Sugar is often used in bread-making, not just for its flavor, but also to feed the yeast and aid fermentation. However, many people wonder what would happen if sugar is left out of bread dough. Would the bread rise and taste the same?
In this article, we’ll explore the effects of omitting sugar in bread dough, and suggest alternative sweeteners.
If you don't add sugar to bread dough, the rising process may take longer. However, the bread will taste better due to the by-products of slower fermentation. While sugar can speed up fermentation by providing instant food for the yeast to grow, it's not essential for the fermentation. The crust of sugar-free breads is crispy, the crumb is chewier, stronger, with larger holes. Bread made with added sugar has a browner crust and a tender crumb with smaller air pockets.
Some bread types, such as classic French bread, are traditionally made without added sugar. Meanwhile, some bread, like those made for holidays in many European countries, requires high sugar content.
Effects of omitting sugar in bread dough
In small amounts, sugar provides immediate food for yeast, which speeds up fermentation. In dough made without added sugar, this process takes place more slowly, which is desirable as it allows for the development of rich flavors in baked goods.
Amylase is a naturally occurring enzyme in flour that converts the starches in flour into sugar. Yeast and lactic acid bacteria also secrete enzymes that extract sugars from starch, which serve as food for the yeast and bacteria during fermentation.
On the other hand, adding a large amount of sugar to the dough inhibits the activity of the yeast. The yeast requires moisture to carry out the fermentation process, and sugar is hygroscopic, which means it absorbs and retains the moisture making it inaccessible to the yeast.
Recipes for high-sugar baked goods, therefore, typically use more yeast than basic bread recipes to compensate for the effect of sugar.
Doughs made without sugar require a shorter mixing time, as gluten can form and develop more easily in the absence of sugar. Sugar-free bread has larger air pockets and can be tougher and chewier. Since sugar acts as a dough conditioner, it makes the crumb tender and uniform.
Slower Yeast Activity
Sugar has the ability to absorb moisture, leading to less water being available for gluten formation. The sugar in the dough competes for water with the proteins in flour, which can slow down the development of gluten.
Some studies suggest that added sugar also inhibits the coagulation of gluten during baking and the formation of a strong bread structure. While on the subject of yeast activity, you may be interested in my article on the role of sugar in dough fermentation.
Bread made without added sugar may not brown as strongly due to the heat, so it can be baked at a higher temperature. However, adding sugar to the dough results in a darker crust due to caramelization and the Maillard reaction.
To avoid excessive browning, bread with a higher sugar content should be baked at a lower temperature, especially if additional ingredients such as oil, milk, and eggs are used, which also enhance the browning of the crust.
Milk naturally contains a sugar known as lactose, which cannot be digested by yeast, but it helps to brown the crust of the bread. Adding fresh milk or milk powder to the bread dough results in a tender crumb and a pleasant flavor.
Bread made with added sugar stays fresh longer, which is why many commercial baked goods contain it. Sugar binds with water molecules and retains moisture in the bread, keeping it soft. It also acts as a natural preservative that prevents mold.
However, the shelf life of bread can be extended in other ways, such as through longer fermentation of the dough. Acids formed during the long fermentation time in sourdough bread help the bread last longer.
Difference in flavor
One of the functions of sugar in bread dough is to speed up fermentation. It only needs to be added in small amounts and does not significantly change the taste of the product.
However, enriched bread, such as challah or panettone, requires sugar for its characteristic flavor and texture. I do not recommend omitting sugar from these baked goods but rather suggest choosing a different recipe.
Alternatives to Using Sugar in Bread Dough
To make basic bread, no added sugar is needed at all since the yeast obtains the necessary sugar from the starches in the flour. However, if you want to make sweet-tasting enriched bread without refined table sugar, there are alternative sweeteners available.
- Honey is a natural sweetener that can be used instead of sugar. It has a distinct flavor and also acts as a preservative. Honey mostly contains fructose, which yeast can utilize during dough fermentation. In small quantities, you can use honey in the same proportion as plain sugar.
- Xylitol, also known as birch sugar, has similar consistency and sweetening power as table sugar, but with 40% fewer calories. It’s safe for diabetics to consume. While we’re on the subject of Xylitol, you might be interested in my article on using birch sugar in baking.
- Malt syrup has a characteristic flavor and can add a slightly nutty aroma to bread. The sugar content of malt syrup serves as food for the yeast and helps in the formation of a nice, brown bread crust. The sweetening power of malt sugar is half that of white sugar.
- Molasses is a byproduct of the sugar-making process that is rich in nutrients like iron and calcium. It can be produced from sugar beet or sugar cane. Molasses contains natural sugars that can provide food for the yeast in bread dough. It is less sweet than sugar but has a rich, distinct flavor.
- Pureed fruits such as bananas, applesauce, or dates can add natural sweetness to bread dough. Fruit purees also add moisture to the dough, resulting in a softer and more tender crumb. However, the amount of natural sugar in different fruits may vary.
In conclusion, omitting sugar from bread dough is perfectly fine, and you can also use sugar alternatives to make sweet-tasting baked goods. Sugar speeds up the fermentation process and acts as a dough conditioner. It contributes to the browning of the crust and helps extend the shelf life of bread.
Ultimately, whether to add sugar to bread dough or not is a matter of personal preference and dietary restrictions. However, it is essential to understand the role that sugar plays in the bread-making process.