The old time art of survival bread – part 1

Unleavened bread making
Unleavened bread making

In this first of two articles from James Mandeville, we look at ways flour can be extracted in a survival situation and some information on history and types of bread. In part two we will cover making the dough and baking the bread in different types of oven.  Part 2 Here

Making bread is a valuable survival skill because bread is a good energy food, lasts fairly well and is easily transported in the form of small loaves, buns or biscuits. Combined with other foodstuffs (nuts, corns, dried fruits, etc.), the nutritional value of the bread increases.

Basic survival wisdom is that a person can last for a long time without food. While this is scientifically true, if you ever do find yourself in a true survival situation where you have to live off the land, being genuinely hungry is one of the most psychologically depressing experiences you will face. I have tried this for real, and it is alarming just how rapidly energy levels fall, and one’s humor goes down.


Food in a survival situation is just as vital as water and shelter; the three all rank in equal importance in my opinion. Simply producing something as simple and basic as bread lifts the spirits enormously. It may not taste like the bread you are used to eating, but I can assure you – it fills your stomach and tastes delicious!

It is also important to regulate digestion. If you are forced to suddenly eat a whole range of foods that your body is not used to eating, you will suffer from stomach aches, irregular bowel movements, bloating and gas. Adding bread to the diet eases a lot of these discomforts.

Extracting flour

Grains, such as maize, are best pulverized into flour by pounding. Roots, such as cattails, have to be ground between stones. Any plant material that is high in starch is a candidate for making flour from it.

All the material has to be dried before attempting to turn it into flour, or it will just form a paste. If this happens, leave it to dry out and then continue the process.


This is the traditional method used throughout the Third World even today. You will see this process taking place in most rural African villages.


A tub, made from a hollowed-out log is used as the mortar, and a long, heavy pole that is rounded at the heavy end is used as the pestle or “pounder.”


Mortar and pestle

This technique works well for grains, such as maize, sorghum, etc. In the photo (above, left) you can see a girl sifting the flour to remove chaff (the husk of the grain). It is not essential to do this; it depends on how much roughage you want to have in your finished bread.



Hand grinding of grain or starch-rich roots is a traditional method for producing flour. Basically, the plant material or grain is ground between two stones to reduce it to flour. The choice of stones is important. They must not easily break down, or you will end up with a lot of grit in your bread. Hard stone, such as granite, is ideal.

Grinding flour

The lower stone, or anvil, has to be relatively flat and heavy. The grinding stone should be heavy, but not so heavy that prolonged use becomes tiring putting a lot of strain on the hands and wrists.

It is a worth spending some time just grinding the two stones together before you start grinding your flour. This removes any dirt and particles of stone that would otherwise end up in your bread.

Some fine stone particles will end up in your bread anyway, but these will just pass through the digestive system and are harmless. Flour ground in this way is often hand sifted. Spread out the flour and feel with your finger tips for any hard pieces of stone and remove them.

You get a second chance at this when you add water and kneed into dough. Any hard pieces should be picked out and removed.

Making bread

Making bread is not a modern skill; evidence shows that Early man developed this skill (bread is one of the oldest prepared foods.

Evidence from 30,000 years ago in Europe revealed starch residue on rocks used for pounding plants. It is possible that during this time, starch extract from the roots of plants, such as, cattails and ferns, was spread on a flat rock, placed over a fire and cooked into a primitive form of flatbread.

Around 10,000 BC, with the dawn of the Neolithic age and the spread of agriculture, grains became the mainstay of making bread) and made bread for just the same reason as a modern–day survivor would make bread.

However, the flour produced in early times was based on very different grains. In various “primitive cultures” even today, a variety of seeds, roots and grains are collected and turned into flour, although there tends to be a reliance on staple grains, such as sorghum and maize for bread-making.

For our purposes, bread, in its simplest form, is dough made by mixing four with water; the dough is then cooked in an oven to bake it into bread.


Image Source
Image Source

Even in a survival situation, bread may contain other ingredients, such as milk, egg, sugar, salt, spice, fruit, vegetables, nuts or seeds – depending on the circumstances surrounding the survivor.

Bread may be regarded as falling into two types: leavened bread, which uses yeast to make it rise, or unleavened bread (flatbread), which does not use yeast.

It is possible to make both leavened and unleavened bread even in a survival situation. Leavened bread requires yeast to make the dough rise (filling it with gas bubbles). Even though commercially produced baker’s yeast may not be available, yeast spores are found everywhere, including on the surface of cereal grains, so any dough left to rest will become naturally leavened as the natural yeast multiplies.

Airborne yeasts can be utilized by leaving uncooked dough exposed to warm air for some time before cooking. However, wild yeasts give unpredictable results, some yielding a taste that is not so pleasant; this means that some experimentation is needed.

Saving a piece of leavened dough that gave good results is useful, as this can then be used as a leavening agent in future bread making. This sample has to be kept in an airtight wrapping or container. If you can’t protect it in this way, it is not worth saving it.

Even in a limited situation, it is possible to make quite palatable bread. I have done this many times using flour from a variety of plants. I prefer to make unleavened bread, simply because it is less likely to spoil than leavened bread that relies on wild yeasts.

Unleavened bread also lasts longer without moulding because it has lower moisture content and is less at risk of attack by fungal spores.

Unleavened bread is quickly made, the dough can be mixed, the bread cooked and eaten straight away.

It is also easy to cook the bread right-through; leavened bread, if not carefully baked, can be doughy in the interior and is trickier to get right.

Read part two – Making Dough, Baking Bread & Outdoor Ovens



Thanks to James Mandeville for this article.  Jame is an ex-Army survival instructor and runs the popular survival website site Survival Expert.

He has many years experience in difficult terrain, notably the Amazon, the African bush and climbing in various mountain regions including the Drakensburg Mountains and the Andes.


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