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Q&A

Why didn't the dough rise during the night of the Exodus?

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When it comes to the bread, my plain understanding of the Exodus is that the Israelites left Egypt with dough (Exodus 12:34) and later baked it into unleavened bread because it had not risen (Exodus 12:39). That's what I've always understood, from the torah and from the haggadah: the dough did not rise even though some hours passed between when they kneaded it and when they baked it.

Over the last year I've learned to bake bread (I mean without using a bread machine). I've learned that dough, after kneading, left overnight rises, and that if you deflate it and shape it, it rises again, and then when you put it in the oven it rises some more. I'm not using commercial yeast but a sourdough starter, which has its roots in wild yeast.

But that's modern, so I tried to learn about how bread was made in ancient Egypt. I found this article describing a reconstruction of the process and, sure enough, the photos there are not of large fluffy loaves that we sometimes see today. (This diminished rise appears to be due to differences in the flour, both type and fineness of milling.) But it's not flatbread either; the dough, starting with wild yeast, did rise noticeably in the process. (My early loaves looked kind of like that, before I got past some beginner mistakes.)

I'm not an expert in either torah or baking. I'm trying to reconcile what the torah tells us with what I've learned empirically. What made the difference? Why was the Israelites' bread unleavened when they started with a dough that, I infer, they would have expected to rise under normal conditions?

Did the fact that they moved the dough (hastily and under pressure) make a difference?

Was their breadmaking process different from what I understand and they would have needed to do something to cause it to be leavened, a step that they missed because they were fleeing? (In particular, they probably didn't bake this bread in an oven, given that they were on the move, but how did they bake it?)

Did they do something to prevent it from rising?

Do any of our sources comment on this?

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Was their breadmaking process different from what I understand and they would have needed to do something to cause it to be leavened, a step that they missed because they were fleeing?

I'm not aware of any ancient text which explicitly tells us any civilisation's understanding of the leavening process (and I've checked a couple of sources, including Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking which is normally quite good on the historical angle), so I think that some speculation is necessary.

You mentioned using a sourdough starter: you wouldn't expect your bread to rise without it. Before baking you probably also set aside a portion of the dough to use as the starter on the next batch. So the first question which arises is whether this was standard practice at the time, or whether each batch of bread was expected to accumulate its own yeast culture (although it certainly wouldn't have been understood in those terms).

If we hypothesise that a starter was intentionally kept, then it's worth noting that you've not mentioned v8, which may be an oversight. The evening meal on the previous day was to have been with unleavened bread, which would surely have thrown off the usual breadmaking routine.

However, although it's not definitive, the idea that there were bowls dedicated to kneading bread (v34) is suggestive that maybe the yeast culture was transmitted from batch to batch by yeast which survived in the ceramic of the bowl rather than by intentional preservation of a starter from the previous batch. (Note that yeast have been recovered from ancient Egyptian ceramics and cultured by various labs). In that case it would have been starting from a very small population each time. I think it's reasonable to suppose that the dough would have needed kneading at least twice: once when you make the dough, following which yeast would have grown on the surface; and then a second kneading would have distributed them throughout the dough and allowed them to reproduce much faster and properly leaven the dough. Then v39 would be saying that they hadn't done the second kneading before leaving, and when they stopped to eat they were too impatient to knead the dough and wait.

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