The Chorleywood Process: making bread the fast way
PUBLISHED: 09:58 09 May 2017
With Real Bread Week this month, Paul Peacock looks at the campaign's nemesis, the revolutionary bread-making process created by scientists in Hertfordshire and still the recipe for the vast majority of loaves on sale
The ubiquitous sandwich loaf has taken a bashing in recent years as craft bread – part of a wider reaction against mass-produced goods and a yearning for ‘authenticity’ – has gained prominence. But while ‘real bread’ can be expensive and needs to be used pretty quickly, there is still a huge demand for a cheap loaf that lasts a good while.
The roots of today’s long-life plastic-wrapped loaf – as well as many a paper-bagged crusty bloomer – lie in Hertfordshire. It was in 1961, at the British Baking Industries Research Association in Chorleywood that scientists created a method for making a dough that revolutionised the industry. The Chorleywood Process made bread softer, much quicker to make, cheaper and longer lasting. Factories raced to take up the process and the method is still the basis for the vast majority of bread eaten in the UK.
Paul Barker, proprietor of Cinnamon Square, a Rickmansworth traditional bakery and what can only be described as a bread-based experience, cookery school and eatery, worked at BBIRA at the beginning of his career. He says, ‘The Chorleywood Process really was developed to make industrial baking faster, easier and more profitable.’
What is the Chorleywood Process?
Two essential goals drove the Chorleywood research project – to be able to use lower protein wheat of the type easily grown in the UK (no costly imports and good for British farmers), and to reduce as much as possible the time needed to create a loaf.
For this, rapid mixing machines were developed that combined flour, salt, yeast, fat, water, additives, vitamins and various enzymes in huge quantities in only a few minutes. This created problems however, mostly the overheating of the mix, so iced water was used along with specialised cooling jackets.
The pressure in the vessels is varied intermittently to create the right gas bubble size, and therefore the crumb is always standard for every loaf. The dough is violently shaken for several minutes to even the crumb size, and then loaves are formed where they prove for 50 minutes before being baked, cooled, sliced and shipped out.
Whether handmade at home, or in some – though not all – craft bakers, you will find bread being produced with only four ingredients: flour, water, yeast and salt. As a consequence of the industrial process and the use of lower protein wheat – as well as providing other benefits thought of as important to the household loaf, such as improved keeping qualities – lots of additives are used in industrial baking.
So what makes a Chorleywood loaf worth more than its salt? It starts with the flour in many cases. At one time in the UK bakers used potassium bromide as an oxidising agent in flour because it encouraged gluten to bind, making the dough stretchy and improving the crumb texture. This was found to be carcinogenic and banned in the EU and in other countries, so now chlorine dioxide is used instead. L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C) can be added to flour or at the baking stage for much the same reason. L-cysteine hydrochloride is another enzymic additive used to make stretchier dough. But there are more – xylanase to make dough easier to use in machines, asparaginase to reduce acrylamide formation in baking – a known carcinogen, lipase to break down fats, amylase to make the sugars in the wheat metabolise quicker by yeast.
Then there are preservatives such as calcium propionate – bakers at one time used vinegar, but when the bread was toasted it gave off a very strange aroma! Over the years, additives have been developed and discarded, but none of them are peculiar to the Chorleywood Process. As Paul Barker explains: ‘Many of the food additives used in the process had been in use for some time previously.’
Are the additives a problem? Enzymes are considered to be processing aids and as such need not be listed on the packaging. The logic goes like this: enzymes are used up in the process of manufacture, so they shouldn’t be in the final product. They are either all spent in the process, or they are, like yeast, destroyed in the cooking. So there is no need to list them. But many, including Chris Young of the Real Bread Campaign question the health implications of Chorleywood Process bread: ‘A growing number of studies suggest that real bread produced with longer fermentation times could have positive implications in certain aspects of health and nutrition, including digestibility. By contrast, Chorleywood bread eliminates most of the fermentation time required by additive-free bread. The Real Bread Campaign believes these loaves to be ‘unripe’ and questions whether this could have a detrimental effect.’
So is Chorleywood Process bread bad? Not necessarily, we simply don’t know the effect of many of the substances added to our food. It seems to work, it seems to do its job. The bread is universally consumed around the world, but people question the wisdom of a process that relies on so many substances you wouldn’t expect to find in a natural product.
A lot has been made about the reasoning behind the Chorleywood Process. Industrial baking predates the method by around 100 years, so does it deserve the bad press it gets from some quarters?
Sailors, rationing & the National Loaf
There is something Churchillian about the National Loaf. Much of the wonderful bread produced before the Second World War came from wheat imported from Canada and the United States. Who remembers Turog? The high protein flour, naturally aged, was brought across the Atlantic and we enjoyed our bread and jam in the age of the doorstep sandwich.
The Battle for the Atlantic changed all that. Winston Churchill said a shipment of flour was not worth the life of the sailors to bring it home. Moreover, the shipping space was needed for weapons and ammunitions rather than bread for bloomers and baps. All bread making was banned except for a single loaf, the National Loaf. Derided as Hitler’s Secret Weapon, the grey bread, made using British flour was low in flavour but plentiful. When the Roosevelt’s came to the UK they noted they were served dinner on gold plates but the bread was the same as everyone else in the country had.
Bread was rationed for two years after the war from 1946 to 1948. Food Minister John Strachey explained that the Attlee government wanted to protect wheat stocks against disasters such as strikes and bad harvest conditions, which might disrupt the supply of flour. Apart from this brief period, bread has never been rationed, and it was noted that during rationing, bread consumption actually increased.
The National Loaf was abolished in 1956, and the industrialised production of bread continued apace as it had during the years prior to the war. So why the Chorleywood Process? It was nothing to do with feeding the country, there was always plenty of bread. The fears the government had about reduced wheat stocks were never a reality. The Chorleywood method was driven more by a desire to increase profit and more efficiently distribute bread to the customer. It was a great success. So much so that people today typically think it is the way bread should be.
The world in 1961 was very unstable. Fears about nuclear conflict promoted the policy that we needed to be sure of our food supplies, and the use of low protein wheat grown at home was preferable to to no bread at all, so the Chorleywood Process reflected this, a decision that fostered the additives and enzymes still included in loaves today. So why not? We don’t know about the health impacts of additives and enzymes. We can only take it on trust, or not – depending on your point of view.
But Paul Barker is adamant, ‘I don’t wish to disrespect Chorleywood Process bread. I simply want to point out the benefit of our wonderful, traditionally produced bread – and that is flavour!
‘The public needs to be educated about bread again. If not eaten, traditionally-made doesn’t remain fresh as long, but then good bread never goes off because it is always eaten! It’s something people want to eat, rather than leave for days in the bread bin.’
The British Baking Industries Research Association’s Chorleywood site is long-closed, but its legacy and the debate around it continues. The question is: what side is your bread buttered on?