International Recipes and Cooking Around the World

Does Sugar Help Bread Yeast Grow?

Rising bread dough
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A Chef Robert from Tularosa, NM, recently posted a comment on the naan bread recipe with a question that can raise hackles among bakers: "Why add sugar to the yeast proofing liquid in bread recipes?"

The answer? Well, let's take a look...

Here's Chef Robert's comment:

I keep asking the question, why sugar in the bread recipes. I have been baking savory breads for years and have never added sugar. I have been told it to make the yeast proof or work. This is a myth as it is not a needed additive and bad for those who are diabetic. Think about it, the French have been baking great french bread for years and by law can only use flour, yeast, water and salt. once again fast does not make great tasting bread. So,again I ask why the sugar? -- Chef Robert in Tularosa, NM.

Our friendly chef from New Mexico poses a very good question. I decided to do a little research to get the best answer I could. I looked through tons of baking books, online resources and even spoke with a few masterful bakers. Here's what I found out.

To start with sugar is food for yeast. As they consume sugars, either added or in the flour itself, yeast cells expel ethanol and carbon dioxide bubbles. These same bubbles make bread rise.

Purist bakers will sometimes make the case that adding sugar to the proofing liquid for active dry yeast is not necessary. And the truth is, it isn't. Active dry yeast will proof just fine without sugar, allbeit a little more slowly. But what the added sugar does is increase the yeast's activity. And this is especially important when you are trying to revive common active dry yeast from its freeze-dried stupor.

A review of a wide variety of baking books from Rose Levy Berenbaum's classic Bread Bible to Dorie Greenspan's Baking with Julia found most advise a pinch of sugar, honey or barley malt to the proofing medium to give the yeast a boost.

Harold McGee, the author of the definitive text on the science behind the culinary arts, On Food and Cooking, writes in his section on breadmaking, "sugar will, in moderate amounts, increase yeast fermentation by providing the cells with additional food."

King Arthur Flour, highly respected in the foodservice industry for its high-quality flours and baking products, has this to say:"

To “proof” active dry yeast, dissolve it in a few tablespoons of the liquid in your recipe, along with a half teaspoon or so of sugar, or a tablespoon of flour. Wait 10 to 15 minutes; if you don’t see any activity (small bubbles forming), try some newer yeast.

So it seems that adding a little sugar is not only acceptable among experienced bakers, but positively common.

Another point Chef Robert made was that adding the sugar to the bread recipe would be bad for diabetics. But that seems unlikely. One teaspoon of sugar is called for in a naan recipe that makes at least six breads. Assuming one naan per diner, that equals less than 1/6th of a teaspoon per serving. Not very much. More importantly, the very activity of the yeast in the bread "eats" the sugar and turns it into carbon dioxide--a substance hardly likely to trigger diabetic shock. The refined white flour of the bread itself is probably far more likely to spike blood sugar than the small amount of sugar added.

Finally, Chef Robert argues that the French restrict baguettes and derivative breads to four ingredients: flour, yeast, water and salt. That's true, and they do make lovely breads. But naan is from India. You can make naan with just four ingredients, and some do. But many more Indians add yogurt and sometimes egg to their recipes. These ingredients give it more flavor and a toothsome texture familiar to those who have dined Punjabi-style. And I am most interested in authenticity for Whats4Eats recipes.

Conclusion: Adding a pinch of sugar to proofing yeast isn't a deal-breaker in breadmaking, but it doesn't hurt. If anything, it helps a little.