Bread – baking liquids & salt
June 20, 2012
Another basic element in breadmaking is the baking liquid used. The most common liquid would at the time have been, and still is, plain water. Traditionally one can recognize alternatives or additions such as soured milk, milk, whey, buttermilk, wort, beer or even blood. It is however next to impossible to discern such details in the surviving breads. The use of any dairy products or blood would give an increase in the protein content, but the study made by Bergström could not provide any such evidence among the breads she studied. An earlier study may indicate that blood had been used for a breadlike fermented pudding.
Though most baking liquids would have been difficult to prove, Bergström found indications that some of the breads may have contained microorganisms that had originated from the brackish water around Birka. Although unconclusive, it may indicate that slightly salty water had been used for baking.
It is difficult to conclude anything about what types of liquid were used, and I guess the only thing I would outright rule out would be the use of sweet milk unless it was for something very high end, as fresh milk more or less would have been something very exclusive. Though I am quite fond of the taste and richness that whey can provide, if I were to use some malt in the bread it would fit better with just some water.
Today most breads in Scandinavia would use salt, and an unsalted bread would by most of us be considered quite unpalatable. Unsalted bread is however still baked in different parts of the world, most wellknown is perhaps the unsalted bread from Tuscany. Little in the finds indicate that the breads would have been salted, except perhaps the brackish water mentioned above.
The use of salt or not in the bread may be somewhat dependent on how it is eaten. Although there are indications that bread were indeed used with coldcuts and even butter, there are two main ways of using the bread in the medieval period. A quite simple way to use the bread, which actually was associated with the more prominent feasts, is to use bread as a plate or bread disc, that this practice was in use already in the Viking Age can be indicated in the poem Rigstula. If used as a plate for food it would make the salt in the bread less of an issue as most of the taste would come from the food on it. In a similar manner bread has been used as a base for many soups in the medieval period. In many cases clear soups were served with a slice of bread in the bottom of the bowl. This would also counter the need for salt in the bread. Though we do not know if this practice was in use during the Viking Age, again Rigstula gives a hint of a similar practice, when the thrall eats his thick and coarse bread with some stock.
Being stuck with a modern palate, I will for this bread use the brackish water of Birka as an inspiration, and make the bread just slightly salty. Brakish water would contain between 0,5 to 30 grams water/ litre and I assume that the water outside Birka is on the lower side.