Monday, April 2, 2012

Egyptian Barley Bread: Dentist Preferred Method

To ancient Egyptians, bread was a life giving staple which became synonymous with their identity as a group. In the sedentary, agricultural lifeway of this complex society, grain fit the bill in terms of a food which could be stored as well as cooked and distributed in the form of bread. So reliant on bread were the ancient Egyptians, that they earned the nickname' artophagoi", which translates to "eaters of bread". It is known that bread helped to support soldiers in ancient Egypt, as they were apparently rationed 4 lbs. of it daily for their service. Suffice to say, it was bread that powered ancient Egypt by providing nourishment to its inhabitants.

Many samples of ancient Egyptian bread have managed to survive into modern times, and a precious few of those were found by archaeologists. In addition to consisting of wheat, barley, dates or malted grain, some other ingredients were found which suggest that bread may have been a blessing as well as a curse for the ancient Egyptian people. Through x-ray analysis, experimentation involving floating crumbs in water, and microscopical examination, archaeologists have concluded that ancient Egyptian bread often contains inorganic particles of sand, rock, and dirt, making for a gritty loaf. This, combined with dental evidence paints an interesting picture of how the ancient Egyptians' diet affected their bodies.

Apparently, the tools used in grinding grain were fairly ineffective at breaking it down into flour on their own, and sand or crushed bricks were often added to aid in the process. By doing so, those grinding the grain were able to substantially reduce the amount of time needed to produce flour. The added sand, stone from the mortar, pestal, and saddle-stones used would leave a large amount of grit in the bread, whether or not it had been well sieved. The grit, in turn, ground down the enamel of those who consumed the bread, leading to infection and oral diseases, even in young children. Dental remains, as seen above, are consistent with this theory.

For today's food blog, I've decided to make a more tooth-smart version of this recipe, no sand necessary. Instead of using my mortar and pestal (it can be done, but takes forever), I brought out my electric flour mill. Because I'd never tried it before, I decided I'd go with a barley bread filled with dates and honey, both available in ancient Egypt.

What you need:

4 Cups barley flour
1 Cup water
1 tsp salt
1/2 Cup dates
4 Tbsp Olive Oil
1/4 Cup honey
1/2 Cup leavening  (will explain below)

The Leavening:

Whenever you make bread, it's nice to use yeast to help it rise, unless you are interested in making pita. In modern times, we can go to the grocery store and buy genetically altered yeast that rises in just under an hour before you bake it. For ancient Egyptians, however, such a luxery did not exist. It is likely they used leavening to make their bread rise, as is still common today, such as in sourdough. Leavening is simple to make, but requires some patience and time (thus why it took me so long to post this blog).

Essentially, all you  need to do is make a little dough ball out of flour and water and press it flat. Place it on a plate and make an indent on the dough, then fill the dent with water. Place it in a warm place for a few days, rewetting if it seems to get dry, and eventually the ball of dough will swell and split open. This is your leavening. If this doesn't work for you, there are many, many website resources out there. Just look up "sourdough starter".

Leavening utilizes the yeast (millions of them) that are in the air, on your hands, and all around us and allows them to grow and feed off the dough you prepared. By simply mixing some of this in with your bread dough, you allow the same yeast to produce CO2 bubbles in the bread, which makes it rise. If this sounds too complicated, buy some yeast from the store. I won't tell.

The Bread:

In order to obtain barley flour, go to your local natural grocer and track it down, unless you have a sweet-ass flour mill like I've got. If you've got one of those, go ahead and throw a couple of bags of barley in and grind it as finely as possible. If you want, you can even spend hours with a saddle-stone breaking your back only to eat gritty, sand-filled bread. Delicious!

Now that you've got that flour situation squared away, take some acetaminophen and prepare for step two. On a cutting board, dice your dates into small pieces. Whatever shape or size you would like is fine, but it helps to keep them bite-sized. Place your dates in a bowl with 1 cups of barley flour, 2 TBSP oil, salt, water, and leavening as well as the honey. Mix this together with a big wooden spoon, rubber spatula, tuning fork, or ancient Egyptian scepter until it becomes thick and goopy. Let this set out for about half an hour so the yeast in the leavening can "wake up" and start foaming in the mixture.

Next, add 1/2 cup of flour at a time until a ball forms. When it becomes too hard to stir, ditch your stirring implement and dust the concoction with more flour. Begin kneading the dough by hand on a floured surface until everything is well incorporated and relatively smooth. You can occasionally add more flour if you find the dough is sticking to your kneading surface. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, and roll it around to give it a coating. Place a damp cloth over the bowl and allow the dough to rise for a few hours in a warm place until it doubles in size. I can't tell you how long this will take, because different species of yeast live in different places and this will affect how fast your dough rises as well as how the bread tastes. If you want, you can make a knife mark across the dough which should split somewhat during baking later.

Finally, bake the dough on a lightly oiled pan at 350 Degrees for 35 minutes. The bread should be lightly golden brown on its surface and be (you guessed it) the texture of fresh-baked bread. Don't get too excited- let it cool down for a few minutes before you cut straight into it or you might get burned. Serve with jam or butter of your choice.

Bon appetit!

Resources (cited) for Further Learning:

Investigation of Ancient Egyptian Baking and Brewing Methods by Correlative Microscopy
Delwen Samuel
Science , New Series, Vol. 273, No. 5274 (Jul. 26, 1996), pp. 488-490
Article Stable URL:

Teeth and Bread in Ancient Egypt
F. Filce Leek                        
The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology , Vol. 58, (Aug., 1972), pp. 126-132
Article Stable URL:

Egyptian Recipes:

Sourdough Info:


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Very interesting. I've just bought some barley flour and will attempt your recipe. I'm no stranger to sourdough starter and while your method for a leavening seems very simple I'm unfamiliar with it. Seems almost too easy! My understanding is that to get the initial bubbling up doesn't take much. Flour + water + time. It actually happens relatively quickly within 1-3 days. However it is leuconostoc activity and for a sourdough starter to become strong and viable it must go through feedings after this stage and depending on circumstances it can be up to two weeks. From what you describe it seems that the leavening is a very young starter cultivated from this quicker bacteria and not the more symbiotic yeasts and bacteria found in an established sourdough starter. Can you confirm this? Did the ancient Egyptians indeed leaven their dough with this initial leuconostoc strains of bacteria?

    While i do have a long established sourdough starter i have just made a malleable ball of dough with barley flour, flattend it out, made a finger indent in the centre and have filled the indent with water. I can see this drying out so have covered with a towel.

    We'll see what happens. I'm a bit nervous to make a bread with this initial burst of activity. What timescale should i be looking at?