Where to Buy the Best Pandesal, and Its History and Significance
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A Toast to Pan de Sal: The Story Behind This Well-Loved Filipino Bread

And why it remains a Filipino favorite.

by Patricia Baes
Apr 30, 2020

(SPOT.ph) Filipinos love their rice, but there is a special place in the Filipino heart (and stomach) for the humble pan de sal. You can find it everywhere, from the neighborhood panaderya to the supermarket to higher-end artisanal bakeries. It forms the basis of many a Filipino’s daily breakfast—it’s enjoyed hot in the early hours of the morning, often alongside a cup of coffee. Take a bite out of a freshly baked piece and you’ll be rewarded with its thin, ever-so-slightly crisp exterior, lightly dusted with breadcrumbs, and soft interior that’s slightly sweet—delicious with or without a spread (palaman).

In the quest to discover more about this everyday bread, we talked to food writer and one-time Spot.ph blogger Jenny Orillos, who co-authored the book Panaderia: Philippine Bread, Biscuit and Bakery Traditions (Anvil Publishing, Inc.) with Amy Uy in 2015. The book explores the different breads found in local bakeries, and was heralded the Best Food Book at the 35th Philippine National Book Awards.

How Pan de Sal is Made

Pan de sal is best savored first thing in the morning. PHOTO: Sandra Dans/SPOT.ph archives

Making pan de sal at the panaderya is generally similar to making any other bread, but with a few steps in the process that make it special. Old recipes employ a sponge, or starter dough, with which a second set of ingredients is then mixed to form a dough. It is then fermented for several hours, which helps develop its structure and flavor, and kneaded by hand and beaten on the side of a table to help develop the gluten structure. “It’s a rhythmic, noisy and labor-intensive process that gives the panaderia its artisanal flair,” says Orillos. Bakers today, however, have the option of using an industrial mixer to make the dough, for ease and convenience.

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A peek into pan de sal made by Kamuning Bakery. 
PHOTO BY Sandra Dans/SPOT.PH ARCHIVES
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It is the shaping process that distinguishes pan de sal from its other bread cousins. “The panadero [a.k.a. baker] first forms the dough the dough into a narrow rectangle then carefully but swiftly forms it into a baston—[the] Filipino word for cane—and rolls it in breadcrumbs,” Orillos explains. “Only then is it cut into smaller pieces using a wooden cutter then dusted again in breadcrumbs before placing them on the baking sheet.” The pieces are arranged into the pan with the cut side up, which helps showcase the narrow, pointy edges, referred to as the singkit or gatla, which are characteristic of the bread—the rustic, panaderya-made versions, anyway. “You won’t see this singkit mark in industrial-made soft pan de sal,” says Orillos.

The History of Pan de Sal

The best pan de sal is made by hand. Pictured here is Manu Mano in Banawe, a bakery that puts a premium on doing everything by hand. PHOTO: Marikit Singson/SPOT.PH ARCHIVES

You’d wonder how such a bread had gained such significance among a rice-eating nation. Wheat isn’t native to the Philippines, and Filipinos were traditionally dependent on rice for their carbohydrate needs—that is, until the Portugese, and eventually the Spanish colonizers, came to take over the country. According to Filipino chef and food historian Ariel Layug in a writeup on Eater, they needed wheat to produce ostia, or commune bread. And as bread is a Spanish staple, explains Orillos, it was only inevitable that they’d look for a taste of home in this “newfoundland.”

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Based on their research for their book Panaderia, Orillos shares that there was an attempt to grow wheat in the islands, but this was not successful, so bakers instead turned to imported flour. Wheat flour and wheat grains were imported by the Chinese into our islands, aside from them being bakers. According to Orillos, this is recorded in a letter sent to Felipe II in 1588, as documented in Blair and Robertson’s The Philippine Islands.

At the time, breads were baked in a wood-fired oven called pugon, which lends the bread a distinctive subtle smokiness and crusty exterior.

Traditional vs. Modern Pan de Sal

Panaderia Dimas-alang is one of the few places in Manila that still bakes their pan de sal in a pugon.

Aside from the absence of singkit marks in many modern iterations, the bread has undergone a number of marked changes over the years. Pan de sal means “bread of salt”—a fact that’s worth pondering, as the bread as we know it today is often on the sweet side. But Orillos explains that it hasn’t always been that way. “In the book Proof, The Philippine Bakers Guide (published by the Philippine Society of Baking), the formulation for the traditional pan de sal calls for only 4% sugar [whereas] sweet pan de sal calls for 18% sugar,” she says.

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Orillos shares that the bread also used to be much bigger than it usually is now. A 1908 nutrition guide published by the Philippine government listed a large piece of pan de sal weighing 80 grams—more than double the usual 25- to 30-gram piece you’ll find today. And while traditional pan de sal was baked in the pugon, by the 1970s, more and more bakeries started employing gas and electric ovens, which occupy less space than their wood-fired counterparts.

Although Kamuning Bakery in Quezon City suffered a fire in 2018, their two original pugon ovens have survived.
PHOTO BY Marikit Singson/SPOT.PH ARCHIVES

As with many aspects in the world we live in today, convenience is the name of the game. Using electric mixers is faster and easier than manual mixing; using instant yeast over fresh or active dry yeast reduces the fermentation time. Such changes allow pan de sal to thrive for the generations to come, and today it remains as ubiquitous as ever.

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Still, it’s important to pay tribute to pan de sal’s roots. Pan de sal forms a part of our identity as Filipinos—and to know more about the bread is to discover more about who you are. “It’s like looking at your parents and loving them as they are now, but once a upon a time they had lives before they had us and that former life somehow connects to your own history, says Orillos. “When you ask them about that part of their lives and listen, you learn a little something about yourself in the process. You can do the same with the pan de sal—trust its name and let the crumbs tell you where it’s been and where it could go next.”

Our Favorite Pan de Sal in Manila

While you can get pan de sal practically everywhere in the Metro, there are a couple that stand out—that remind us of the many possibilities of the humble local bread.

Panaderia Dimas-Alang

PHOTO BY Panaderia Dimas-alang
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This Pasig bakery is an institution that’s been around since 1919. It’s one of the few bakeries that still makes their pan de sal by hand and bakes using a pugon oven, which translates to having a slightly crisp, smoky exterior and not-too-sweet interior.

Marikina Bakery

PHOTO BY Marikina Bakery

Named after the part of the Metro it’s located in, Marikina Bakery was established in 1955 and continues to churn out panaderya classics like pan de coco, Spanish bread, monay, and of course, pan de sal.

Pan de Amerikana

PHOTO BY Pan de Amerikana Bakery & Restaurant
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Come for the quirky, upside-down interiors and stay for the old-fashioned Filipino-style breads at Pan de Amerikana. Aside from Bicolano dishes, the restaurant serves large, 1950s-style pan de sal that’s made by hand with no preservatives or additives, and baked in their signature clay-brick oven using firewood.

Kamuning Bakery Café

PHOTO BY Sandra Dans/SPOT.PH ARCHIVES

Kamuning Bakery Café has been baking classic Filipino breads since 1939, making it the oldest bakery in Quezon City. Despite being struck by a devastating fire in 2018, the bakery has managed to rebuild itself and continues to serve excellent pan de sal to this day. Also worth checking out at this cafe are owner Wilson Lee Flores’ Pandesal forums, or non-partisan forums on social and economic issues plaguing the country.

Panaderya Toyo

PHOTO BY Marikit Singson/SPOT.PH ARCHIVES
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Helmed by Chef Richie Manapat, Panaderya Toyo pays special homage to tradition while seeking to change the way we view bread by churning out contemporary breads that are leavened by sourdough. Their take on pan de sal is a large, knotted bun that’s dense but soft, with the slightly-sweet character of the bread as we know it, but is set apart by the presence of a subtle (yet welcome) tang toward the end.

Manu Mano

PHOTO BY Marikit Singson/SPOT.PH ARCHIVES

Manu Mano was opened by Chef Alexa Versoza and four friends—Samantha Gonzales, Madeleine dela Torre, Cyril Cabotage, and Chef Richie Manapat of Panaderya Toyo. As with Panaderya Toyo, their pan de sal is leavened by sourdough, but is slightly closer to classic panaderya versions with its lighter, fluffier texture and slightly sweeter (but not saccharine) flavor.

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