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Natural Dough Conditioners

Joshua originally wrote this as a comment, but I think it's worthy of being its own post! :) Joshua has done a lot of research on dough conditioners for homemade bread, and here is some of what he's learned! :)

I admit I have a love for chemistry as well as an aversion to crumbly homemade bread. A couple years back I set out to find out the difference between homemade bread and store bought bread and see if I couldn't doctor up homemade bread to have a similar consistency to the store stuff while retaining the taste and nutritional value of homemade bread.

Homemade wheat bread

Long story short is that I have "discovered" a number of natural, and healthy, ingredients you can add to bread to alter the texture. Bread is one part science, one part art, and all living organism. Bread is really a giant yeast culture and your goal is to create a healthy environment for the yeast and to create a dough that compliments such as well as produces the results you want (which can vary depending on what bread you are making).

The neat thing about dough enhancers is that almost anyone who has ever made a loaf of bread has used some of some sorts. Bread of the yeast variety is just flour, water, and yeast. Everything else is a conditioner. Sugar is a dough enhancer as it is yeast food. Fats, like butter and vegetable oil, aid in elasticity and the moisture of the loaf. Eggs, among other things, contain a lot of lecithin. So if you feel a little awkward adding new ingredients to bread just remind yourself that almost everything in a loaf of homemade bread is in there to enhance the core ingredients to begin with.

Homemade wheat bread

Anyhow, I made the following changes to the homemade wheat bread recipe we received from a friend years ago:

* 1/2 teaspoon lecithin granules (added to the liquid ingredients).

* 3 Tbs. vital wheat gluten.

* A pinch of citric acid.

* A dash of ground ginger.

The whats and whys are as follows:

Lecithin: Lecithin is a natural chemical found in both plants and animals that makes up cell membranes. Unlike most emulsifiers lecithin is naturally metabolized and has a number of recognized positive health benefits. Why use Lecithin? There are too many to mention, but lecithin is a great binding agent, aids in the emulsification of the fats in the bread which, in turn, makes a more consistent crumb as well as helps the bread remains softer by retaining more moisture.

A little bit of lecithin goes a long way in making a great loaf of bread; some places recommends 1 1/2 tsp. per loaf but we have found as little as a 1/2 teas. works well although your mileage may vary depending on your ingredients. Lecithin helps make your loaf lighter and stay fresher and is one of the two things I have found that can help give homemade bread a "store" texture without compromising the quality or nutrition of the loaf.

Gluten: Gluten is a protein naturally found in wheat and is responsible for the elastic structure in bread that makes bread, well, bread! The general idea is that the gluten in bread forms long strands in your bread. The fats you adds to the bread help these gluten strands slide and stretch better (thus fluffier bread).

Most flour has insufficient gluten so adding some gluten helps; even many "bread flours" (from high protein wheats like hard red spring wheat) can use a little help from some extra gluten--especially whole wheat varieties as the extra texture of the bran is a hindrance to forming an elastic loaf (ditto loafs with some coarser grains added in for texture). Non-wheat breads made from soy flour, oat flour, etc. don't have gluten so adding some will help there as well.

Gluten is natural as it is already in the wheat, but adding a small amount can compensate for low-protein flour as well as help a whole wheat bread gain the elastic texture that is typically associated with breads made from bleached non-whole wheat flours.

Recipes and recommendations vary a lot on how much you should add so you may need to experiment. Gluten is sold as vital wheat gluten, gluten flour, etc and you will need to be mindful of how much protein is present as it can vary from 40%-80% (most in the low 70% range).

Citric Acid: A simple acid found in citrus fruits, the benefit of using citric acid (or ascorbic acid, aka vitamin C) is that it helps create a more acidic environment for the yeast and helps reduce oxidization.

DON'T USE TOO MUCH! Someone in our home decided they wanted to be like the Mad Scientist of the house, invited company over, and tossed in a lump of this potent stuff into her (ahem!) pumpkin rolls. There is always a first time for everything, and that was the first (and hopefully last!) time I ever "get" to eat rolls that, uhhhm, taste like fresh lemon was squeezed on every bite!

Btw, on the ascorbic acid, make sure you get pure powder and not something with a lot of fillers and binders. Also, you don't need much (1/32nd to 1/16th of a teaspoon) for your bread. MORE IS NOT BETTER! A little really does work--just check out the "bread machine yeast" at the store as it typically has ascorbic acid, and not very much at that. Yet a little bit will make for some happy yeast. :)

Ginger: Yep, the good ol' powdered ginger in your cupboard, is a nice dough enhancer. It is a mild preservative (like lecithin) but the big perk is that yeast love ginger. It gives them a nice kick start and can be thought of as yeast snack food. And while a dash won't be enough to actually taste, it does help make a lighter, fluffier loaf of bread.

Homemade wheat bread

Lecithin, Gluten, Ascorbic/Citric Acid, and Ginger. That is all I added to the loaf of bread and it changed the original recipe that has a grainier, crumbly crumb to a loaf that is lighter and fluffier and retained more moisture. They are all natural ingredients and I didn't need to touch any unpronounceable chemicals and "stuff" you cannot even purchase at a store to begin with. (We purchased the lecithin, vital wheat gluten, and citric acid at a bulk food store).

There really is a science behind bread, everything from ingredients to the environment impact how bread turns out. I am continuing my experiments as there are a lot of natural conditioners out there... you can even use pectin and kosher gelatin for bread (and not just jam and jell-o).

With Tammy's new grain mill I am sure we will do a bit of experimenting with new recipes and conditioners. The above loaf is encouraging as the end result was really good--if I had not known it was 100% whole wheat I would have been very surprised when I found out.

This homemade wheat bread remains our favorite all-purpose bread recipe! We use 100% whole wheat flour, with the addition of the dough conditioners discussed here, and LOVE the results! :)

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