Buns In The Oven

Why is the smell of bread baking so enticing?



There is the anticipated deliciousness, of course. After hours and hours of aromatic torture/bliss, we can finally saw our way through the satisfying crisp of the crust into the steaming crumb. Next step: drizzle on that sizzling butter.

Then there is the nostalgia. Some of the sweetest smells at our house came from Mum’s homemade Jamaican buns, laced with tiny slivers of red pepper, nutmeg and cloves. Hidden under freshly laundered tea towels – not sufficiently hidden to prevent stealth dough-knicking – these famous buns took forever to rise.

But, when they finally got into the oven? Good grief. It was a smell that demanded total submission. The moment that timer went off, Dad leapt up from his typewriter in the basement, and I threw down my bedroom phone. Enchanted neighbours materialized at the front door. Boobus the chubby daschund took her place at the edge of the kitchen table.

Together, we waited for that glorious moment when the three-part buns tumbled out of their pans. No time for cooling. Break them apart, and slather on the secret spice butter.

You too may have odor-cued memories of baking bread from your childhood. A 2017 Irish Times article describes a bread aroma survey of 1000 adults. 63% said the scent of baking bread summoned up happy childhood memories. 29% associated these bread memories with the word ‘Mum’ or ‘Mother.’ A full 89% admitted that the smell of baking bread made them feel happy.


Edouard Manet. The Brioche. 1870


And what is the chemistry behind this intoxicating bread-in-the-oven smell?

Dr. Amalia Scannell and her team at University College Dublin have identified more than 540 volatile compounds in bread, 12 of which play a particularly important role in creating its fragrancy. What can the scent tell us about the terroir, yeast, or wheat of any one bread?

Much as one thinks about ‘notes’ in wines, we can consider the aromas we detect when breathing in bread.

i.    Milk, butter, diacetyl
ii.   Green apple, grapefruit, lemon, vinegar
iii.  Fresh cheese, buttermilk, plain yogurt, aged cheese
iv.   Baked onion, dark beer, baked chestnut, cheese gratin
v.    Fig, raisin, stewed fruit
vi.   French roast coffee beans, vanilla bean, aged balsamic vinegar
vii.  Malty, popped grains, nutty
viii. Butterscotch, toffee, chocolate, molasses
ix.   Raw starch, raw green beans, pea shoots, straw, dry yeast
x.    Cooked spaghetti, steamed potatoes, cooked oatmeal, yeasty champagne
xi.   Cooked wholegrains, cooked dried beans, green olive, flint, slate, mineral
xii.  Beer, grapefruit pith, turned red wine, sherry


Now, bring on the melted butter!


Header Art: Luis Mélendez. The Afternoon Meal (La Merienda). ~ 1772










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Elizabeth Newton

Elizabeth Newton