How much bread did an Egyptian slave eat?

(by Anne Marie Angelo 2009)

And how much flour did it take to make it?

Bread is the staple food of the Ancient Egyptians and came in endless varieties. Made with emmer (a form of wheat) and occasionally barley, it could be leavened or not, flavored or not, plain or shaped into creative forms.

The kitchen in Out of Egypt serves the extended household of about 55 people (closer to 75 with the addition of my travelers). As I write the rhythms of everyday life surrounding that kitchen, I need to figure out ingredients and quantities.

We start with emmer, one of two grains grown by the Ancient Egyptians (the other being barley). Emmer needed the same threshing that all grains do, then it went through an additional process to remove the chaff (something modern wheat does not require), then winnowed. Afterwards, it was ground into flour and used to bake.

Although some recipes call for yeast as a separate ingredient, it makes more sense that they would have used a basic sourdough starter. It could have been supplemented from yeast leftover from beermaking.

One takes a portion of the starter (fermented flour and water), mixes it with additional flour and water, works the dough (not necessarily what we think of as kneading), allows it to rise at least once, and bakes it. They usually added salt and could also add spices like coriander, herbs, onions/garlic, leftover cooked grain (porridge), dates, figs, and more.

After working to figure out a likely recipe and daily process, I realized I was going nowhere without knowing quantities. I can’t describe the length of time to grind flour if I don’t know how much flour they need.

The Hebrew slaves, as described in the Torah, are slaves in many senses but functionally are more like serfs. They have their own villages and households and have work quotas. The palace also supplies them with additional food. They have plenty of food and do not go hungry.

I don’t know how this life compares with the lives of actual New Kingdom peasants, slaves, or serfs. My aim is to describe Hebrew slaves as if they existed in Egypt in this time period. There are no sources giving quantities of what they ate because there are no sources about their existence period, aside from the Bible (the Torah and other books). My novel, however, assumes the Biblical account is (more or less) true.

For other laborers/peasants using bread as the staple of their diet, we have an estimate.

Most people in medieval Europe ate 2-3 pounds of bread and grains per day, including up to a gallon of (low-alcohol) ale. Grains such as wheat, rye, oats, and barley were boiled into porridge, made into bread, and, alas, only occasionally paired with poultry, pork, or beef (medieval folk instead ate peas, lentils, and fish to get their protein fix). For the record, 2.5 pounds of rye bread is a whopping 3,000 calories and a gallon of ale is an additional 1,500 calories… but considering that work days in the summer for a medieval peasant lasted as long as 12 hours, it was pretty easy to burn through all that bread.

What the Average Diet Was Like in Medieval Times by Kellen Perry

As a rough estimate, let’s say that this kitchen needs to produce 150 pounds of bread every day. That gives us an average of 2 pounds per day per person. Adult and teen laborers will eat a lot more, children will eat less. If there’s extra it can go to the animals or be traded with other households who might have extra of a different item.

Let’s start with a basic whole wheat sourdough recipe:

– 525 grams water (35%)
– 250 grams sourdough starter (17%)
– 20 grams salt (1%)
– 700 grams flour (47%)

Mix starter into water, add flour, mix, rest 1-4 hours.
Add salt, mix.
Stretch and fold every 30 mins for 2.5 hours.
Rise (timing unclear because it’s 1 hour room temp + overnight in the fridge + 2 hours at room temp).
Form dough into balls (this recipe makes 2).
Rest 30 mins.
Flip, stretch, and fold, and rise again (timing unclear because, again, the recipe uses a fridge, 2-4 hours).
Flip dough upside down into dutch oven, score top, put lid on pot.
Bake 30 mins at 450°F.
Remove lid, bake additional 10 mins.
Cool 1 hour before slicing.

Recipe makes about 3 pounds of bread. To make 150 pounds, you’d need 26.25 kg (57.9 lbs, just under 7 gallons) water, 12.5 kg (27.6 lbs) starter, 1 kg (2.2 lbs) salt, 35 kg (77.1 lbs) flour.

Now, make no mistake, this is not a recipe someone could follow. I’m estimating amounts and I’m guessing at how to adapt it for a kitchen in a very hot and humid climate, without any electricity or modern ways to chill. Not to mention that this recipe uses a completely different type of wheat and a dutch oven (I’m guessing something similar to a dutch oven was used for some of the New Kingdom breads and the rest were slapped on the sides of the inside of the main oven).

My goal is to approximate the amounts and the process so I can write about the daily rhythms of the community.

So let’s round this out. Since they added leftover porridge to many of the breads, along with some other ingredients, and my daily ration is probably a bit high, we can round that part down. (Porridge: 30 grams of whole wheat berries per person = 2.25 kg (5 lbs) for 75 people.)

We also need to add enough flour and water to feed the starter each day, something the above recipe recommends doing in equal parts of flour and water and starter (this should triple the amount of starter). If we need 27.6 lbs of starter each day for the bread, and we use half the starter to bake with, we need 55.2 lbs of starter as we begin (but we only add more flour after it’s been reduced by half). That means adding 9.2 lbs of flour and an equal amount of water (1.1 gallons, using 8.34 lbs per gallon) to the starter every day. I’m assuming there are multiple jars of starter going at once (so losing one wouldn’t be catastrophic).

Note: Yep, this gives a fair amount of extra starter. That’s a good thing. It means we won’t go without bread if a starter container breaks or gets contaminated. Extra starter can be used to thicken stew or soup or as batter or sauce. Or we can feed it to livestock.

How ancient Egyptian peasants measured could be (and might be) a whole other blog post. For now let’s assume they had simple balance scales and some stones or ingots they could use as counterweights, or that they measured by volume and used the same bowls/baskets/basins each batch. Also assume that the cooks were skilled and would adjust ingredients as needed based on look and feel.

Wheat needed each day:

75 lbs for bread (rounded down)
9 lbs for starter (rounded down)
5 lbs for porridge
TOTAL: 89 lbs emmer wheat (84 ground as flour)

Dough needed each day:

75 lbs of wheat equals about 150 lbs of finished bread, which is made from about 165 lbs of dough. A gallon of bread dough weighs 7.9 lbs. 165 lbs of dough is about 20.9 gallons.

This is a lot less than it sounds like.

20 gallon (80 quart) stainless steel pot

While your bread bowl aka kneading trough would of course be larger, to allow you to maneuver, this pot represents the volume of dough you’ll end up with. It may rise to more than that.

1 Comment

  1. Threshing & Hulling Emmer – Out of Egypt

    October 7, 2021 at 11:07 am

    […] we assume our extended family group of about 75 people needs 89 pounds of grain a day (32,485 pounds per year), how many work hours a day need to be allotted to process it into clean […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *