The Art of Baking in Ancient Times

Some of the earliest techniques used for baking foods include masonry ovens, smoke pits and terracotta baking moulds. These were mainly used for baking breads and flat cakes that required a steady source of heat that would spread uniformly all around the food slowly cooking it from the outside to the inside.

The discovery of some of these moulds and techniques go back to the early 2nd Millennium BC in the Middle East. Many ancient civilization and empires used baking extensively to cook foods.

The earliest evidence and recordings of baking talk about how humans made a broth-like paste of beaten wild grains and cooked them on flat, hot rocks in the desert or wilderness where the heat of the sun “baked” the paste into a bread-like crusty food. The absence of suitable rocks or sunlight meant that they had to pre-cook and store the bread whenever they had access to both elements. Later, when fire was discovered, this paste was cooked on fire embers; this provided the advantage of being able to bake bread whenever it was needed. Slowly the habit of eating these baked breads in combination with meats and vegetables gained ground.

Baking, as a cooking method, flourished in ancient Rome. Around 300 BC, the first references to pastry cooks known as ‘pastillarium’ gained respect and became a profession because Romans as a race enjoyed celebrations and festivity and took great interest in gastronomically prepared delights. There were competitions for chefs who invented and prepared new baked treats and Roman banquets were not complete without the presence of pastries which were cooked in large numbers for their lavish banquets. In 168 BC, Rome had a Bakers’ Guild and bread was baked in oven with chimneys; flour mills were established to grind grains and pulses into flour.

It is estimated that by around 1 A.D. there were no less than 300 professional chefs in Rome; the historian Cato writes about the diverse varieties of foods prepared by these chefs who quickly rose to high social rankings because of their skill. Many types of bread like Globus Apherica, Libum, Placenta, Savaillum, Scibilata and Spira were precursors to modern-day cakes, fritters, pretzels and tortes.

In ancient Egypt, the Egyptians began to bake bread using yeast as an ingredient, which hitherto was used in brewing beer. The Greeks first began to use enclosed heat chambers in 600 BC to bake bread; enclosed ovens probably originated here. Ancient archaeological sites in Palestine and Turkey have unearthed ovens and baking worktables dating to 5600 BCE.

The art of baking as propagated by the Romans became renowned throughout Europe and spread to other parts like South Asia. The 19th century saw great strides in the art of baking and use of leavening agents to produce soft bread. Breads, cakes, pastries and pancakes became popular foods in France and Germany with many street side shops and open-air cafes becoming especially known for baked goods.

Commercial baking

In the Industrial Age, baking developed into an industry with the use of automated machinery, which enabled mass production and wider distribution.

However, what began as an art mainly to preserve the freshness and flavor of the food has undergone many changes to keep up with demands of modern times and consumers. Makers of potato chips and snacks use baking as a method to reduce the fat or caloric count of the food which would normally have been done by the method of deep-frying.

Commercialization has opened the doors to baking as a process done in large furnaces and ovens and furthered the business of cake shops and bread houses. What many people feel is that the aroma and feel of freshly baked food cannot be compensated by commercial producers who increasingly use additives to enhance flavors. Thus, the appeal and flavor that depend greatly on the freshness of the product is compromised. To counter this, manufacturers use imaginative labels to market products as ‘home baked’ to bring the association of freshness to a product that a consumer wishes to buy.

Several restaurants, cake shops and bakeries have in-house ovens and furnaces to bake their own products; advanced equipment and machinery has enabled them to produce these on a daily basis to preserve freshness and flavors.