maurizio Leo from The Perfect Loaf maintains starter with 20 grams starter, 100 grams flour, 100 grams water. Stir until incorporated. Cover and leave for 12 hours. He feeds the starter twice a day but once a day is fine. Bubbles are a good sign of fermentation, but they don’t have to be large (white flour makes them more prominent). Smell starts off sweet and grassy and as it ferments it will become more sour and vinegar-like, then into a “ripe cheese” or musty smell. If the starter goes too far, it will smell “extremely pungent and kind of shock your nose in kind of a fingernail polish way.” In the summer, 20 grams of starter carryover might become 5 grams, if the starter is ripening too fast.
Summer heat can lead bread to proof too quickly. Underproofed dough is elastic and tight and springs back quickly when you poke it. Overproofed dough is broken down and gassy and doesn’t spring back at all when you poke it. Just right dough is soft and airy and springs back slowly after poking. Using cold water for mixing helps counter summer heat. So fresh well water would work here. Using a bit less water slows fermentation too.
It also helps to keep the starter from over-fermenting. Using less carry over starter when feeding, changing jars more often, using colder water when feeding, using fewer whole grains (that one isn’t possible for my purposes), and adding a bit of salt (Leo recommends 0.5% of total flour, up to 1.5%).
Starter feeding recipe:
- 1.4 kg (3.1 lbs) starter
- 7 kg (15.4 lbs) flour
- 7 kg (1.85 gallons) water
- TOTAL: 15.4 kg (34 lbs)
Wheat needed each day:
- 35 kg (77 lbs) for bread
- 7 kg (15.5 lbs) for starter
- 2.3 kg (5 lbs) for porridge
- TOTAL: 44.3 kg (97.5 lbs) emmer wheat (42 kg/92.5 lbs ground as flour)
Steps to making bread:
- Plant, grow, harvest, dry, and thresh grain. These intensive activities happen for a few days to a few months each year and aren’t part of the novel (this year’s harvest was destroyed by various plagues). Assume that grain from last year’s harvest is safely stored for use as needed.
- De-hull/de-chaff and winnow grain for the next batch. The hulls deter pests so can’t be off too long, perhaps a couple of days. Assume 2-3 hours per day for this work. Wet the grains as you work. Done in short bursts by workers heading before heading off to the brickyards and fields in the morning or strong adults and teens working in the compound but taking a turn at some point during the day.
- Dry the grain before it is ground. While this is a pretty quick activity to setup and transition to the next bit, it’s something that needs doing before grinding. And there needs to be space to do it. Assume an hour a day (maybe even half an hour) for the actual work and most of the daytime in the sun for the drying.
- Grind the emmer for the day’s bread. Assume 20 hours/day for grinding 42 kg (92.5 lbs). This is a lot but it is for a very large family and grinding grain was one of the more time-intensive activities for people in this era. Flour can be stored, but not for more than a day or so.
- Mix the dough for the levain (or leaven). A basic recipe is 1 part sourdough starter to 2 parts flour and 2 parts water. Let it sit for 5-6 hours (perhaps less in a hot climate, let’s call it 5 hours).
- Feed the sourdough starter.
- Mix the rest of the flour with water and let it sit for 1 hour to autolyse. Cover the bowl and place next to the levain.
- Mix the levain and autolyse together, add a bit of water as needed and salt. Add any leftover porridge from breakfast.
- Ferment the dough for about 4 hours (bulk fermentation). During this time, perform 3 sets of stretches and folds. “At the end of bulk fermentation, your dough should have risen anywhere between 20% and 50%. It should show some bubbles on the top and sides, and the edge of the dough where it meets the bowl should be slightly domed, which indicates strength…If you don’t see these signs, leave it for another 15 minutes in bulk fermentation and check again.” The actual work here isn’t much, a few minutes each time.
- Cut and pre-shape the dough on a floured work surface. Let sit for 25 minutes.
- Shape the dough, let sit a few minutes, then place into proofing baskets, seam side up. Add seeds for topping if desired.
- Proof the dough for several hours. Modern recipes use a refrigerator overnight. I’m guessing that an ancient recipe in a warm climate would only need a couple hours for this step.
- Prepare the oven and baking pans and molds.
- Bake the bread in a mold, Dutch oven, etc. 30 minutes at 450°F (232°C). A lower oven temperature would take longer.
- Remove bread from pans or molds and clean up.
For more information, please see the post: A Daily Kitchen Schedule.
- A new look at old bread: ancient Egyptian baking. November 1999, Archaeology International 3, Delwen Samuel, St Mary’s University, Twickenham.
- Ancient Egyptian cuisine. Wikipedia.
- A Conversation With the Team That Made Bread With Ancient Egyptian Yeast: How a scientist harvested 4,500-year-old yeast and turned it into a loaf of sourdough. Eater. Jenny G. Zhang. Aug 8, 2019. Interview with Seamus Blackley and Serena Love.
- Seamus Blackley, Tweet Thread, Aug 4-5, 2019. “Two weeks ago, with the help of Egyptologist @drserenalove and Microbiologist @rbowman1234, I went to Boston’s MFA and @Harvard’s @peabodymuseum to attempt collecting 4,500 year old yeast from Ancient Egyptian pottery. Today, I baked with some of it…”
- Seamus Blackley, Tweet Thread (threaded version), March 29, 2020. “Today I achieved* something that I’ve been trying to do for a year. The slice of bread here was made with leavening cultures sampled from ancient Egyptian baking vessels, using ancient Emmer wheat, with an ancient Egyptian recipe, using ancient Egyptian baking tools, and NO OVEN.”
- Feeding Pyramid Workers. Ancient Egypt Research Associates (Aera).
- Bake Like an Egyptian: Sourdough Bread. Cookbook Archaeology. Celia Muller.
- How do I feed my sourdough starter? Maurizio Leo. The Perfect Loaf. January 23, 2023.
- How to Bake Sourdough Bread in Summer. Maurizio Leo. The Perfect Loaf. March 27, 2023.
- Beginner’s Sourdough Bread. Maurizio Leo. The Perfect Loaf. March 27, 2023.
- Sourdough. Wikipedia.