I love bread -- not only eating it but baking it, and gazing at the varied sizes, shapes and visible ingredients. The variety of edible breads stares silently back at me, beckoning me to do more than just look -- but I digress.

Not only do I love to look, eat and savor bread, I love to bake and experiment with making my own.

When our children were quite young, I kneaded the dough from start to finish. Each child had a lump to thump and pinch and prod and ultimately to shape. Wonderful togetherness time.

Now I use my bread machine for 120 minutes to the dough stage, then I form that wonderful pliant mass of warm dough into whatever shape I feel inspired to at that moment -- round, elongated, oval -- and then it takes on a life of its own.

Bread is an amazing product. Its history probably dates back to the Neolithic era. The wheat grown in Mesopotania and Egypt was probably first chewed as grain, later made into a paste, then hardened over heat into a flat, unleavened mass.

Yeast spores occur everywhere, so any leftover dough could become naturally leavened. Thus yeast found its way into the gooey leftover product, and leavened, or raised, bread came about.

Some food historians cite the accidental discovery of the powers of yeast as early as 4,000 B.C. in Egypt. Dates are uncertain, but about 1,000 B.C., Egypt was able to introduce yeast directly into the dough. This fermentation of dough by yeast resulted in about 30 different kinds of breads.

The technology spread from Egypt to Greece and from there, throughout Europe. With immigration from Europe to the New World, bread continued to be highly valued and a staple of diet.

The yeast used for leavening bread is the same species used for brewing alcoholic beverages. Bread soaked in water with a sweetener resulted in a foamy fermented liquid. Poured off it became a popular "bread beer" and was drunk in large quantities by the Egyptians.

The ancient philosopher Pliny the Elder reported that the Gauls and Iberians skimmed foam from the bread beer and produced "a lighter kind of bread than other peoples." Bread was considered more important in Rome than other foods and was thought of as "the staff of life."

A new strain of wheat introduced in Egypt resulted in a whiter flour. The color of bread was associated with economic and social status -- the whiter the flour, the more important was the recipient. Today, the darker the bread and the more grains, the more expensive and nutritious it is thought to be.

The most common source of leavening, however, was to retain a piece of dough from the previous day to use as a form of sourdough starter.

A traditional process was followed by peasant families throughout Europe in past centuries. The family (usually the woman) would bake on a fixed schedule. The starter was saved from the previous week's dough, then mixed with the new ingredients. That dough was left to rise, and a piece of it was saved to be the starter for the next week's bread.

The rest was then formed into loaves, slashed with the family sign, and taken to the communal oven to bake. Eventually, these communal ovens evolved into bakeries. People who specialized in bread baking were able to mass produce cheap bread for everyone in the village.

Variations in grain, thickness, shape, and texture varied from culture to culture. Uniformly shaped bread baked in pans or tins was developed later, probably by the British. Holland is the only other European country in which pans are in general usage.

Early pioneers relied on sourdough to leaven their bread before commercial baking powder and yeast were available. Chuckwagon cooks made biscuits from starters, and Alaskan gold miners slept with their starter at night to keep it from freezing. California goldrush miners were nicknamed "sourdough" because they carried starter in their backpacks to make bread. A starter, or "sponge" as the pioneers called it, fed families for many years and was passed through families and friends.

For years, I wanted to get back to using sourdough starter, as I had let mine from long ago wear out. Since I did not know of anyone who had starter, (the best place to obtain it), I started my own from a simple recipe on the Internet.

One site warned that true sourdough bread cannot be made from a starter that contains commercial bakers yeast. Oops. That was how I started mine. However, it is probable that my yeasted starter has been taken over by natural yeasts and converted into a natural leaven. It has gotten better with time.

Sourdough bread might be somewhat or very sour, or it might be quite mild with rich, complex flavors. The degree of sourness depends on many factors including the temperature, length of fermentation, type of grains, amount of water and most importantly, the particular strains of yeast and lacto-bacilli that live in the starter.

Since it was not until the 19th-century work of Louis Pasteur that the nature of yeast was understood, I prefer to let yeast do its work and leave the process to nature rather than my understanding.

I must admit it is fascinating how yeast ferments carbohydrates in the flour and any sugar, and produces carbon dioxide, which makes the bread rise.

Now, several months later, I think my starter is a keeper as it does a very good job of turning out credible loaves of sourdough bread (or so my husband, my most loyal fan, has told me.)

Starters can be kept thriving simply by adding equal parts of water and flour to a portion of the starter every week, or sugar if not used, then kept stored in the refrigerator. Hopefully, it will last indefinitely and become even better as time goes by.

Aged starter is to be treasured, but it is important to be careful with it. If it turns pink or orange, or just smells "off," it has outlived its usefulness and must be discarded.

A loaf of bread is a wonderful way to thank someone for their specialness. However, I usually experience a note of concern because I cannot slice it open and critique it to make sure the texture is worthy of gift-giving. I have not had any complaints (who would do that?) so I can only hope that all was well beneath the crusty exterior.

It is amazing how much information is on the Internet about this. Just search "bread" or "sourdough." You will be amazed.

Ruth Moriarity is a member of the Generations Advisory Group.