What's Behind The Subway Bread Smell?

With more than 35,000 Subway franchises in the world (and close to 25,000 in the U.S.), it's hard to avoid the bread-y aroma emanating through the streets. You know the smell. It billows for a good hundred yards from seemingly strategically placed vents. It's a sweet-sour odor that doesn't smell like any other bread ever baked in an oven, but it's undeniably bread-like. I've seen children swoon at the smell. Most adults I know say it's putrid and plastic. Polly Gillespie, a New Zealand radio personality, recently mused that it smells like "little elves baking perfect treats." Some say it's the scent of Jared Fogle's soul. (I don't think that last one's meant as a compliment.)

Before we go any further on the subject, I should fully disclose that I'm a card-carrying Subway eater. I eat there about once a month. The Subway Veggie Patty sandwich is an excellent conduit for the things I love: pickles, banana peppers, ketchup and mayonnaise. The sandwich is good. It satisfies a need. The bread — I always get the wheat — doesn't really have much taste, but it keeps things together.

In researching the subject, I found long comment threads about the smell of the bread, such as this one at chow.com. There are plenty of conspiracy theories about intentional venting, about the smell being fabricated, as well as theories that it's the smell of preservatives or that it's the off-gasses from silicone trays.

I wanted answers, not anonymous conjecture, so I called up Subway headquarters in Milford, Connecticut and spoke with Mark Christiano, Subway's "Global Baking Technologist," and the man who's ultimately responsible for the production of close to two billion loaves of bread each year.

Christiano sounds like a nice guy. And although he is understandably unwilling to reveal the total recipe of his bread mix, saying that it's "proprietary," he says the basic ingredients are yeast, flour, water and sugar. "It's your basic bread formula," Christiano says. "And some vitamins." And that does not include any preservatives, he adds.

In the U.S., the dough is made at 11 facilities that exclusively produce Subway bread. The dough is frozen and then sent to the franchises, which put it through a process of thawing before baking it. And, no, according to Christiano, the smell is not intentionally pumped outside to entice passers-by, although he says: "We are proud of the smell. Any baked product smells good. And we want you to catch that bread aroma."

I asked Christiano what makes that smell so, well, distinctive, and he said that there was no intentional plan to make it smell the way that it does, and that it's just the result of "a combination of the baking process and the percentage of different ingredients."

Although he denies that the nonstick pans have any smell — he says they've been thoroughly tested — Christiano did hint that perhaps the caramelization smell of the sugar might be a factor, and I think he's right. I bet the smell is largely due to that process, and something about the fact that the dough was once frozen. Still, there are those who loathe the smell, and so I asked Christiano to address their concerns.

"What don't they like?" he asked incredulously. I tried to fill him in. "What, that it smells funny? I'd love to talk with them. There's nothing artificial in there that they're smelling."

He just didn't get it. To him, "the fresh bread sells itself." And, in a way he's right, despite what this olfactory-offended minority might think.

How could 2 billion loaves of bread be wrong?