How Does Bread Fermentation Work?

How Does Bread Fermentation Work

Whether you are baking bread in an oven or bread maker, the recipe will not turn out right if you do not have the proper ingredients. The most important part of most bread recipes is the yeast and how it interacts with the other ingredients. Without the fermentation process, you would have a very different result than expected.

The first use of fermentation happened thousand of years ago, dating back to the ancient Egyptians around 4000 BC. Yeast was proven to exist in 1854 by French scientist Louis Pasteur who understood that microorganisms in the air made food ferment and thus spoil. You probably recognize Pasteur’s name as the same man known for breakthroughs in the causes and prevention of various diseases. He came up with the process of food pasteurization that saved lives throughout history and is still used today for health and safety.



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Bread fermentation is the anaerobic biological method that changes sugars and starches into a different form. When this process is used in baking bread and the creation of dough, the fermentation facilitates the yeast and bacteria changing sugars and starches into carbon dioxide. It’s the carbon dioxide that makes the dough rise.

Fermentation goes beyond simply puffing up bread. It is also used to make dairy items, including cheese and yogurt as well as hydrocolloids including gums such as xanthan, enzymes, and many other items. Bread fermentation, however, is one of the most well-known uses of the process.

The Workings of Fermentation

Fermentation in bread and other bakery items refers to a multifaceted sequence of biological reactions that leavens the dough. The process is completed by types of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast, wild yeast, and lactic acid bacteria, otherwise known as LAB. These yeast microorganisms start the fermentation process by eating the simple sugars produced by amylase found in all types of flour. The whole process makes carbon dioxide and other composites that create the individual taste and consistency of the bread.

The fermentation process begins when yeast is combined with flour and water. This is why most bread recipes specify that to add the yeast to the dry products and not to allow it to touch the wet ingredient. This process continues in the early part of baking as the yeast becomes activated by the heat it rises above room temperature.

Steps in Bread Fermentation

Steps in Bread Fermentation

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  • Preferment: This is an optional step but one that can enhance the fermentation process. It allows the yeast to be activated, giving the flour a longer time to break down. This creates a better bread structure. Unique bread flavors are created with this process and it can extend shelf life.
  • Initial fermentation is mixing preferments with the rest of the ingredients that make the dough. This step can be a lengthy one and may last up to 8 hours if you are making artisan bread.
  • Second fermentation happens after the dough is punched the first time. Punching the dough is not as harsh as it sounds. All you’re doing is removing some of the gas bubbles that developed while the dough was rising. Push the dough down in the middle then fold the sides into the center to make a deflated bowl of dough.
  • Proofing is the next step in the bread fermentation process. This is where the final rise happens before baking. This can last from one hour up to a day depending on the recipe and mode of cooking. It is often also called a “rest period” for the dough.
  • The final step happens when the bread is baking. The loaves expand from the yeast and steam generated in the hot oven.

Things that can Influence Bread Fermentation

Things that can Influence Bread Fermentation

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Fermentation is a critical part of making a quality loaf of bread and doughs. Knowing what affects the process allows you to adjust elements to improve the process for better looking and tasting products. It also allows you to experiment with recipes to change or improve outcomes.

  • Kneading is an important step in bread making and fermentation. The more you knead the dough, the better the chance it will have good gas holding capabilities.
  • The amount of yeast is important to fermentation. The more yeast there is, the longer the fermentation time has to be.
  • Fermentation works better in a warm area. The warmer the dough, the faster the proving process.
  • The size of the dough affects fermentation. The bigger and heavier the pieces are, the more time it needs to rise.
  • Since water activates the yeast, it is a crucial part of any bread recipe. The correct amount of water allows for proper yeast activation.
Choosing flour

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  • Choosing flour that is high in gluten is helpful. The more gluten it has, the quicker the fermentation.
  • Humidity affects fermentation as well. The higher the humidity, the faster the bread proofing process happens.
  • Salt and sugar can affect the speed of fermentation. The more salt and sugar, the slower the fermentation.
  • The acidity of the dough alters fermentation. The more acidic it is, the less time is needed for the dough to ferment.

Final Thoughts

While many of us are used to just reading through a recipe step by step to create bread and dough, we don’t often understand some of the processes that are making our recipes work. Understanding bread fermentation expands the use of recipes by allowing you to alter them or adjust some of the factors that make them work. Baking is easy if you simply follow the recipe, but experimenting with new ideas through the understanding of the fermentation process can make baking even more enjoyable.

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