Making bread…

…clearly something many biblical scholars don’t do

raised loaves

Raised loaves

I have moved on to the parable of the woman who used some yeast/the parable of the leaven (Gos Thom 96 || Matt 13: 33 || Lk 13: 20-21) and one thing strikes me in the comments of a number of scholars. They talk about the inevitability of yeast creating large loaves. Yeah, right!

Before I started my postgraduate studies, I used to make a lot of bread. I would take it places and people would be amazed that I could do it, because their bread always ended up heavy, hard and nasty-tasting. This puzzled them, because usually they were good at cooking other things and could produce good results simply by following a recipe. With bread, however, there is much more to it than just mixing together yeast, flour and water and putting it in a warm place – there’s a lot about how the dough looks and feels that can’t be described in a recipe.

Things that can cause your bread to spoil:

  • putting your bread in conditions that are too hot – it kills the yeast
  • putting your bread in conditions that are not hot enough – the bread takes forever to rise. At least, however, you can fix this by warming it
  • not putting enough water into the dough – the dough is too heavy for the yeast to work properly, so you get small, dense loaves that aren’t nice to eat
  • putting too much water into the dough – it doesn’t form shapes properly and oozes all over the place, sticks to your fingers and is generally painful to work with
  • putting too much salt in it – salt inhibits the action of the yeast and you get small, dense loaves
  • not putting any salt in it – the yeast works too fast and you get bread with big bubbles in it so your topping leaks through the holes
  • not keeping the top of the rising loaves moist enough – if a tough, dry skin forms, the yeast action is again inhibited and you get small, dense loaves. Now this is easy – you oil it lightly and put it in a plastic bag. No plastic bags in 1st century Palestine, so you used a damp cloth – and had to keep renewing the dampness when it was hot
  • not kneading the dough enough – the gluten doesn’t form properly and you get small, dense loaves
  • kneading the dough too much – too much gluten formation makes the loaves tough. This usually only happens, however, if you are in a very bad mood and are kneading dough to work off your frustrations. :-)
  • not cooking the loaves for long enough – you get a gooey glug in the middle that is very difficult to digest
  • cooking the loaves for too long – they burn and dry out
  • cooking the loaves at too low a temperature – again, you get small, dense loaves
  • cooking the loaves at too high a temperature – yes, they burn, but you can also get small, dense loaves because there should be some rising happening in the oven and if it’s too hot, the yeast dies immediately and you don’t get the extra rising. And remember that in Jesus’ day, ovens did not have a thermostat – you regulated the temperature by watching the fire that was heating your oven very carefully and knowing by experience what you needed to do.

In addition, yeast is a tricky thing to work with because it is alive. Modern home bakers are spoiled. The dried yeast that we can use is much more forgiving than the cake yeast and sourdough starters that were used for many centuries. You can put dried yeast in an airtight container in the freezer and it will keep for years. Even in a cupboard, it lasts for many months.  It also works over a wider range of temperatures than fresh yeast. Fresh yeast really needs to be kept at about body temperature in order to work well. Dried yeast can be significantly hotter and still work beautifully. Cake yeast might last a month or so if frozen, and only a few days in a cool place in the kitchen and a few more days in a fridge. (Do I need to point out that fridges and freezers were not a normal part of 1st century Palestine kitchen equipment?) Dying yeast imparts a nasty, sour taste to the bread and you need to use a lot more to get it to rise. Sourdough starter is a little less finicky, but rises more slowly and must be fed and divided regularly.

So there is nothing inevitable about yeast dough turning into bread, unless it is in the hands of an experienced bread maker. Did Jesus know this? Quite possibly. If he did, then the Gos Thom version is quite likely at least as close to Jesus’ version as are Matt/Luke/Q. The coming of Kingdom of the Father is like the situation where a woman takes a tiny piece of yeast, mixes it with flour (and other ingredients) and cares for it until it turns into big loaves – although I guess you need to be comfortable with Jesus being like a woman to be happy with this interpretation. :-)

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8 thoughts on “Making bread…

  1. Wow, Judy, that’s a long list of things that can go wrong baking bread! Thanks for this practical information, Judy, which makes clear that attention and care are needed in the leavening process and so I’d expect the same is called for with respect to the kingdom. Jesus’ parables are wonders of art and religion, showing a wisdom that anyone (with ears to hear) can grasp.

  2. You have got me thinking, I now make bread with a sourdough starter, but used to use dried yeast, before that as a teen we had to buy “baker’s yeast” as a sort of spongy thick paste. Would either of the last two have been available in 1st C Palestine or would all levure have been sourdough style?

    • Tim, the internet tells me that dried yeast was first made in the 1890s, so I am confident that it didn’t exist in first century Palestine. When I look at the quantities of sourdough starter needed to make bread, I suspect that this isn’t what is being talked about in the parable, because they tend to use around 1/2 cup of starter for every 3-4 cups of flour and the amount of flour mentioned in the synoptics is around 40 litres, so if we say that the proportion is 1/2 cup starter for every 4 cups = 1 litre flour, the woman would have been using in the vicinity of 5 litres of leaven to raise her meal – not exactly a tiny amount!

      • Actually, on rethinking this, it’s only the Thomas story that says a small amount of yeast – for the synoptic version, the quantity of yeast isn’t an issue, it’s the amount of flour.

  3. Just came back to this after some months – sorry Tim! I doubt that Thomas’ milieu used baker’s yeast – half a cup of starter is still a relatively small amount compared to four cups of flour and I gather from conversations with people who cook regularly with sourdough starter that if you are willing to wait longer, you can use less. Thus, if you make your dough before you go to bed at night and bake it in the morning, you can use less than if you make the dough in the morning and want to use it the same day. The issue is that the synoptic accounts don’t mention the amount of yeast, just the amount of flour, so I don’t think that they are trying to get us to focus on the contrast between yeast and flour, but on something else. Thomas, OTOH, is clearly interested in the contrast between little and big.

  4. That sounds about right, especially in such a warm climate, compared to NZ going into winter. The discussion interested me because it combined two of my favourite things, Bible and cookery. However, my last remark unnecessarily added a third, somewhat silly humour.

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