How did ancient Egyptians bake? After 54 loaves, scholar finds answers

The technique implies covering the inside of the conical bread moulds with a layer of fine sandy clay, heating the moulds up horizontally and shaping the dough in advance into elongated pieces.

Freshly baked bread cools at a bakery in Beirut, Lebanon June 30, 2020. (photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR / REUTERS)
Freshly baked bread cools at a bakery in Beirut, Lebanon June 30, 2020.
(photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR / REUTERS)
How did the Egyptians bake bread some 4,500 years ago? The question has puzzled archaeologists for many years, in light of the profusion of cooking vessel remains and even iconographic evidence that pointed toward the Israelites’ nemesis baked their dough in conical molds. Until one researcher decided to take the matter literally into her own hands and to start baking with one goal in mind: to uncover the technique used to bake bread so many millennia ago, including the recipe.
“The production of bread is well documented for Pharaonic Egypt, particularly through images of food processing that are part of the decoration of Old and Middle Kingdom elite tombs, and so-called bread molds – ceramic cooking utensils found in large numbers in archaeological sites,” wrote Dr. Adeline Bats of the Sorbonne University in Paris in a paper recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. “Nevertheless, despite this rich documentation, the chaîne opératoire is not well known and understood.”
Bats started the project, which was part of her doctoral dissertation, by analyzing the iconography.
During the Old Kingdom (2750–2250 BCE), most of the images, usually featured in burial places, could be grouped into three categories: heating the mold in the fire, removing it and pouring liquid into its interior. During the Middle Kingdom, molds appeared to be heated up in a fireplace and then filled with semi-solid dough.
For her experiments, the archaeologist decided to heat and bake the bread in open fireplaces in shallow pits.
“For all the experiments, several bread molds were either produced in Aubechies (Belgium) or Ain Sukhna (Egypt), each time using local clay. Fresh donkey dung and gravel were used as temper. The ceramics were fired in open fireplaces at temperatures between 850◦ C and 950◦ C,” she pointed out.
While for millennia, bread has been a staple of human diet prepared by kneading a mixture of flour and water, the specific recipe used by Egyptians at the time was not known. Organic findings from the relevant archaeological sites indicated two types of grain were cultivated at the time, common barley and emmer wheat.
“It was essential to work with at least one of these plants, which are very rarely cultivated in the world today. So, R. Feuillas, a farmer-baker and specialist in ‘old wheat’ varieties, was asked to participate in this research project. R. Feuillas provided an organic ‘black emmer’ flour. This cereal was used during all the experiments. Emmer produces a tasty, low gluten and highly digestible flour,” Bats noted.
“In the absence of reliable data regarding the use of yeast and sourdough in association with the conical molds of the Middle Kingdom, I opted to carry out several tests with sourdough starter of einkorn (Triticum monococcum) at our disposal, or long spontaneous fermentations,” she wrote.
The researcher carried out several experiments, with different mixtures, temperatures and humidity levels, with the goal of producing “a perfectly baked bread (with no trace of charring or a semi-baked mushy appearance) that would release itself perfectly from the ceramic without breaking it.”
Some 54 loaves were produced during the study. After several attempts, the most successful dough was the one comprised of 1 kg. of 100% bran black emmer, 15 gr. of salt, 170 gr. of einkorn sourdough starter and 750 gr. of water.
The technique implies covering the inside of the conical bread molds with a layer of fine sandy clay, heating the molds up horizontally and shaping the dough in advance into elongated pieces.
“In accordance with certain iconographic representations, the molds were staggered and rolled regularly (every five minutes in order to maintain a rhythm and to record temperatures), a positioning facilitated by the conical shape of the ceramics,” Bats added. “After 60 minutes of baking between 100◦ C and 120◦ C, the dough was completely baked. During the firing process, it slightly detached from the ceramic and a crust formed on the outside. On the inside, thanks to the presence of sourdough starter, a dense honeycomb formed, allowing a good distribution of hot air during baking.”
In this way, the molds were not broken while taking out the loaves, and only a small quantity of charcoals was used to bake several breads at the same time.
“In my dream, similarly, there were three openwork baskets on my head. In the uppermost basket were all kinds of food for Pharaoh that a baker prepares; and the birds were eating it out of the basket above my head,” Pharaoh’s chief baker tells Joseph in the biblical Book of Genesis, as the two find themselves in prison together along with the King of Egypt’s chief cupbearer.
Were some of the foods he prepared for Pharaoh baked in a conical mold? This mystery might remain hard to solve.