Rise and shine: Three different ways of leavening dough

What’s the best way to leaven dough when baking? We explore the difference between chemical, organic and physical leavening to help improve your next bake.
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Charles Wells
Jun 24
4 mins
Jun 24
4 mins

Bread-making can be an intimidating process. Just thinking about tired arms from kneading, rock-hard bread or a smoky oven can be enough to put you off completely! But rest assured, once you familiarise yourself with skills of dough making, bread-making is not so intimidating

Leavening agents are used in baking to improve the texture and visual appearance. It produces tiny carbon dioxide air bubbles that make bread rise. Leavening agents are what make your dough light, fluffy, and delicious. 

Different types of leavening

There are three types of leavening: biological, chemical, and physical. Depending on the type of goods you are baking, and the time that you have on your hands, you can choose the most suitable type of leavening. 

Biological leavening

Biological leavening uses yeast to absorb sugar and convert it into carbon dioxide bubbles. Yeast is a food additive that contains living organisms that ferment sugars for energy and produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct of the reaction. In order for the reaction to occur, yeast requires carbohydrates and moisture. It takes a long time for the bread to rise using yeast because the yeast produces carbon dioxide at a slow rate. You can speed up the process by covering your dough to create more heat. 

Biological leavening agents are suitable for bread that have a strong gluten matrix because they can hold in gas for a long period of time. Liquid batters like pancakes and muffins are not suitable because they won't be able to trap gas for a long time. 

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Chemical leavening

Chemical leavening uses a reaction between acid and alkaline ingredients to create a small gas bubble that makes the baked goods light, airy and fluffy. The common chemical leavening agents are baking soda and baking powder. Baking ammonia is the less common chemical leavening agent but it serves the same purpose of making bread rise. 

Baking soda is a neutral alkaline ingredient that produces carbon dioxide when combined with an acid. Buttermilk, vinegar, and yogurt are acidic ingredients that you can use to create the chemical reaction. The reaction occurs fast so baking soda is ideal for soft and liquid batter like pancakes, muffins, and light bread.

The main difference between baking soda and baking powder is that baking powder contains acid in the chemical mixture, whereas with baking soda, you need to add acidic ingredients to make the dough rise. The acidic element is in the form of a salt, which means that the reaction will not occur until combined with water. Baking powder is ideal for recipes that do not contain a lot of acidic ingredients such as cookies. It also acts as a double-acting agent that produces gas bubbles twice: once when water is added to the dough and once when the dough is exposed to heat.  

Baker's ammonia was primarily used in the 19th century before the invention of baking soda and baking powder. It has the signature potent smell. Baker’s ammonia is often used in low moisture cookies and crackers because it creates unique crispiness and light texture.

Physical leavening 

Physical leavening uses manual actions to levitate the dough. Air is often incorporated into the dough when sugar and butter or butter and eggs are mixed together. 

Whisking the two ingredients traps a pocket of air within the fat layer. Sifting flour can also trap a small amount of air and can level the dough on a very small scale. Steaming is a physical leavening as water converts to steam which increases the volume of the dough. When the moist batter is introduced to high temperatures, the liquid batter converts into steam. The steam is then trapped within the batter. 

Physical leavening is often used for choux creme, puff pastries, and eclairs. It is not suitable for bread-making because it does not offer enough leavening. 

If you want to learn more about baking techniques in the comfort of your kitchen, join the Rassa Irish course to be instructed by our chefs on all things bread.

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