Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How Does Bread Work?

We eat bread almost every day. Have you ever looked at a slice of bread and noticed the tiny holes in it? It almost looks like Swiss cheese gone horribly wrong. While bread is a delectable delight, have you thought about the chemistry that goes on behind the scenes to create the chewy goodness that is known as bread?
Bakers might as well have degrees in organic chemistry; the exact science that goes behind baking the perfect loaf could be considered the eighth wonder of the world. There are numerous chemical reactions that go on beneath the surface of any loaf of bread, as well as feats of nature, which keep the loaf from either exploding or imploding on itself. Let’s take a quick look at some of the simple facts of life bakers use to create the moist and spongy concoction we know as bread.
Gas Production

Believe it or not, bakers have their own mini gas refineries, in the form of yeast. Yeast is a single-cell fungi that attacks sugars, breaking them down into alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. These little fungi have a big sweet tooth and can break down more sugar pound for pound than a kid on a sugar high at Halloween.
The carbon dioxide that is produced gives the bread the light, airy texture we all love, while the alcohol, which cooks off in the oven, adds to the complexity of the flavor. These little organisms of mass production help give bread the look, feel and smell we are familiar with.
Super Stretch

When flour, especially wheat flower, is mixed with water and kneaded, it becomes a super-elastic material to rival any balloon or rubber band you can think of. The reason this concoction becomes stretchy is because of a protein called gluten. There are actually two proteins that help develop the super stretchy material; gliadin and glutenin.
These two proteins, when combined with water gives the bread dough the ability to capture the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast in little flour compartments. As the flour holds the gas hostage, it begins to rise, double and eventually triple in size before being punched, poked and prodded, only to start the whole process over again two or three more times.

Just like the transformation between bread and toast, once the dough goes into the oven, it makes a radical change. The strands between the air bubbles are what give the bread its shape while the alcohol bakes off and develops the spongy component we all look forward to.
Once the bread begins to near the end of the baking process, the chemical reactions begin to slow down. All of the gas has been released, a solid crust has formed and the bread has taken its familiar shape. None of this could have ever happened without the mad scientist baker knowing exactly what he or she was doing. I bet you never thought bread could be such a fun and exciting food; did you?

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