Bread in extremes

Bread is something that everyone takes for granted. Humans eat it often, daily, in different forms, all around the world. But what about those in extreme environments? How do they access their daily bread? Baking Business investigates.

In the stratosphere

NASA Image (taken on board space shuttle Discovery)

The micro-gravity environment of space makes it incredibly complex to bake anything—let alone bread—there. This complexity extends past the actual baking itself to simply possessing bread in orbit.

The logistics of taking bread, or any other type of bread substitute into space, are more complex than they might originally seem. The zero-gravity nature of being away from Earth’s atmosphere comes with a danger. If bread crumbs get into any of the mechanisms involved in the running of a rocket, it could result in a fire and spell disaster for the whole mission.

Because of this risk, astronauts have to content themselves with carbs that have a much denser crumb and are less likely to make a mess. This typically takes the form of tortillas.

Bread was, in fact, completely banned in missions run by NASA after astronaut John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich aboard Gemini III in 1965. Although disaster was averted in that instance, the possession of bread in space has been openly banned since then.

Since that time, it has been the mission of several different research groups to create a non-dangerous bread that can safely be consumed in space. One such group that rose to prominence in the 2010s was Bake in Space.

At a conference in mid-2017, Sebastian D. Marcu, then head of Bake in Space said, “Think about bread. Everyone in this room probably has an emotional experience looking at it.

“Bread is more than just a staple food; it has a significance throughout our generations. Bread has always been a symbol for the quality of life. Bread always stands for home, wellbeing, quality of life.”

astronaut food

Typical food consumed by astronauts

Hence, the mission of Bake in Space was to make the process of baking bread accessible for astronauts, especially those on long-duration missions.

Unfortunately for carb-craving space-goers, the Bake in Space start-up failed to take off, with the domain being acquired by Tastylicious in 2022.

However, all hope is not lost. In 2021, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency announced the Deep Space Food Challenge, which offers prize money for anyone who can “keep astronauts fed on future long-durations space exploration missions”. The Challenge was open to entrants from around the globe, with American and Canadian entrants able to receive monetary prizes for their work.

A team led by Hope Hersh, a doctoral student studying plant molecular and cellular biology at the University of Florida, has adopted the mantle of taking bread to space. They call themselves “Team Space Bread”, and their submission to the Deep Space Food Challenge was enough to carry them through to Phase II of the challenge, where they will continue to compete against other qualifying teams.

Team Space Bread’s innovative new method for baking bread involves a ‘bread bag’ large enough to store ingredients, mix them, allow room for the dough to rise, and then be placed in the oven to bake the bread.

To avoid the problem of crumbs, Team Space Bread adapted and tested a tried-and-true recipe from the New York Times until they found one that didn’t crumble apart when consumed.

“The dough looks a little liquid-y when you mix it, but in 12 hours, you have a dough that is beautiful, risen well, and is ready to go in the oven,” Hope told Jarred Shellhouse from the University of Florida blog.

Team Space Bread won $25,000 for being successful in Phase I of the Deep Space Food Challenge, which will be reinvested in the research for the concept, Hope says.

“I’m using the money to reinvest into the project. I’m taking my idea to Phase II because I already know my proof of concept works. And I want to see astronauts bake bread!”

With the Deep Space Food Challenge set to move into Phase III in 2023 and reach its ultimate conclusion in 2024, astronauts could soon be eating a classic Earth staple while they’re far from home.

Space cookies

A similar baking innovation has already taken place in space, with astronauts successfully making DoubleTree by Hilton chocolate chip cookies from pre-made dough aboard the International Space Station in 2020. The process, however, was far from conventional, with the cookies only coming out successfully when baked for 130 minutes at roughly 160°C. Unfortunately for their interstellar creators, the cookies were returned to Earth before they could be eaten to avoid any crumb-related mishaps.

In the coldest climes

Mcmurdo Station Antarctica sign with cargo ship unloading

McMurdo Station in the Antarctic

While there is an idea that the alien landscape of the poles renders everything done there completely different from our daily norms, this is far from the case.

“Although some premade pastries are brought in, the vast majority of the bread enjoys a sacred freshly-made-from-scratch status,” former baker at McMurdo Station Ariana Berry wrote in the October 2013 issue of True Loaf magazine.

“We make our breads in a kitchen equipped not so differently from production facilities anywhere else… The only major difference may be that some of the more southern stations don’t always have freezers—we have the back doorstep for that!” she wrote.

Despite the similarities between there and here, there are some challenges to be faced when baking in extreme cold that we simply don’t experience.

Karin Jansdotter, head chef at the Troll Station in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, took up nurturing a sourdough starter during the long periods of no-contact during the cold and dark winter months down south.

But keeping a bread starter warm enough to thrive is difficult in one of the coldest environments on the surface of the planet. Karin resorted to storing her starters in a hallway with a radiator, as many rooms on the base, despite being heated, still experienced a chill or draft.

Karin’s starters lack some of the nutritional benefits that are commonly attributed to mainland sourdough starters—the absence of natural airborne bacteria in the naturally sterile base on the naturally sterile continent ensures this.

Karin’s COVID-19 sourdough journey took place at the same time as the rest of the world was going down the same path. However, for the isolated inhabitants of one of the most desolate places in the world, cultivating a living culture was even more rewarding.

“Nothing grows here,” Karin told life & thyme.

“So, seeing something bubble and change, it’s the highlight of a day to check in on my fermentations and see how it’s going. It’s something to look at and smell.”

Under the sea

HONOLULU, OAHU, HAWAII, USA - AUGUST 21, 2016: kitchen preparation room with pots and plates of USS Bowfin Submarine SS-287 at Pearl Harbor. Historic Landmark of the Japanese attack in WW II

A kitchen in a submarine.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the food that goes aboard a submarine, like the food that goes aboard a space shuttle, is premade and dehydrated. In fact, dedicated military chefs prepare high-class meals from scratch every day. Including baking the bread.

Pre-made bread is one of the things that cannot be taken on board a submarine. It spoils too quickly, and, with the limited amount of space for the necessities on these undersea vessels, it makes more sense to take along the ingredients, which can be frozen, and then bake in situ.

Leading Seaman Luke Bodnar, who has been a chef with the Navy for many years, told the ABC, “My initial assumption of the sort of kitchen I would walk into on a Navy ship was an oven and a deep fryer, but that’s just not the case. The kitchens are large and have spaces for prep, multiple fridges, up to four hot plates…, deep fryers, and every bit of equipment you could imagine.

“We bake fresh bread onboard. We are more than just chefs, definitely gets the crew pretty excited when they can smell fresh bread coming out of that galley,” he continued.

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