Many modern bakers add ingredients to their dough to enhance texture and freshness. These fall under the category of dough improvers. Some of these additives are recognisable kitchen ingredients such as vegetable oil or butter. These conform to the “clean label” approach many bakeries have followed in recent years.
Some dough improvers are enzymes which are already contained in the ingredients used, so they don’t have to be listed on the label in some countries. Think of them as an eq balance on a music system that lets you tweak the pitches that you want to bring out.
Some well-known dough improvers or conditioners in the industry have ugly scientific names such as “diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides” or “dextrins”. You might have seen these on labels and wondered, “What the F*@ am I eating?”.
France has strict rules to regulate what can and can’t be used to make bread. And while these regulations have originated since “Le Décret Pain” was signed in 1993, it’s perhaps not as strict as you think.
Dough improvers are ingredients added to the dough to change the structure, flavour, texture or keeping quality of the bread. The difference between dough conditioners, emulsifiers and dough improvers is a little murky. Each one has a slightly different role, usually to target a particular area of weakness, such as gluten bonding or to enhance the overall texture of the bread to make it softer.
The majority of usage for home baking or professionally is through pre-mixes. These are combinations of dough improvers and enzymes, often mixed with salt, flour and vegetable fat. They are added to the dough alongside flour, water and yeast. Commercially they are sold in “mix bags”, i.e. one sachet per bag of flour. But in home kitchens, they need to be weighed before entering the mixing bowl.
Dough improvers make the dough more stable. This produces a more manageable dough to mix, handle, shape and rise. This makes it an easier way to produce great bread without needing to be so well-trained. They also make it possible to replicate classic bread types from around the world in the same environment without importing foreign ingredients.
Popular belief is that only flour, water, salt and yeast can be used to make French bread. France is the home of artisans, yet this statement is not valid.
Pain de tradition française, the most prestigious bread in France, may contain specific dough improvers. But these are regulated to only certain types and have maximum usage levels. Pain de tradition française consists of 25% of bread sold in France.
In addition to basic bread ingredients, gluten, deactivated yeast, 2% broad bean flour, 5% soya flour and 3% malted wheat flour are permitted. The only enzyme allowed is fungal amylase. Ascorbic acid or potassium bromate are not permitted. Percentages are based on the total weight of the flour used in the recipe. The dough or bread must not be frozen at any stage.
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Oil or other fats are prohibited, either in the recipe or when greasing bowls and tins. Any bread types that contain butter or eggs (such as brioche) are considered a pastry or viennoiserie.
Le pain courant Français can use fourteen additives on top of those in Pain de tradition française. E300, E301, E302, E304, E322, E471, E270, E325, E326, E327, E260, E261, E262, E263 are permitted.
Pains spéciaux can use any additive authorised by the EU. Spéciaux dough is also the category of bread where non-flour ingredients such as oats or grains are used. It can be frozen or par-baked and reheated on-site if required.
The traditional French sourdough, “Pain au levain”, must be made from a starter of wheat or rye flour and water. It must have a pH of 4.3 or below. This is a health and safety reason as it’s the threshold for killing off any harmful bacteria. Acidity must be at least 900 parts per million. Yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) can be added to sourdough bread but cannot be used in the starter. A maximum of 2% yeast can be used.
No, but bread is categorised by the additives allowed in each type. In pain de tradition française, very few additives are authorised.
Enzymes may be used in pain courant Français and les pains spéciaux. In traditional French bread (pain de tradition française) only fungal amylase is allowed. Malt flour contains the amylase enzyme and is authorised for all bread types.
Yes, it is against Le Décret Pain in certain bread types to include artificial ingredients to preserve bread. Instead, bakers will utilise natural ingredients such as soy flour alongside extended fermentation and quick baking times to extend the life of bread.
Yes, sourdough is very common in France. It’s often used alongside yeast to enrich the dough, but 100% sourdough-leavened bread (like pain au levain) is also popular. The French style involves less fermentation time and cooler temperatures than sourdough bread from America.
Hi, I’m Gareth Busby, a baking coach, head baker and bread-baking fanatic! My aim is to use science, techniques and 15 years of baking experience to help you become a better baker.
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