Pharaonic bakers made bread with emmer flour and/or barley. Only. This was true until at least roughly 350BCE. Most breads were made with emmer, which is a species of wheat. It is makes a flour that has different properties from that for common bread wheat. Egyptians were aware of common bread wheat as that is what the other big Bronze Age cultures in the Western Mediterranean used and also the cultures over in the Indus Valley. You can recreate the look of Egyptian whole grain breads with our standard wheat, but the taste and texture will not be right. Many Egyptian breads were made with sifted flour. The difference in how emmer an common bread wheat bake into loaves grows as the flours become more refined. Emmer will never make a bread with an open crumb. Common bread wheat will never make a bread that has such an inherently pleasant taste as an emmer bread.
The simplest basic bread to make is ground emmer that is partly mixed with water just off the boil. We know from the work of archeobotanists, and in particular, the work of Delwen Samual, that breads were often made with gelatinized dough. Mixing grains with water just off the boil, what used to be standard American practice for cornbread, for example, releases sugars into the dough. The other day, when my daughter asked what there was for an after school snack, I told her, this Egyptian bread I am experimenting with. Her comment after her first bite: “This takes almost sweet.”
We know from Samual’s work that Egyptian breads contained gelatinized dough. But we do not know their standard approach. In France, in the village of Villar d’Arene, the French anthropologist Marcel Maget documented a rye bread that was made with boiling water. His book on Pain Bouilli documents their standard recipe. They reserved ⅓ of the flour to be mixed with 100% of the water, just off the boil. That is the system I am using. The Japanese Milk bread is made with gelatinized flour, but takes a different approach. The Japanese system for using gelatinized flour employs a tangzhong. The Japanese milk bread is a bread that uses this system. For now, I am recommending the French system because it is easy and creates a fabulous bread. I am assuming that there was a huge supply of Nile reeds for fuel so we do not need to worry about how so much water was boiled.
Recipe for an Experimental Pharaonic Bread
The basic technique for a dough with gelatinized flour. The water for the recipe is used when it is just off the boil. So, my advice is to get your water boiling first. Then, put a bowl on a scale. Weight out the amount of flour you want to use for the recipe. Set that bowl aside, Put an empty bowl on the scale and weigh into that ⅓ of the flour. Once the water has come to a boil, remove from heat, and pour into the bowl with the smaller amount of flour. Moving quickly, stir with a wooden spoon to break up lumps. When the dough is smooth, cover and set aside to cool. When the dough has cooled enough to handle, then add the rest of the flour along with yeast or a little sourdough starter if you are making a leavened bread. If unleavened, then leave out the yeast or sourdough starter.
After mixing, knead until the dough is smooth. Emmer is not as extensible as common bread wheat so this dough will not stretch to “form a window.” Kneading develops the gluten and is important for developing the structure of the dough.
We do not know how the bread was actually made. Based on my experiments, I suggest immediately forming leavened breads into loaves and letting them rise when formed. If unleavened, I’d let the dough rest for twenty minutes, and then I’d form into loaves and bake.
Many breads, but not all, where painted white before baking. Wheat starch can be purchased online. I suggest experimenting by mixing wheat starch with water and painting in on your loaves before baking. As a rule, I think the breads were painted before proofing.
In bakers math: 100% emmer flour, usually whole meal, 80% boiling water, ½% to 1% yeast. Make the gelatinized dough with 33% of the flour and all of the water.
A recipe for 500g flour, roughly 1 pound flour: 500g emmer flour, 400g boiling water, 2.5g-5g yeast. For the gelatinized dough, in this recipe you use 160g flour and all of the water.
Note concerning leavening: My objective is work out something of the taste, texture, and look of Egyptian bread. This is not an archaeologically confirmed recipe down to the finest detail. Egyptians did make yeasted bread. They got yeast from the brewer. There may well be nuances that are lost by using modern yeast. On the other hand, there is so much taste in emmer flour that I personally don’t think the yeast strain will make a huge amount of difference to the taste. The yeast from the brewer is known to have been contaminated with bacteria including lactobacilli. As sourdough starters are a mix of yeast and bacteria, a mild sourdough starter may get you close to what their yeast was like. As I am not a sourdough baker, I find it more expedient to use packet yeast. I am also interested in understanding why the Egyptians chose emmer over free threshing bread wheat. I think that that question comes down to the taste of the emmer itself so for my purposes, I prefer testing with packet yeast as that will have the least impact on the taste of the baked bread.
Note concerning salt: As of this writing, I do not know whether there is evidence for salt in Egyptian breads. Gelatinized dough tastes fabulous without salt, on the other hand, the Egyptians must have eaten a lot of salt because of the climate, and as they ate a lot of bread it seems at least sensible that they may have put salt in their bread.