There are only 4 ingredients that are thought to be essential in bread dough; flour, water, salt and yeast. It’s clear why the other three are included, but what about salt? Bread will rise without it, so “what does salt do in bread?” What I really wanted to know is if it’s essential. So I set out to discover all about salt in bread, here’s what I unleashed.
Salt has many roles in baked products, especially bread. Salt helps to balance the sweetness of the dough and the astringency of alcohol. It strengthens the gluten bonds and slows yeast fermentation. This means salt helps the dough to rise without tearing to produce bread with better colour and a higher rise.
Salt is the ionic combination of sodium and chloride. It contains more chloride, so for every 2.54 grams of salt, it will contain 1.54 grams of chloride and 1 gram of sodium. Salt is the original flavour enhancer and preservative and is just as popular in the production of food today as it was centuries ago.
Excessive salt intake can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. The World Health Organisation recommends we eat just 5 grams of salt per day. The family doctor suggests that we should all try to cut back on our sodium intake. Excessive salt consumption results in hypertension. This can lead to CVD issues developing, such as heart attacks or a stroke.
Lowering consumption of salt is often easier said than done. Especially when it comes to all these processed foods at every corner these days! It’s also hard to achieve if you eat a lot of bread!
Salt is a critical component in making dough that is flavourful and strong. Let’s look at some of the fundamentals of salt in bread dough to see what it does and whether we can reduce the amount of salt in bread.
Salt slows down the activity of yeast in bread dough. Yeast cells are semi-permeable which means water flows through the cell membrane. Salt diverts water away from the yeast. This reduction in water slows the yeast’s ability to conduct its fermentation process. In heavily salted doughs the yeast can dehydrate completely meaning the bread does not rise at all. Too much salt can prevent normal metabolic functions from performing at all.
That said, the correct balance of salt in a bread dough helps gas production to be distributed evenly.
Given the abundant sugars in the dough, without salt, yeast ferments rapidly, and irregularly. If salt is not included, the yeast feasts on its closest sugar source. This leads to the destruction of the sugars in some areas, and others not touched.
Salt slows the rate at which the sugars get presented to the yeast. This provides an even crumb structure and a slower, albeit steadier and higher rise.
Like salt regulates yeast, it also controls gluten development in dough. It does this by slowing the hydration of gluten proteins. This slowing down effect makes the crumb structure stronger. It does this by enabling the gluten to trap tiny air bubbles in the network to make the gluten more extensible.
Salt balances the charges of the gluten proteins. It does this by creating opposite and attractive charges. This makes the dough repel, and stick. This prevents the formation of long, gluten strands. The result is a dough that is less extensible, with stronger bonds that improve elasticity.
Salt absorbs moisture and flavours to intensify the taste and aroma of any food product. It enhances the basic taste of salt, one of the 6 common taste sensations. In dough, it brings out sweetness from the flour whilst overpowering any bitterness. Without salt, bread tastes a little lifeless.
Salt plays an important role in determining the colour of the crust. In a dough with salt, there are plenty of free reducing sugars and proteins available in the dough. When combined with heat they produce a chemical change called the Maillard reaction. This is where caramelisation occurs to produce dark-coloured crusts. In the absence of salt, lighter-brown coloured crusts appear. This is because the sugars are consumed by the yeast making them unavailable for caramelization.
An experiment by McCan and Day proved that salt plays an important factor in how well dough rises. As the amount of salt increased for each dough, they found that bread rose higher. This is probably due to a stronger dough structure and more gas being produced.
Salt helps to keep bread fresh in several ways. These include delaying the amount of moisture lost from the crumb, preventing the recrystallisation of the starch and a few others. There is a lot to discuss on this topic so I wrote another article about it. See the does salt keep bread fresh article to learn more.
Salt is hygroscopic, which is a scientific term for saying it attracts water. The sodium and chloride ions will compete for water. Hydrated wheat protein cannot hold much water. With the presence of sodium and chloride ions, the amount of free water molecules is reduced. What we end up with is a dough that doesn’t leach water when kneading and feels less “sticky”.
Adding salt also accelerates the cross-linking of starch to starch or starch to protein. This strengthens the dough and makes the crumb more firm. The more salt added, the more firm the dough will be.
The standard starting point is to use 2% of salt to the flour’s weight for a bread recipe. Though 1.8% is now used by many bread makers. This provides the perfect combination of flavour enhancement, gas production and machinability.
Some recipes use up to 2.3% of salt, in fact, pizza recipes can go as high as 3%. This enhances flavour through a slow maturation and more of a salty flavour. Ideal for a show-stopper loaf, but a bit too salty for everyday bread.
If you’re trying to reduce salt consumption for health reasons, making your own bread is a great idea. Removing the salt from bread altogether might mean that you don’t want to eat it. Instead, you may prefer to reduce the amount by half so instead of 2% of the weight of flour, use 1%.
It will be up to your taste to see if it is up to standard. Less salt produces bread with less volume as it rises very quickly. Bread is the most common source of salt in most modern diets. So if we reduce the amount of salt in our bread, or erm *cough- eat less bread, we are going to improve our body salt levels.
If you want the benefits of salt in your dough yet you want to reduce its flavour of it we can add other ingredients. Sweeteners such as sugar or honey will lower the salty taste of bread. Acidic foods such as lemons and tomatoes can be added to liven up any food whilst contracting the flavour of salt.
If there is too much salt added the bread can be too salty to enjoy. It will also take longer to rise. Sugar also has a similar effect on slowing down yeast fermentation through osmosis. Doughs with lots of salt and sugar can be very slow to rise. This is why a lot of sweet breads use osmotolerant yeast and why sourdough is not a popular choice for sweet doughs.
There are a few reasons why you might consider increasing the amount of salt used in bread. The most common is to bring out the flavour of the loaf. But common fixes include:
There are many methods that bakers use to add salt to the dough. One of which is delaying its addition, other suggestions include dissolving the salt before it is added to the dough. Here’s how they work:
A few years ago, delaying the addition of salt until near the end of mixing became popular in commercial bakeries. Delaying the salt accelerates the formation of the extensible gluten which makes mixing easier. But salt has a protective capacity on the carotenoids present in the grain. Carotenoids contain pigments of colour and flavour from the flour.
Salt reduces the oxidative effects of air exposure and protects from “bleaching”. This is where the carotenoids absorb oxygen. Too much oxidation “washes” the carotenoids away. This leaves the bread lacking in flavour and colour. A common sign of this style of bread which is often referred to as “bleached” is a bright white crumb. The method has been largely blackballed, but some (older) recipe books (and a few Italian baker’s) suggest that you do. To improve the extensibility of dough I’d rather use an autolyse and/or switch flour to a brand that contains more gliadin gluten proteins.
To autolyse dough, leave the flour and water to soak (with or without the starter) for a while. The duration of the soaking is usually between 10 minutes and 2 hours. After the autolyse, add the salt and knead. The autolyse allows the flour to soak up the water. This strengthens the gliadin gluten to improve extensibility. It also repairs damaged gluten and starch particles. Soaking the flour without salt makes the gluten more extensible and less elastic. An autolyse is a great way to help baguettes or focaccia to hold their long shapes. It’s also used in sourdough baking to improve the oven spring.
Bakers who autolyse their dough overnight often encounter “bleaching” without realising it. If autolyse lasts for a long time, the bread can deteriorate. Consider a shorter autolyse of less than 2 hours. To find out, read The Autolyse Process For Bread Bakers.
Some bakers dissolve their salt in the water before adding it to the flour. I’ve found when using large grain sea salts I have to whisk the salt in the water to dissolve before adding it. If I don’t I get chunks of salt throughout the dough. But dissolving the salt for every recipe does have its merits. This experiment shows that dissolving the salt before kneading strengthens the gluten further. After reading this I recommend that the salt is dissolved every time you make bread.
A lot of people get nervous when thinking about dissolving the salt in the same water as the yeast. This is because of the common saying of “salt kills yeast”. There shouldn’t be a problem with the salt being in the same water as the yeast. You should ensure there is enough water to dissolve the yeast, salt and sugar. The salt will slow down the action of the yeast so expect it to take a little bit longer to bloom.
This is by far the most common method for adding salt to the dough. Its inclusion during kneading produces a strong and more elastic dough which means that the dough holds shape better when proofing and has a tighter crumb. Adding the salt alongside the bulk of the ingredients is a lot easier too!
Dough made without salt creates a better environment for yeast to produce carbon dioxide. This means the dough rises faster which is great for a fast rise, but less advantageous for good bread. Fewer air pockets will appear, but the pockets that do exist have a larger diameter. Expect a diminished texture and to see uneven holes running throughout the crumb if you don’t add enough salt.
The rheology of the dough will also suffer through a lack of elasticity but will be very extensible. Due to its lack of elasticity, bread made without salt is hard to shape. It would have to be risen and baked in a tin for support. Flatbreads are ideal for salt-less bread. You can view my Italian salt less flatbread recipe. They are amazing served with salty cheeses and dried meats! Salt plays an essential role in producing flavour, texture and colour. It’s critical to make dough rise into a nice, airy loaf.
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Hi, I’m Gareth Busby, a baking coach, lecturer and bread fanatic. My goal is to help you become a better baker.
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