History of Borodinsky bread, part 1
Russian Borodinsky rye bread has become a true icon of Russian food and culture and is well-known across the world. As with many iconic cultural artifacts, Borodinsky’s history is covered in myths and legends. This article opens a series dedicated to uncovering the history of the bread and how its recipe changed over the last century.
I’m not a historian and I can’t make a claim that this series will be 100% historically accurate, but I will try my best to present my knowledge about Borodinsky based on an online research I was doing recently.
Myths and origin
There are several popular legends you can easily find about Borodinsky bread. They mostly revolve around commemorating a bloody Battle of Borodino. Yet there are no historical documents to support any of these legends and this bread name was not in use until late 1910-s and early 1920-s. It is most likely the first use of name came around 1922 celebration of 110 years since Battle of Borodino.
Even though its well-known name is relatively modern, origins of the recipe can be traced through centuries. My research has led me to a conclusion that Borodinsky recipe and technology is based on a mixture of old Russian Monastery bread and traditional Latvian scalding methods.
It is quite hard to trace a more precise origin as there are no mentions of Borodinsky before 20th century and older recipe books tend to be imprecise. Another reason is that Russian Empire was very late to world wide industrialisation party, its population was mostly illiterate, high quality books were rare, and were mostly read by the aristocracy. And aristocracy is probably not the best target market for skilled bread making book authors.
Vladimir Lenin has proposed New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921 to revive the country which allowed limited small scale private businesses and entrepreneurships. This new policy has also helped to revive small bakeries, which started fierce competition among themselves, and these small bakeries stood behind the invention of Borodinsky rye bread. During 1920-s Borodinsky was only baked by Moscow bakeries and was only available in Moscow. There were no National standards yet and different bakeries had their own recipes.
There were three main technologies used to bake Borodinsky at the time:
- simple non scalded rye sourdough with caraway and rye malt mixed straight into the dough;
- regular sweet and sour scalded sourdough rye with different aromatic seeds mixed straight into the dough;
- scalded sourdough rye with fermented rye malt and aromatics mixed into scald which also contains all water.
This third method was used in a bakery were latvian master bakers Spredze and Zakis were working and is rooted in traditional Latvian bread baking. Latvian rye bread processes are different from others in that the scald in them is not just yet another dough development stage, it is a foundation on which the whole dough is developed. Latvian scalds usually contain all the water and all the aromatics. Then only dry ingredients are added like flour and salt.
This Latvian method was later studied in more depth and became a base for a standardised factory recipe of Borodinsky bread.
Stalin abolished NEP in 1928 and got everything nationalised. Accelerated collectivisation and industrialisation was enforced upon the country and all technological and manufacturing processes were slowly standardised. Bread manufacturing was no exception. Borodinsky bread recipe got standardised in 1934 under OST NK №1 (ОСТ НК №1) and it became the very first Soviet bread standard.
This standard is not the recipe though, it only describes attributes and properties of the finished product and bakeries had to come up with their own methods to create a bread which can pass specified requirements. Full recipe came a year later and was published in Bread Baking Technologies by L. Ya. Auerman (Технологиии хлебопечения, Л. Я. Ауэрман).
Standard from 1934 and recipe from 1935 are very different from modern variants: they don’t use coriander seeds, scalding method is quite complex and cannot be reproduced at home, bulking and proofing times are super short and even though additional sugar is added the final rise is very limited which results in a very dense bread, there’s no wheat flour and scald is made from partially sifted rye flour. And there are reasons why recipe from 1934/1935 is different from later variants. To understand them we should take a look at what was happening to Soviet Union at the time and to Russian Empire just before the Revolution.
The 19th century in Russian Empire was very problematic: never-ending stream of wars (Napoleonic Wars, Crimean War, Russo-Turkish War, Russo-Japanese War), revolts (Decembrist revolt, assasination of Alexander II by revolutionary terrorists) and unfortunate events like cholera outbreak, which killed about one million people. The 20th century did not start well either: Russian Revolution of 1905, Bloody Sunday, World War I, February Revolution, quickly followed by Russian Civil War and so on.
Things started to stabilise under Lenin’s rule and with his NEP policy, but Lenin died in 1924 and Stalin came to power throwing the whole country first into Gulags and then into famine with Ukraine being hit by genocide levels of famine.
People were exhausted, scared and depressed. Economy was devastated, crop quality was low and their accessibility was limited. To make things even worse most wheat was exported to keep economy afloat. All these troubles have led to many optimisations of Borodinsky recipe which was considered a premium type of bread.
Lack of wheat flour
During 1930-s wheat was scarce and was reserved for expensive wheat breads and pastries. Wheat flour was added to the recipe later on when USSR became less reliant on wheat export.
Two main purposes of scalding in Borodinsky is to gelatenise and to saccharinify starches and pentosans present in rye flour. Both are more concentrated in refined white rye flour while wholegrain rye flour has plenty of fibre in bran which does not participate in these processes and only steals water from starches and pentosans slowing the process down. Refined white rye flour was prohibitively expensive at the time, thus semi-refined flour was used instead as a compromise between quality and price of the bread.
Sugar and fast fermentation
The longer dough development process is the less product can a factory or bakery produce. Final fermentation times of bulking and proofing were cut to an absolute minimum and sugar was added to the dough to help with leavening. Borodinsky from 1930-s was a lot denser than modern variants.
The full recipe of 1934 Borodinsky is the only logical conclusion. And I have not one, but two recipes! The first one is a slightly altered original recipe from 1935 book which follows OST NK №1. And the second one is my improvisation in a form of a wholegrain variant made for lovely people from Whole Grain Sourdough Baker Facebook group.
It is also interesting to see how in times of great need the nation managed to industrialise bread production without compromising the quality and flavour. Borodinsky bread is a factory bread. Invented by factories for factories and based on traditional methods. A lot of people in English speaking countries are wary of factory breads, but Borodinsky is a clear example that industrialisation in itself is not a problem.
I find it very interesting to learn history of the different breads and see how methods were changing across time and which economical and political issues were affecting our food. And I hope you will enjoy this bit of history too.