Bread Improvers And Dough Conditioners: A Guide

Bread improvers and dough conditioners
Published on
04 September 2022
Gareth Busby
Gareth Busby

There are many additives used in commercial bread making with many scary names you might have read on the label. But, they are not as scary as they sound! Bread improvers, conditioners and additives enhance the characteristics of dough to make a better product. Many are used to accelerate production time which lowers costs, others can be to increase shelf life. It could be that adding a quarter of a teaspoon of one of these products produces the bread you’ve been attempting for years! Here’s how bread improvers work and how they could improve your bread.

What are bread improvers?

A bread improver, otherwise known as a dough conditioner is an ingredient that improves the quality of bread. They are sold singularly, or in many cases as a collection of improving ingredients that change the handling qualities of the dough and the characteristics of the bread. Used in powder sachets or blocks of concentrate, usually for quickly-made bread that uses the Chorleywood baking process. Each packet is measured for use with one bag of flour. 

Dough additive categories

Each additive will provide a certain benefit, here are the common functions of bread improvers:

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Oxidising agent

These additives are found in pretty much every loaf of bread you buy outside an artisan bakery. There are two cases for using oxidising agents: 

  1. Accelerating the formation of the gluten matrix of fresh flour at the mill which reduces storage duration and lowers costs.
  2. Added by bakers to strengthen the gluten matrix in quickly-made bread dough.

Oxidising agents increase oxygen absorption to produce disulfide bonds between gluten. They work against reducing agents as the oxidizer will oxidise (bond to) reducers such as glutathione to become glutathione disulphide, thus nulling the effect of the reducer.

When included in a bread recipe, the dough becomes heavily oxidised which can risk wheat over-oxidation. To prevent this, oxidising agents are primarily used in doughs where high-speed mixing is followed by a fast, single rise. Proofing/fermentation times must be short.

Reducing agents

You should consider using reducing agents in situations where extensibility and softness are important, such as baguettes, or soft rolls. Reducing agents work against oxidizers to weaken the enhanced bonding that occurs between gluten. One of the features of kneading is breaking down existing covalent disulphide (S-S) bonds between gluten strands so a new, enhanced structure can be built during proofing. The (S-S) bonds are replaced temporarily with sulphydryl or thiol groups (S-H) bonds.  before the dough is left to relax/proof and the dough regains strength. 

Reducing agents do the same job as kneading, just without mechanical force! A reducing agent donates an electron to an oxidising agent, thus reducing oxidation. They produce a softer dough that’s more extensible as it has smaller chains of gluten. Their addition makes the dough softer, stretch further and there is less need to pass the windowpane stage when kneading. This means mixing time is reduced, lowering energy costs and increasing the rate of production. It also means improves aeration volume, is easier to shape, and reduces how much the dough shrinks (or wrinkles) during proofing and baking. Once the reducing agent is used up, covalent disulphide (S-S) bonds reappear and the dough regains strength as the dough rises. This can be supported by using an oxidizing agent.

Combining reducers and oxidizers

Reducers and oxidisers are often used together. Selecting a fast oxidiser will counteract the reducer, so selecting a suitable oxidiser such as potassium bromate is essential. Using both reduces mixing time and the reformation of gluten bonds during proofing is greatly accelerated.

Emulsifiers

When combining two components that are normally unblendable an emulsifier is used to combine them. One of the most common household emulsifiers is egg yolk, which can be used to emulsify oil and water to form a thick homogenous paste when making mayonnaise.

Emulsifiers in bread create a stable and strong dough that retains more gas. The result of this is a light and soft crumb. Emulsifiers also slow down starch retrogradation, which is the drying out process when bread turns stale. Learn more about why bakers use emulsifiers.

PH regulators

Acidity regulators are used in baking to control the pH rating of bread. They either change the pH of the bread or control it by resisting change. Their use increases the shelf life of the products and can, in some cases, add flavour.

Enzymes

Enzymes are proteins that act as biological catalysts by accelerating chemical reactions. In bread dough, enzymes increase the rate complex starches are broken into simpler sugars such as hexoses. This is essential for yeast to be able to process them. Enzymes can lead to tweaking flavour, tenderizing benefits and increased development times.

Adding more of an enzyme that’s already in the flour means it doesn’t have to be declared in the ingredients in many countries. Because of this, enzymes are popular for “clean-label” manufacturing. There are restrictions on the use of some enzymes in different countries, especially the artisan boulangeries of France where they are restricted completely.

Tenderizers

Tenderizers coat individual gluten blocks, making them “short”. The benefit of shorter strands is the dough becomes more elastic, and after baking more moisture gets retained in the bread. As it bakes, water contained in the fat evaporates, providing an extra oven rise. Fatty lipids remain, making the bread taste softer and increasing its freshness.

Binding agents

Gluten comes from flour and is the primary binding agent used to capture the gas in bread dough. The percentage of gluten in flour is based on the quality of the wheat used. For more gluten, superior wheat is grown in optimum conditions, but there are other ways to enhance the binding capabilities of bread dough.

Foaming agents

Yeast or a sourdough starter is used to leaven all kinds of bread, but there are other ingredients that offer an extra boost of air. Bubbles created by foaming agents increase the volume of bread. Also known as blowing agents, foaming agents can reduce the surface tension of the liquid and produce a large amount of uniform and stable foam when mixed with pressurized air.

Common bread improvers

Ascorbic acid

Primarily used as an oxidising agent to mature flour as it has no detrimental effects on quality or health. In the presence of oxygen, ascorbic acid acts as an oxidising agent in bread dough. If a vacuum mixer that removes oxygen during kneading is used, ascorbic acid will act as a reducer. Use a maximum of 200 parts per million.

Potassium bromate

Known to cause health issues, potassium bromate is banned in the EU, however because of its low cost and usage rates it remains in the US. Used as an oxidiser to mature many flour brands and occasionally in the mixing process. Use up to 30 parts per million.

Monoglycerides (mono) and diglycerides of fatty acids (E471)

Mono and diglycerides of fatty acids are the most common emulsifier in bread and food production. They are also surfactants, which lower tension between liquids, gasses and solids. The long name sounds scary, but they are essentially selected molecules from fats, naturally found in seed oils. The fats are purified using glycerolysis reactions to produce monoglycerides – one fatty acid bonded to glycerol, and diglycerides – two fatty acids bonded to glycerol. Cheap to produce and with no know health or over-consumption issues, E471 has many uses.

DATEM Diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides E472e

DATEM is an enhanced variation of the emulsifier E471 that has been esterified with organic acids, meaning it has been combined with an acid, to form an ester. In addition to the benefits of Monoglycerides (mono) and diglycerides of fatty acids, DATEM increases volume, thus decreasing the amount of yeast required, limiting the risk of over-proofing and providing more tolerance in production. It is usually partnered with a carrier and anti-caking agent, such as calcium carbonate, tricalcium phosphate and trisodium phosphate. Especially used in crispy bread at a ratio of 0.2–0.6% total flour weight.

Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate (SSL) E481

SSL is an ivory-white, waxy powder used as an emulsifier in bread dough. It’s widely used to provide a softer eating experience and extend the life of bread. One of the few emulsifiers that can complex with starch and protein. It bonds proteins to enhance their gluten structure and achieve better gas retention and improved oven spring. SSL also resists starch retrogradation which delays the staling process

Popular in manufacturing as it is cheap to produce, relatively stable when combined with other ingredients in premixes, and offers improved dough handling and machinability. Typical usage is 0.3%-0.5% of the total flour weight.

Lecithin

One of the most highly used emulsifiers and stabilizers in bread baking. It’s naturally found in egg yolks (10-20%) and vegetable oil (0.1-3.0%). Whilst possible to purchase pure lecithin E322, it’s more common to use an ingredient that’s high in lecithin for making bread. Use around 0.2% lecithin in bread dough to notice it, which equates to roughly 1 egg per 2Kgs of flour. But of course, you can use more!

Eggs

Eggs contain lecithin and are a fantastic binding agent by supplying extra protein to support the gluten structure and capture gas. Eggs are a natural dough improver, they also add a uniquely rich flavour! You can learn more about eggs in bread by clicking the link.

​​Soy flour

Like eggs, soy flour is a natural all-round bread improver. It contains the emulsifier lecithin, and also soy-proteins which soak up extra water and capture gas. As extra water is absorbed, crumb texture is softer and freshness is extended. The enzyme lipoxygenase is present in soy flour, making it also an oxidising agent. Use a maximum of 4%.

L-cysteine

A common reducer that’s been largely replaced by inactive yeast in recent years of bread making. L-cysteine is an amino acid which breaks down s-s bonds during mixing. Use around 0.01% per the total amount of flour.

Inactive yeast

Provides health and flavour (sweet, nutty and aromatic) benefits but provides a greater role as a reducing agent. An enzyme present in flour converts glutathione disulfide into two glutathiones with free SH groups that can participate in further disulfide reactions. This doubles the potency of the reducer, meaning less is required when compared to L-cysteine. 

Because it is yeast that has been heat-treated, there is an argument that inactive yeast can be used without having to list it on the label. A lot of producers still declare it though. Use 0.03-0.3% based on the total weight of the flour.

Sulfites

Another reducer that’s less common due to some people being allergic to them.

Malt flour

Barley that’s soaked in water until it sprouts is then dried to produce malted barley flour, (or Malt flour). Malt flour contains a lot of amylase enzymes, these are two enzymes (alpha & beta) that break down broken starch in flour to produce simpler sugars that yeast can process. Amylase also produces dextrins which retain water to make bread softer. Use up to 3% in bread dough.

Amylase enzymes are already found in the flour, however, there are situations where malt flour is correctly added to improve bread dough:

  1. Where flour has either low levels of amylase or damaged starch, malt flour is added at the mill to increase fermentation activity when baking.
  2. Flour that is fermented for long periods can run out of sugars to feed the yeast. Adding a little malt flour will break down the extra sugars it needs to complete a healthy final rise. Often used where large amounts of prefermented dough make up the recipe.
  3. A baker may accelerate the production of sugars in order to speed up the rise without having to add more yeast. This is sometimes used for quickly made bread.

Non-diastatic malt flour

This is a deactivated version of malt flour which contains no active enzymes. It’s high in maltose, a relatively simple sugar, and therefore increases sweetness and yeast activity. It is also fairly high in protein (~7%) which improves gas retention and further Malliard activity (browning) in the oven. Use up to 2% per total flour weight.

Amylase

Amylase is an enhanced malt flour containing just amylase enzymes. It’s often added to flour to boast its hyperdiastatic activity. 

Gluten

Gluten quantity is the main metric when judging the quality of flour. Gluten is the structure of bread, it retains gas, stretches and gives bread dough its shape. Without it, we’d be baking pancakes! Mills can add extra gluten to flour to produce consistent batches at high volumes. Bakers can also enhance their flour at home by adding Vital Wheat Gluten (VWG) to their recipes.

Citric acid

Sour salt or citric acid increases the acidity of bread. Often used in industrial “sourdough” bread where the process is accelerated with yeast, citric acid increases “sour” flavours and increases the shelf-life of the bread. It can also be used as an oxidiser. Use around 1% of the total flour weight.

Dextrin

Dextrin is popular in soft bread as it binds water to increase water absorption. The result is a soft, moist crumb and lower production costs. Dextrin naturally occurs through amylase breaking down flour in the dough, but can also be added as an improver. It’s a great non-animal sourced softener and an alternative to fat.

Dextrose

Dextrose has the same chemical makeup as glucose, it’s just produced in a different way. Adding extra glucose supplies more food to the yeast for a bigger rise soaks up extra water to make a softer loaf, and adds some sweetness. Dextrose increases Malliard reactions more than sugar does, it’s also not as sweet.

Palm oil/fat

The use of palm oil at 4% flour weight improves volume, oven spring, weight, density, colour, crumb texture and shelf life. It’s a fat with emulsification, tenderising and moisture retention properties. It coats the gluten and starch which strengthens the gluten matrix to produce a dough that retains gas better. Tastes earthy, often compared to carrot or pumpkin.

Calcium propionate E282

Calcium propionate is a naturally-occurring organic salt formed by calcium hydroxide and propionic acid reacting. It interferes with the reproduction of bacteria and fungus to prevent bread from becoming mouldy. Usage rates are typically 0.1-0.4%

Sorbic acid E200

Sorbic acid lowers acidity to prevent mould and unwanted micro bacteria growth as bread ages. It’s often easier to use a related salt instead of pure sorbic acid as they are better at dissolving. Related salts with E numbers include:

  • E201 Sodium sorbate
  • E202 Potassium sorbate
  • E203 Calcium sorbate

EFSA states that maximum allowed usage level of sorbic acid is 20-6,000 mg/Kg

Vinegar / acetic acid

Vinegar increases acidity, acts as a binding agent, a reducer, foaming agent and improves the extensibility and stretchiness of dough. It is made from 4% acetic acid, therefore both are used in bread making with the same impact, just at different concentrations! Use up to 3% vinegar in your bread recipe.

Calcium sulphate

Calcium sulphate has many roles in bread production. It can be used to bleach flour at the mill, as a dough improver on its own or as part of a dough conditioning pre-mix. Acts as a dough strengthener, stabilizer, thickener, acidity regulator, firming agent, anticaking agent and also supplies food for yeast. Usage level approx 1.3%.

Conclusion on bread improvers

In this article, we’ve covered many of the most popular bread improvers or additives. I guess additives is a harsh term, as many are in common ingredients anyway, they have just been purified. Bread improvers have a bad reputation due to their relationship with no-time bread and the destruction of flavour. They do however support millions of people across the world to be able to eat bread at a low cost. There are also times when I wish my bread would be softer or stay fresher for longer, and with some of these ingredients, I can now achieve this!

Which dough improvers do you like to use and how much do you like them? Let me know in the comments below!

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