Bread is the first thing to get tossed out of contemporary weight-reduction diet trends. The equation between gluten (the collection of proteins that develops in places like bread dough, giving it the elasticity we are looking for when kneading) and weight gain, has soured many on the queen of carbs. This effort to live bread-free lives has led to the production of highly processed, gluten-free mimicry products, the use of leafy greens in place of bread, and the myth that our “Paleo (lithic)” forebears didn’t indulge in fermented cereal loaves.
The truth is that the evidence of bread-like preparations has been discovered throughout archaeological sites dating back to prehistoric times. Cultures spanning the globe all came to similar conclusions about the nutritional and cultural value of mixing pulverized starches with water, kneading the resulting dough to develop aeration and fermentation, then applying heat to bake the foodstuff for consumption. This is how from Ethiopian injera to Indian chapati to Middle Eastern lavash to Central American tortillas, diverse people spread across Earth all learned to pick up their food with a scrap of bread.
The ubiquitous presence of bread throughout time has made it culturally important. Called the “staff of life” in the Old Testament, bread represents the body of Christ in the Eucharist, by the time of the New Testament. European cultures have retained this importance, making bread-baking an integral part of their diverse cultures, assigning overtones life, the bounty of the earth, and even fertility to bread.
In Latin America, we have benefitted from both the aboriginal inventions that employ corn, wheat, and yucca flours in the creation of loaves as diverse as a crispy tortilla to a chewy pan de queijo, together with the European aesthetic that has inspired preparations like the Chilean marraqueta, a sort of baguette criolla. Centuries of experimentation have produced authentically Latin preparations that are absolutely worth that extra pound or two. Here are ten delicious applications of our universal “knead” for basic bread, including some naturally gluten-, dairy-, and egg-free loaves, suitable for those with celiac disease or nutritional sensitivities:
Pan de Queijo
Even by any other one of the half dozen names you can give it, this yuca-floured preparation is the darling of Brazil, Bolivia, and Colombia. Suitable for those avoiding gluten because it contains none of the wheat proteins, deriving its elasticity from cassava flour and cheese instead, these rolls are also known as pan de bono, pan de yuca, almojabana, cuñape, or even buñuelo (when deep-fried). Check your local Latin grocery for pre-mixed flour packs to which you can add water, cheese, and eggs, or mix up a batch from scratch with this easy recipe from the folks at Serious Eats.
A similar list of ingredients to pan de queijo was put to the test further south in the cattle-ranching cultures of Argentina and Paraguay. The chipa caburé is the cheesy bread made with manioc flour (also known as yuca or cassava) developed by the Guaraní people who already lived in southern Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and parts of Bolivia before the conquest. As gaucho culture developed after the encounter of the original inhabitants of the regions and the newly arrived Spaniards, South American cowboys learned to bake these bread skewered over an open fire. Try kneading the bread as specified and blistering on a cooktop grill pan to replicate the gaucho way.
Hot from grills throughout Colombia and Venezuela, the cooked cornmeal-based arepa is integral to these cultures. In Antioquia, Colombia, these corn patties can be mixed simply from corn flour, salt, and water, grilled to a flat, plain disk much like a tortilla, designed to accompany a main meal. Alternately, the basic dough can be enriched with butter and cheese or a whole fried egg, to make a satisfying snack. In Venezuela, the dough is baked until puffed, so that the cooked arepa can be split and filled with anything from shredded meat to vegetables and cheese, making the arepa a meal unto itself.
Popular in El Salvador, where they originated, Honduras, and spreading throughout Central America, the pupusa is related to the Mexican tortilla just as Colombian and Venezuelan arepas resemble one another. Both made of cornmeal and water, the tortilla is pressed into a flat disk while the pupusa is oiled and puffed, so it can be split and stuffed rather than topped. The technique is easy for those who practice it regularly; for the rest of us, a tortilla press can be infinitely helpful.
Fans of tortas or super-tasty Mexican sandwiches with fresh fillings, know that it’s not only about the tortillas. Around the 19th century, French bread became aspirational in the Americas. Mexican cooks and bakers, with their impressive skill set, had little trouble making individual roll-versions of the crusty, white wheat flour bread. Called bolillo, it is the base for tortas, eaten at breakfast, or sliced and offered as part of a breadbasket.
Chileans eat almost as much bread as Germans, with the two nations heading up the list worldwide. In part, because Chileans descend from waves of immigration from Europe, the local bread and baked goods resemble the ones from the Old Country and bakeries are a big deal. My Chilean friend still dreams of her daily marraqueta. Like the Mexican bolillo, the marraqueta is the Creole answer to the European hankering.
But like a French baguette, the marraqueta is temperamental about humidity and therefore notoriously difficult to bake at home. For a more attainable taste of Chile, try your hand at pan amasado, instead, which adds a little fat to the white flour and is easier to work with. (The name literally means “kneaded bread”, a vote of confidence for the home baker).
You know how a French baguette is so crispy it might tear the roof of your mouth, while if you squeeze a loaf of Italian bread, it softly gives? Cuban bread is to a Chilean marraqueta or a Mexican bolillo as baguette is to Italian. In fact, Cuban bread is Italiano-criollo, the invention of an Italo-Spanish Cuban immigrant in Tampa’s Ybor City in the late 1800s. A staple in South Florida since then, Cuban bread is the basis for Cuban sandwiches, of course, but also ubiquitous in cafeterias throughout South Florida. Lightly toasted with a smear of jam, el pan cubano is a complete breakfast. Try it at home:
Pan de Agua
Puerto Rico’s answer to European bread is their pan de agua or “water bread.” A white flour loaf with a slightly crispy crust and an airy white crumb, a loaf of this bread approximate French preparations, omitting fat and eggs from the dough. Though the dough is similar to a baguette, the baking process behind a loaf of pan de agua achieves the crispiness differently. Don’t be afraid to try it at home.
Another European style bread present at bakeries throughout Colombia is named for its plaited shape rather than its use or its ingredients. A fat-and egg-enriched dough, this braided loaf is often studded with raisins or woven through with additional ingredients. Easy to knead, let rise, and bake at home, there are strong similarities between this recipe, in both ingredients and methodology, and Jewish challah. Colombia absorbed a large contingent of Jewish refugees and converts after Spain’s Inquisition, families who continued to practice certain rituals covertly. It would not be surprising if this loaf, still baked in kitchens and shops today, was also a vestige of those times. Day-old loaves make spectacular French toast.
You can find sopapillas in Spanish-speaking countries from México to Argentina, and even up into the United States’ Southwest. A yeasted dough that is fried rather than baked, it resembles the Native American fry bread in flavor, technique, and its American origin. This is not a bread that attempts to replicate a European preparation. It is eaten alongside other foods in its savory application and can also be topped with sugar or honey for a doughnut-like dessert.