August 11, 2012

How to Get British Bread in America

Wonder Bread, 1961 - Advertising Postcard by Shook Photos
Wonder Bread, 1961 - Advertising Postcard, a photo by Shook Photos on Flickr.
What tastes sickly sweet, can sit on the shelf for eons without getting green, and is able to ruin a perfectly good sandwich instantaneously? American bread, of course! Or at least that's what I'm hearing from dozens of Brits. It seems that the taste of breadnot homemade bread, mind you, just a sliced white loaf wrapped in plasticis far from universal. A bacon butty in Boise just doesn't stack up to one from Bristol. In this post I'm going to explore the differences between British and American bread, and give a little help to anyone in America who is desperate for a piece of toast or a sandwich that tastes like the bread back in Blighty.
Hovis by Castell Howell Foods
Hovis, a photo by Castell Howell Foods on Flickr.

Great Britain vs. USA
What is the difference between a British bread (say, Hovis) and an American bread (say, Rainbo)? After an extensive amount of research I have uncovered the most probable culprits. Just look at the ingredient lists:

British White Sliced Bread: Wheat Flour (milled from 100% British Wheat), Water, Yeast, Salt, Soya Flour, Fermented Wheat Flour, Vegetable Fat, Emulsifiers: E472e, E471 (made from Vegetable Oils); Flour Treatment Agent: Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C). 
American White Sliced Bread: Enriched Bleached Flour (Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Folic Acid), Skim Milk, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Yeast, Contains 2% Or Less of Each of The Following: Butter (Cream, Water, Salt), Salt, Wheat Gluten, Dough Conditioners (May Contain One Or More of The Following: Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Mono- and Diglycerides, Calcium Peroxide, Enzymes, Ascorbic Acid, Azodicarbonamide), Yeast Nutrients (Monocalcium Phosphate, Calcium Sulfate, Ammonium Sulfate), Cornstarch, Calcium Propionate (Preservative), Soy Lecithin, Soy Flour.
Humph. That looks like a big enough difference to disturb the tastebuds of some discerning Brits. In addition to a lot of unpronounceable chemicals, Rainbo bread also has HFCS, which could definitely affect the taste. Now of course I would never want you to get the idea that the only thing Americans eat is Rainbo bread; there are in fact thousands and thousands of varieties of sliced white, wheat, rye, hemp bread, etc., not to mention all of the artisan loaves on the grocery shelves. However, check out this other drastic difference:


White Hovis Bread:                                       Comparable American Loaf (Vermont Bread Co.):
            £1.15 ($1.80)                                                                       $4.59 (£ 2.94)

Three slices by Nick Saltmarsh
Three slices, a photo by Nick Saltmarsh on Flickr.
The Chorleywood Process
So, American bread is sweeter and has more unnatural stuff in it. Why? Is it because of the notorious American sweet tooth? Perhaps. 
The average American consumes 22 tsp. of sugar per day (according to this article), and we are more likely to put sweetener in our baked beans, beer, pretzels, etc. (Americans probably think that British bread tastes bland in comparison to theirs). Another reason could be because of the actual methods of bread making, and that brings us to the fascinating subject of The Chorleywood Bread Process. This revolutionary invention of the 1960s has been called The Bread That Changed Britain, and is probably what Brits mean when they talk about "British bread." The CBP has had a dramatic affect on Britain's cuisine by creating bread that can be made with low-protein British wheat,  is softer, longer lasting, cheaper, and makes beautifully uniform slices. How is this possible? The CBP uses twice the normal amount of yeast, as well as a unique combination of acid, fats, and yeast to produce a loaf in record time (3 1/2 hours). The result is very cheapbut highly processedbread. 80% of all loaves baked in Britain are made this way, but the CBP isn't used much in America. Could this be the reason for the taste difference?










How to Get British Bread in America
No matter what the final answer to this mystery really is, one fact remains: it's not easy to get UK-style bread in the US. It is not impossible, however! The despairing British expat or the curious American has two options:
  1. Buying: Finding a similar brand at the grocery store is the path of least resistance. If you are seeking to purchase a less sugary bread you might try a Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe's, or other "hippie" grocery store. A couple of brands that are lower in sugar are Nature's Own and Great Harvest Bakery. Most of the time less-sweet American bread is also whole wheat, however, so you might have to compromise on fluffy white sliced bread and go for whole wheat or sourdough varieties. On the other hand, maybe you have a British pub in your area that would be willing to sell you some bread on the side. Or you can visit the UK with an empty suitcase, pack it full of bread, bring it home and freeze it. Good luck with that one.
  2. Making it Yourself: This is probably your best bet for getting your favorite loaf anywhere you want. All you need is a bread maker or oven and a trustworthy recipe. Sure, the flour or yeast you use might be slightly different than the British varieties (though a bit of shopping around might surprise you), but it'll be closer than Rainbo, believe me.

Here are a couple of recipes for not-too-sweet bread, one using a bread maker and one with an oven. I hope that wherever you are, whether you crave a tuna and sweetcorn sandwich, bread and butter pudding, or perhaps some Poor Knights of Windsor, you will have the pleasure of indulging in a really satisfying taste of genuinely British bread.


Bread Maker White Bread
Here's a recipe from Hils, found on mombu.com:
  • 1 cup water (slightly warm for preference)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil (can use 2 tbsp butter but add about 1tbsp more water if you do this)
  • 2tsp sugar
  • 1tsp salt
  • 3cups white breadmaking flour (Allinsons, or hovis or suchlike)
  • 2tsp yeast (use basic white cycle if using ordinary yeast like Allinson's in the little tin or fastbake with the very finely divided dried yeast (fast acting dried yeast).
You may need to adjust the flour to water ratio to get a good springy dough, it depends on things like brand of flour, freshness etc. The dough needs to be in a single ball, and soft but not sticky to the touch. If you check it after 5 minutes kneading, you should be able to correct for this. If the dough feels right,and still doesn't rise enough, try a little more yeast and/or a little less salt.

I also find a teaspoon of lemon juice helps improve the rise of the dough, it adjusts the acidity of
the water (I live in a hard water area) but allow for the extra liquid in the recipe.


Homemade White Bread with Strawberry Jam by TheCulinaryGeek
Homemade White Bread with Strawberry Jam, a photo by TheCulinaryGeek on Flickr.
Oven White Bread
This recipe comes from deliaonline.com:

INGREDIENTS:
  • 1 lb 8 oz (700 g) strong white bread flour, plus a little extra for the top of the bread
  • 1 level tablespoon salt, or less, according to taste
  • 1 level teaspoon easy-blend dried yeast
  • 1 level teaspoon golden caster sugar about 15 fl oz (425 ml) hand-hot water
METHOD:
  1. Pre-heat the oven to its lowest setting.
  2. Begin by warming the flour in the oven for about 10 minutes, then turn the oven off. Sift the flour, salt, yeast and sugar into a bowl, make a well in the centre of the mixture, then add the water. Now mix to a dough, starting off with a wooden spoon and using your hands in the final stages of mixing, adding a spot more water if there are any dry bits. Wipe the bowl clean with the dough and transfer it to a flat work surface (you may not need to flour this). Knead the dough for 3 minutes or until it develops a sheen and blisters under the surface (it should also be springy and elastic). You can now either return the dough to the mixing bowl or transfer it to a clean bowl; either way, cover it with clingfilm that has been lightly oiled on the side that is facing the dough. Leave it until it looks as though it has doubled in bulk, which will be about 2 hours at room temperature.
  3. After that, knock the air out, then knead again for 2 minutes. Now divide the dough in half, pat each piece out to an oblong, then fold one end into the centre and the other in on top. Put each one into a buttered tin, sprinkle each with a dusting of flour, then place them side by side in an oiled polythene bag until the dough rises above the tops of the tins – this time about an hour at room temperature. Alternatively, place all the dough in the one tin. Meanwhile, pre-heat the oven to gas mark 8, 450°F (230°C).
  4. Bake the loaves on the centre shelf for 30-40 minutes, or 35-45 minutes for the large loaf, until they sound hollow when their bases are tapped. Now return them, out of their tins, upside-down to the oven to crisp the base and side crust for about 5 minutes, then cool on a wire rack.

Sources:

11 comments:

  1. Who knew there was such a difference in bread? That post was the most informative thing I've seen since sliced... wait, that saying really doesn't work here. Oh well, still a good post.

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    1. Thank you for your kind comment, Opus! I'm so glad that someone found my little post informative :)

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  2. I've noticed the sweetness of US bread during my visits home. These days, having been weaned off of sugar, I find a lot of American foods too sweet for my liking.

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    1. I can only imagine. I've spent my whole life in the US and I'm still sickened by our obsession with sugar. Still, I have a very high tolerance for the sweet stuff and will be devouring more than my fair share of holiday goodies :)

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  3. This is so true about the diffence in bread US/UK but the British have a sweet tooth too--------------more than Americans I think.

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    1. That's probably very true, Jenny. After all--the Brits gave us Cadbury! Not to mention sticky toffee pudding.

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  4. I found this searching for "why is british bread not as soft as american" ... I have come the other way - from canada to britain and am having trouble adjusting to british bread - not because of a sweetness issue - we don't normally eat the standard white bread - we get the 100% whole wheat stuff. The texture, tho, with all the bread here, seems to be the difference. Even our "brown" bread in canada is not so chewy - it's lighter and fluffier - more airy. It toasts nicely - doesn't get as dry as british bread and keeps for eons longer. I haven't found any british bread that I can keep longer than 3 days or so, without it getting moldy. As a result, I have to keep it in the fridge, where it gets even chewier and is only fit for toasting, which comes out dry! I wondered if it was the flour - where can I get north american flour in britain? Perhaps it is the additives - but even the bakery bread, in canada is softer - I have made bread from scratch - no additives or extra sugar - and it's light and fluffy. I made kaiser rolls here yesterday, and they turned out chewier than canadian ones... Hence, my google search. I miss my soft canadian bread.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I found this searching for "why is british bread not as soft as american" ... I have come the other way - from canada to britain and am having trouble adjusting to british bread - not because of a sweetness issue - we don't normally eat the standard white bread - we get the 100% whole wheat stuff. The texture, tho, with all the bread here, seems to be the difference. Even our "brown" bread in canada is not so chewy - it's lighter and fluffier - more airy. It toasts nicely - doesn't get as dry as british bread and keeps for eons longer. I haven't found any british bread that I can keep longer than 3 days or so, without it getting moldy. As a result, I have to keep it in the fridge, where it gets even chewier and is only fit for toasting, which comes out dry! I wondered if it was the flour - where can I get north american flour in britain? Perhaps it is the additives - but even the bakery bread, in canada is softer - I have made bread from scratch - no additives or extra sugar - and it's light and fluffy. I made kaiser rolls here yesterday, and they turned out chewier than canadian ones... Hence, my google search. I miss my soft canadian bread.

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    Replies
    1. It's interesting to hear from someone who is coming from the other direction! I'm afraid I can't help you there, though. Perhaps there's a specialty American shop in your area that would have something similar? You might have to tamper with different bread recipes in order to make something soft from the British wheat.

      Best of luck :)

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  6. We moved to the US five years ago and would give anything for a slice of mothers pride!.... getting out the bread maker as I type... going to try your recipie!... fingers crossed!... great post btw

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    1. I hope you get what you're looking for Alison! Be sure to comment and tell us how it turns out.

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