The great Roman bake off: How to recreate the iconic panis quadratus in 5 easy steps

The ancient Roman bar menu would not be complete without the daily staple of bread. Whether it was to accompany a fragrant, freshly made soft cheese (CIL IV 5380) or to dip in a dish of piquant pulmentarium (a relish), a hunk of bread was the perfect partner. The Romans had a wide variety of breads to choose from, some, for example, were flavoured with aromatic spices such as fennel (Philostratus the Elder, Imag. 2.26), pepper (Ath. 113d) or cumin (Cato Agr. 121), one resembled the shape of a mushroom (Ath. 113c) and another cracking loaf was oven-baked in a clay pot until the pot burst (Plin. HN. 18.27). But the star bake of the Roman world was the panis quadratus, so named because of the four incisions across the top of the loaf (Ath. 114e). With its tempting golden crust and user-friendly tear-and-share segments, it’s a showstopper of a loaf, so why not give it a go?

You will need
300g spelt flour
200ml bread starter or 7g quick yeast
6g salt
250ml tepid water

Put the flour, salt, starter or quick yeast into a large mixing bowl and add half of the water. Mix with your fingers to combine, adding more water, little by little, as required (I used 150ml of water for the starter dough mix and 220ml for the quick yeast version — you may need more or less). The dough should be soft but not too wet.

Tip the dough onto a work surface that has been lightly smeared with olive oil and begin to knead. After around ten minutes, the rough, lumpy dough will become silky smooth and hold together as a neat ball.

Place the dough into a bowl that has been lightly coated with olive oil and cover with a damp cloth or cling film. Leave in a warm place until doubled in size (the starter dough took three hours, the quick yeast one hour — it will depend on the temperature of your room).

Once risen, tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knock out the air. Shape into a slightly flattened ball and place on a baking tray. Cover with a damp cloth or cling film and leave to rise until doubled in size (the starter dough took four hours, the quick yeast one hour).

If, after proving, the dough has spread and resembles a cow pat, lightly dust your hands with flour and gently coax it back into shape. Now for the fun part. Cut a piece of twine that’s large enough to go around the circumference of the bread. Sift flour onto the top of the dough then use your twine to make four indents across the top to get that characteristic panis quadratus look. Now carefully wrap the twine around the bread about half way up, tighten slightly and tie. For added detail, use the end of a wooden spoon to make a circular dip in the centre of the bread. Bake in the oven at 2200C/4250F for 30 minutes or until the bread sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.

While the bread is cooling, grab yourself a bowl of olives and a glass of conditum. Then sit back and take in the smells and tastes that the Romans enjoyed 2000 years ago.

Left, the freshly baked 2021 panis quadratus and right, the carbonised version from AD 79.

Colour: A fetching rustic golden brown.
Smell: There’s nothing better than the smell of freshly baked bread, and this loaf doesn’t disappoint. The spelt flour produces a beautiful rich, malty aroma with earthy undertones.
Taste: Nutty with a hint of sweetness.
Texture: The crusty top gives way to a soft and slightly grainy textured interior, dense and satisfying.

Images: Paula Lock

Bibliography and further reading

Dalby, A. Food in the Ancient World from A-Z. London: Routledge, 2003.

Faas, P. Around the Roman Table. London: Macmillan, 2003.

Grant, Mark, and Jane Smith. Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens. London: Serif, 2008.

Monteix, N. ‘Contextualizing the Operational Sequence: Pompeian Bakeries as a Case Study’. In Urban Craftsmen and Traders in the Roman World, edited by Andrew Wilson and Miko Flohr. Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

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