Making survival bread
Extracting Flour and Making Bread
In this article we look at ways flour can be extracted in a survival situation and how the flour can be baked into bread. Making bread is a valuable survival skill, because bread is a good energy food, lasts fairly well and is easily transported in the form of small loaves, buns or biscuits. Combined with other foodstuffs (nuts, corns, dried fruits, etc.), the nutritional value of the bread increases.
Basic survival wisdom is that a person can last for a long time without food. While this is scientifically true, if you ever do find yourself in a true survival situation where you have to live off the land, being genuinely hungry is one of the most psychologically depressing experiences you will face. I have tried this for real and it is alarming just how rapidly energy levels fall and one's humour goes down. Food in a survival situation is just as vital as water and shelter; the three all rank in equal importance in my opinion. Simply producing something as simple and basic as bread lifts the spirits enormously. It may not taste like the bread you are used to eating, but I can assure you - it fills your stomach and tastes delicious! It is also important to regulate digestion. If you are forced to suddenly eat a whole range of foods that your body is not used to eating, you will suffer from stomach aches, irregular bowel movements, bloating and gas. Adding bead to the diet eases a lot of these discomforts.
Grains, such as maize, are best pulverized into flour by pounding. Roots, such as cattails, have to be ground between stones. Any plant material that is high in starch is a candidate for making flour from it. All the material has to be dried before attempting to turn it into flour or it will just form a paste. If this happens, leave it to dry out and then continue the process.
This is the traditional method used throughout the Third World even today. You will see this process taking place in most rural African villages. A tub, made from a hollowed-out log is used as the mortar and a long, heavy pole that is rounded at the heavy end is used as the pestle or "pounder".
This technique works well for grains, such as, maize, sorghum, etc. In the photo (above, left) you can see a girl sifting the flour to remove chaff (the husk of the grain). It is not essential to do this, it depends how much roughage you want to have in your finished bread.
Hand grinding of grain or starch-rich roots is a traditional method for producing flour. Basically, the plant material or grain is ground between two stones to reduce it to flour. The choice of stones is important. They must not easily break down or you will end up with a lot of grit in your bread. Hard stone, such as granite, is ideal.
The lower stone, or anvil, has to be relatively flat and heavy. The grinding stone should be heavy, but not so heavy that prolonged use becomes tiring putting a lot of strain on the hands and wrists. It is a worth spending some time just grinding the two stones together before you start grinding your flour. This removes any dirt and particles of stone that would otherwise end up in your bread. Some fine stone particles will end up in your bread anyway, but these will just pass through the digestive system and are harmless. Flour ground in this way is often hand sifted. Spread out the flour and feel with your finger tips for any hard pieces of stone and remove them. You get a second chance at this when you add water and kneed into dough. Any hard pieces should be picked out and removed.
Making bread is not a modern skill; evidence shows that Early man developed this skill (bread is one of the oldest prepared foods. Evidence from 30,000 years ago in Europe revealed starch residue on rocks used for pounding plants. It is possible that during this time, starch extract from the roots of plants, such as, cattails and ferns, was spread on a flat rock, placed over a fire and cooked into a primitive form of flatbread. Around 10,000 BC, with the dawn of the Neolithic age and the spread of agriculture, grains became the mainstay of making bread) and made bread for just the same reason as a modern–day survivor would make bread. However, the flour produced in early times was based on very different grains. In various "primitive cultures" even today, a variety of seeds, roots and grains are collected and turned into flour, although there tends to be a reliance on staple grains, such as, sorghum and maize for bread-making.
For our purposes, bread, in its simplest form, is dough made by mixing four with water; the dough is then cooked in an oven to bake it into bread. Even in a survival situation, bread may contain other ingredients, such as milk, egg, sugar, salt, spice, fruit, vegetables, nuts or seeds - depending on the circumstances surrounding the survivor. Bread may be regarded as falling into two types: leavened bread, which uses yeast to make it rise, or unleavened bread (flatbread), which does not use yeast.
It is possible to make both leavened and unleavened bread even in a survival situation. Leavened bread requires yeast to make the dough rise (filling it with gas bubbles). Even though commercially produced baker's yeast may not be available, yeast spores are found everywhere, including on the surface of cereal grains, so any dough left to rest will become naturally leavened as the natural yeast multiplies. Airborne yeasts can be utilized by leaving uncooked dough exposed to warm air for some time before cooking. However, wild yeasts give unpredictable results, some yielding a taste that is not so pleasant; this means that some experimentation is needed. Saving a piece of leavened dough that gave good results is useful, as this can then be used as a leavening agent in future bread making. This sample has to be kept in an airtight wrapping or container. If you can't protect it in this way it is not worth saving it.
Even in a limited situation it is possible to make quite palatable bread. I have done this many times using flour from a variety of plants. I prefer to make unleavened bread, simply because it is less likely to spoil than leavened bread that relies on wild yeasts. Unleavened bread also lasts longer without moulding because it has lower moisture content and is less at risk of attack by fungal spores. Unleavened bread is quickly made, the dough can be mixed, the bread cooked and eaten straight away. It is also easy to cook the bread right-through; leavened bread, if not carefully baked, can be doughy in the interior and is trickier to get right.
Making the dough
In bread making, flour is always stated as 100%, and the rest of the ingredients are a percentage of that amount by weight. It helps to add some salt if you have any; it is best to add salt once you have made the bread dough and after it has rested for 20 minutes. For unleavened bread, use 50% water, for leavened bread, use 60 to 75% water by weight. If you cannot weigh the ingredients, add water to the flour and work it with your fingers until it is firm but not sticky. Add more water or flour until you have a firm, soft ball of dough. If you don't have a bowl to work in, use a flat plank of clean wood, pile the flour into a heap, make a hole in the centre of the heap, pour in a little water and work the flour from the edges to the centre, adding more water or flour as needed.
Once you have a firm, pliable ball of dough, pound it down on your work surface and work it back into a ball a few times. If it sticks to the surface, dust the surface with a little flour. If you want to add seeds, chopped nuts, fruit, etc., do it at this stage and work them well into your ball of dough. Adding 3% by weight of fat to the dough (butter, margarine, animal fat, etc.) will help leavened bread to rise, make unleavened bread less chewy and help the bread to last longer. If you want to make leavened bread, cover the dough and leave it for a few hours to rise in a warm place as the yeast multiplies in the dough. It makes better bread if you pound it back into a ball a couple of times during this process and leave it to rise again.
Whether you make leavened or unleavened bread, it is best in a survival situation to bake buns, biscuits or small loaves. This ensures they cook right through and if you spoil them in the baking, you haven't lost all your precious dough.
Damper is a very traditional and unique style of unleavened bread, which was baked in the hot coals of a cooling camp fire. The name comes from the way the dough was placed in coals of the camp fire after it had been dampened a bit. Originally, damper was a very simple mixture consisting of flour and water, with salt added for flavour. These ingredients were mixed into dough and because cooking pans were an extra burden to carry, the dough was normally placed directly upon the hot coals of an open fire place, being turned over when the first side was cooked. A variation is to wrap the dough around a stick and then cook over an open fire.
During the early days of colonization of Australia damper bread was a staple food in the bush and a favourite of swagmen and drovers because the dry ingredients could be easily carried and they only needed to add water to the mix.
Balls of bread dough can also be dropped into boiling water and cooked this way as dumplings.
There are various ways bread can be baked in a survival situation. In the above photo, unleavened bread dough is being baked on a hot metal plate placed directly over the cooking fire. Greasing the plate improves the bread but do not use too much fat or oil as this then turns into a frying process. A hot, flat rock could be used instead, but take great care when heating any type of stone as the water content in certain stones will expand in the heat causing the stone to explode, sending hot shards of stone flying everywhere. If you heat up stone, first prove it by lighting a fire under it, leaving it to heat up and then cool down a few times without being anywhere remotely nearby.
Making a clay oven
Traditionally, bread (leavened or unleavened) is baked in an oven. It is quite practical to make a bread oven in a survival situation if you are in an area where you have access to clay soil, water and dried grass or straw. Various methods of bread oven construction are possible. The simplest is to make an igloo shape out of bent sticks, weaving more sticks though the basic frame. Cover the frame in a thick layer of clay mixed with straw. It takes a little experimentation to get the ratio of clay to straw correct, if you use too much or too little the clay will crack. The photo below should give you a better idea of the clay/straw ratio. Once you have made your small clay igloo, leave it to dry out naturally for as long as possible.
The next stage is to light a fire inside your clay igloo. The framework of sticks you used to support the clay will burn away and (hopefully) you will be left with the baked clay outer walls. This is your bread oven. Do not make too fierce a fire inside the oven; you are drying out the clay, not making a blast furnace. The photos below show the clay oven before and during firing.
To use the finished oven, build a small fire inside and allow the oven to heat up until the outer surface is too hot to touch. Rake out the burning material and put the bread loaf, cakes, biscuits, etc. inside. To retain the heat in the oven, close the entrance up with piece of wood, clay sods, etc.
There are many possible variations on making a clay oven; the method described above is fast and effective in a survival situation. For a more permanent oven, it is possible to make bricks from clay and straw and build a similar shape to larger dimensions. Instead of using a twig framework, build up the shape with soil, cover the soil in leaves and then plaster over it with your clay and straw. Build up this outer layer and smooth the outer surface using wet hands. Before the clay is dry cut out the opening. Then leave to harden. Once fully dry, dig out the soil with your hands and you are left with the clay oven. Fire the clay oven as described above before using it for the first time. If you want a more permanent oven, build a shelter over it to protect it from rain.
If the weather is particularly stormy, consider making a snake hole fire instead of an open fire:
Choose a section of sloping ground facing into the wind. For this fire to work well it needs a strong draught of air rushing up the tube. Start by digging out the lower fire pit and then dig down from the top. You should be able to get your bent arm from the top hole to the bottom hole. Remove any stones or pebbles as they may explode when heated. The snake-hole should be narrower at the bend than at the exit or entrance to create a "chimney effect". Build a small fire in the lower hole and keep feeding it until it is burning strongly, then push it as far into the hole as possible without putting the fire out. Use long sticks to feed into the fire so you can adjust its heat by either pushing them in to make the fire hotter or pulling them out to reduce the fire's heat.