'Fantasy Bread'

by Lutz Popper and Christof Schrircke
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Pita is far and away the most popular kind of bread in Iran. But especially in the middle class, interest in western baking traditions is growing. Entering this segment can be an interesting opportunity for Iranian bakeries, since the so called “fantasy breads” are not subject to state price controls, unlike subsidized pita bread.

Warm and fresh, direct from the street baker – that’s how Iranians like their pita.

“Nan” is the most eaten food in Iran. It’s basic to the Iranian diet and is part of every meal. There are different versions in different regions, the most familiar being Sangak, Barbari, Taftoon and Lavash.

Bread isn’t baked ahead of time but only as needed, so customers don’t have a problem with standing in line at their favorite bakery. After all, freshness is the first priority.

The baking business is still very much an artisanal affair – about 60,000 small bakeries supply Iranians with pita just in time, from early in the morning to late at night.

The flour they use is grown largely in Iran, due to government policies aimed at reducing imports and promoting self-reliance. That’s an ambitious goal in view of the high demand for flour. At 150 kg per capita, Iran has an unusually high rate of wheat consumption.

The Iranian government does not leave pita prices to the free market, but instead subsidizes it to make sure that it is affordable to all. For bakeries, that means that they must adhere to narrow pricing restrictions.

To get around these restrictions, some bakeries are going in new directions and catering to the demand of the growing middle class for so-called fantasy breads, meaning breads that look and taste more like European products. There are no government price controls for these breads.

Problems in production

But most bakers don’t find the switch to be entirely without problems.

One difficulty is presented by the nature of Iranian wheat flour. Its protein content and gluten quality are often not up to the demands of western-style bread making.

By comparison with nan, for example, white bread in loaves requires flour with high volume formation, high water absorption and high gas retention. Western breads also need a soft, even crumb.

Flour treatment gaining in importance

Until recently, flour standardization and improvement were non-issues in Iran. The artisan bakers used their decades of skill and experience to manually compensate for fluctuations in raw materials and harvest quality. But for fantasy bread bakeries, with their higher level of mechanization and much broader product range, flour treatment can be essential to success. Highly specific functional compounds can improve the qualities of flour to such an extent that even locally grown wheat can be used to turn out crisp baguettes, soft hamburger buns and moist grain breads.

Currently the trend with Iranian consumers is toward slightly rustic baked goods, enriched with selected color and flavor malts to get a characteristic appearance and flavorful taste.

The following is a typical recipe for rustic wheat dough, as might be modified in various ways by adding grains, seeds, whole grain or rye flour to get a wide assortment of products.

Kneading time 2 minutes slow/6 minutes fast

Standing time 10 minutes

Per loaf 600 grams

Intermediate rising time 3 minutes

Rising conditions 32 degrees C / 82% humidity

Rising time about 45 minutes

Baking temperature 230 degrees C

Baking time 30 minutes

In addition to the trend to fantasy breads, Euromonitor International predicts that in the coming years Iran will see a shift from unpackaged artisanal bread to packaged industrially-produced bread.

This means that freshness retention and machine workability will become issues that require raw-material based solutions.

In addition, Iranian wheat farmers frequently have to deal with insect infestation. There are effective flour treatments that can help limit the quality problems caused by pests.

The above chart shows a survey of common product problems and possible remedies.

Dr. Lutz Popper is head of R&D at Mühlenchemie. He can be reached at lpopper@muehlenchemie.de.