The Jerusalem Post

Can baking bread teach us about society?

Bread (photo credit: VICTORIA SHES/UNSPLASH)

Most people do not regard bakers as philosophers but the principles of baking bread teach us much about building a viable, stable and moral society.

These last 18 months have signaled a major upheaval in the lives of pretty much everyone in the world. COVID-19 has sublimated numerous social issues, and our society as a whole has begun to reflect on questions such as “Who are we?” “Why are we here?” “What kind of world do we want to leave for our children?”
These philosophical conundrums have challenged humanity for eons, but I would like to offer a novel modus operandi to help answer them: baking bread. Most people do not regard bakers as philosophers (they have never heard of Renee Á-la-Carte or Friedrich Knish), but the principles of baking bread teach us much about building a viable, stable and moral society.
Let’s start with the ingredients. At its bare minimum, bread can be made from flour and water alone (think of matzah on Passover). Such bread is cracker-like and bland on the one hand, but beautifully simple on the other. It embodies a pure, innocent symbiosis between the ethereal (water from the heavens) and the material (grains from the Earth). Perhaps this is the reason Jews eat matzah on Passover, because it reflects an idyllic dream of an unencumbered embrace between humans and their creator. 
Not for nothing, however, is Passover only seven days a year. Utopian visions aside, humans live in the real world and life is never that simple. While mankind could theoretically survive on matzah, it would be a bland, impractical existence. Not surprisingly humanity has added salt to its bread since the dawn of time, sometimes even waging wars over the privilege. 
Interestingly enough, salt, in the ratios it is added to bread (approximately 2% of the weight of the flour), does not make the bread “salty.” The purpose of the salt is a flavor enhancer. It accentuates the inherent flavor of the grains and is that flavor that makes the bread taste good, not the intrinsic flavor of the salt. Another purpose of salt is to strengthen the gluten structure and elasticity of the dough. If you study all the simple, daily breads of cultures around the world, their common basis is flour, water and salt. 
What does salt teach us about the role of the individual in society? Our modern, celebrity-worshiping oriented culture is based on highly talented, “spicy” individuals who eclipse everyone else in their radiance. The purpose of salt in bread is not to blot out everything else, but to accentuate everything else. Celebrity is larger than life, but it is not real life. An individual’s purpose in society is not to blot everyone else out but rather, through their singular talents and abilities, to accentuate and empower those around them. This mutual empowerment in fact makes every individual in a moral society a “celebrity.” 
By adding yeast, the tough dough becomes inflated with air and the resulting bread is lighter, more palatable and easily digested. The fermentation process not only adds air to the dough, but other byproducts, such as acids and esters that add flavor to and improve the quality of the bread. If you bake dough that is not sufficiently inflated, the dough rips and results in gashes in the final bread crust. If the dough over-inflates (rises for too long), when it is baked it is too flaccid to hold its shape and the bread pancakes and flops. 
If only we humans would learn from yeast! Tough, inflexible individuals (fundamentalists) are extremely difficult to live with and cause rifts in society. A viable and stable society requires compromise and flexibility. Moderate inflation is a good thing in an economy; it is indicative of motion and growth. On the flip side, if an individual’s ego is over-inflated, as soon as they are tested by the crucible of life, they will deflate and collapse, since they lack substance. Over-inflation (hype) in an economy is a bubble waiting to burst. Think of the dot-com crash.
The chemistry of dough is extremely complex, so much so that even today scientists do not fully understand it. What is clear, however, is that the distinct ingredients in dough – water, flour, salt and yeast – work in a symbiotic relationship, each facilitating and empowering the others to create a homogeneous unit. However, when you introduce “artificial” ingredients that are not intrinsic to true bread, such as sugar and oil, they begin to work against and compete with the intrinsic ingredients.
Sugar creates an osmotic effect and competes with the yeast fermentation. Oil creates a lubricating effect and hinders gluten formation. Introduction of artificial, alien elements into an organic symbiotic society, be they physical or cultural, tend to foster competition rather than cooperation. They tend toward the “I” rather than the “we” and instead of cohering, the society discombobulates.
The final lesson is learned from kneading dough. The more you pulverize and punch dough, instead of dismembering, you in fact toughen it up and improve its quality. It is almost impossible to over-knead bread dough (by hand at least). After kneading, however, you must leave the dough to rest and relax before working with it. If not, the dough will tear.
That is life in a nutshell. We get the hard knocks along the way, but instead of destroying us, they serve to make us tougher and more resilient. However, if these hardships are not punctuated by relaxation and recovery periods, there is a danger of breakdown.
Bakers understand these life lessons and are on the whole well-balanced individuals (temperamentally speaking, not necessarily anatomically). Sociologists and philosophers could learn a lot from baking bread.
The writer, a master baker originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Karnei Shomron with his wife, Sheryl, and four children. He is CEO of the Saidel Jewish Baking Center (, that specializes in baking and teaching how to bake healthy, traditional Jewish bread. He also manages the Showbread Institute (, which researches the biblical showbread.
The best breads around the world are the simplest breads, with the above four ingredients: flour, water, salt, yeast.
Prepare this mixture (“Poolish”) the night before:
• 1 cup of whole grain flour
• ¾ cup water
A very small pinch of dry instant yeast (about 10-15 granules only)
Mix briefly and cover bowl with plastic cling wrap.
The following day, add to the above:
• 1½ cups whole grain flour
• ¾ cup water
• 2 tsp. salt
Mix and knead dough for 10 minutes by hand. The dough is very sticky – do not add flour while kneading. Leave to rise for three hours, punching down each hour on the hour. Place dough in a baking tin. Leave to rise for another 45 minutes. Bake at 230 degrees C (445ºF) for 35 minutes.