A lot of baking comes down to just measuring your ingredients correctly because the recipes are based on simple chemistry. If you get the measurements right, things should work out OK. Yeast breads are the exception, and they’re notoriously cranky. Both home and commercial bakers are highly motivated to make their bread work every time, and sometimes, the answer is to use a bread improver.
How Yeast Breads Work
Yeast breads come in all different shapes, sizes and textures, but they all harness the same handful of natural processes. The rise, or leavening, comes from yeast. The yeast digests naturally-occurring sugars in the flour you use, as well as any other nutrients the recipe happens to provide, and turns them into small quantities of alcohol and carbon dioxide gas.
Those tiny amounts of carbon dioxide would just bubble up and escape from a lot of substances, but wheat flour – and, to a lesser extent, rye – is different. It contains proteins that bond to each other when they’re moistened, forming stretchy, sticky strands called gluten. Gluten acts like millions of tiny balloons inside your bread dough, trapping those bubbles of gas as they expand in the heat of the oven. This is what makes your bread bake up to a light, fluffy texture.
That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, things are chancier, because yeasts are living organisms, which makes them temperamental. You’ll also find that bread behaves differently depending on the day’s temperature and humidity and the natural variations between one batch or brand of flour and the next. To smooth out some of that variability and the guesswork that goes along with it, some bakers turn to a variety of bread improvers.
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Bread Improver and Dough Improver
There’s a fine line between what constitutes a bread improver and a simple, normal ingredient. Your favorite sandwich bread might add a bit of milk or oil, for example, which gives a softer crumb. That’s not necessarily an improver. For practical purposes, you could think of an improver as an ingredient you add primarily for its impact on how the bread dough performs rather than for its culinary virtues.
There are several types of improvers on the market, mostly aimed at commercial bakers. Some ingredients, such as ascorbic acid, improve the strength of the gluten and therefore the rise of the bread. Small quantities of soybean or fava bean flour can have the same effect. Yeast nutrients make the yeast livelier and enhance their leavening ability. “Reducing agents” like cysteine and metabisulphite make a stretchier dough, which is great for pizza. Emulsifiers help keep your bread soft and keep it fresher longer.
Not all dough improvers are automatically considered bread improvers. A class of enzymes called proteases, the same ones used in meat tenderizers, are a good example. They’ll weaken your gluten, which is a negative with bread, but a real positive with crackers and many other baked goods where a tender texture or minimal rise is desirable.
Using Bread Improvers in Home Baking
Most of these additives are aimed squarely at commercial bakers, but there are a few you can experiment with at home. Ascorbic acid is better known as vitamin C, so you can grind up a tablet and dissolve a pinch of it in your wet ingredients to boost gluten development. You can also add a spoonful of bean flour or diastatic malt powder to your dry ingredients and see how that affects your gluten.
Another option is simply to boost your bread’s gluten formation with the addition of a high-gluten flour, usually sold as “vital wheat gluten.” This increases ordinary all-purpose flour to become the equivalent of commercial bread flour, and it can give your bread better rise.
There are also emulsifiers suitable for home bakers. The simplest is an egg yolk, which contains naturally occurring lecithin and adds richness to your dough as well. You can also purchase soy lecithin at bulk stores in liquid or granule form. Adding the liquid to your wet ingredients or dissolving the granules in your wet ingredients will have the same effect on your dough as an egg yolk, but without the added fat.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.