Definitions

leavening agents

Leavening agent

[lev-uh-ning]
A leavening agent (sometimes called just leavening or leaven) is a substance used in doughs and batters that causes a foaming action intended to lighten and soften the finished product. The leavening agent reacts with moisture, heat, acidity, or other triggers to produce gas (usually carbon dioxide and sometimes ethanol) that becomes trapped as bubbles within the dough. When a dough or batter is mixed, the starch in the flour mixes with the water in the dough to form a matrix (often supported further by proteins like gluten or other polysaccharides like pentosans or xanthan gum), then gelatinizes and "sets"; the holes left by the gas bubbles remain,

Biological leaveners

Microorganisms that release carbon dioxide as part of their life cycle can be used to leaven products. Varieties of yeast are most often used, particularly Saccharomyces species (i.e. baker's yeast), though some recipes also rely on certain bacteria. Yeast leaves behind waste byproducts (particularly ethanol and some autolysis products) that contribute to the distinctive flavor of yeast breads. In sourdough breads, the flavor is further enhanced by various lactic or acetic acid bacteria.

Leavening with yeast is a process based on fermentation, biologically changing the chemistry of the dough or batter as the yeast works. Unlike chemical leavening, which usually activates as soon as the water combines the acid and base chemicals, yeast leavening requires proofing, which allows the yeast time to reproduce and consume carbohydrates in the flour.

Yeast can also be used to make alcoholic beverages like beer. The resulting cast-off yeast, known as barm, can be used as a leavener and was probably ancestral to the use of modern pure-cultured yeast.

While not as widely used, bacterial fermentation is sometimes used, occasionally providing a drastically changed flavor profile from a yeast fermentation; salt rising bread, which uses a culture of the Clostridium perfringens bacterium, is a well-known example.

Some typical biological leaveners are:

Chemical leaveners

Chemical leaveners are chemical mixtures or compounds that typically release carbon dioxide or other gases when they react with moisture and heat; they are almost always based on a combination of acid (usually a low molecular weight organic acid) and an alkali (though ammonia-based leaveners are also available, though in decreasing quantity). They usually leave behind a chemical salt. Chemical leaveners are used in quick breads and cakes, as well as cookies and numerous other applications where a long biological fermentation is impractical or undesirable.

Since chemical expertise is required to create a functional chemical leaven without leaving behind off-flavors from the chemical precursors involved, such substances are often mixed into premeasured combinations for maximum results. These are generally referred to as baking powders.

Chemical leavening agents include:

Mechanical leavening

Creaming is the process of beating sugar crystals and solid fat (typically butter) together in a mixer. This integrates tiny air bubbles into the mixture, since the sugar crystals physically cut through the structure of the fat. Creamed mixtures are usually further leavened by a chemical leavener. This is often used in cookies.

Using a whisk on certain liquids, notably cream or egg whites, can also create foams through mechanical action. This is the method employed in the making of sponge cakes, where an egg protein matrix produced by vigorous whipping provides almost all the structure of the finished product.

The Chorleywood Bread Process uses a mix of biological and mechanical leavening to produce bread; while it is considered by food processors to be an effective way to deal with the soft wheat flours characteristic of British Isles agriculture, it is controversial due to a perceived lack of quality in the final product. The process has nevertheless been adapted by industrial bakers in other parts of the world.

Other leaveners

Steam and air are used as leavening agents when they expand upon heating. To take advantage of this style of leavening, the baking must be done at high enough temperatures to flash the water to steam, with a batter that is capable of holding the steam in until set. This effect is typically used in popovers and Yorkshire puddings, and to a lesser extent in Tempura.

Nitrous oxide is used as a propellant in aerosol whip cream cans. When the gas boils out of the cream, it also instantly creates a foam.

References

  • Matz, S (1972). "Bakery Technology and Engineering", AVI Publishing Co.

See also

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