How did we discover to make bread?

Bread is like knitting: Once you get a good look at how it works, you wonder how the heck anyone first thought to do that, and exactly how long it took them to figure it out.

Breadmaking, in its broadest strokes, is mixing tiny, carbon-dioxide-producing fungi, or yeasts, into flour and water. The hands of the baker create a structure that hitches the yeast's tendency to release gas to the water-and-flour dough's tendency to form a taut, elastic skin. After that's allowed to ripen, heat transforms the structure into its permanent form - or at least as permanent as really good, fresh-baked bread can ever be, which is to say, rather transient.

The chemistry at the core of every bread recipe involves the transformation of long molecules into lattices. This process occurs in many foods, and creates the tastes and textures we find so compelling by trapping everything from water to fat. In the case of bread, the molecules in question are glutenins, a family of wheat proteins that are essential to bread's structure.

When wheat flour combines with water, the long, springy threads of glutenins come alive. The presence of water in their midst loosens them up, letting them socialise with each other, and, with the help of some oxygen, they start to link up end-to-end. These long chains stick to their neighbours as well, and as the dough is kneaded, those linkages are yanked out of shape so new ones form, over and over again.

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