Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >
Jul 19, 2010 11:40 AM

Why add honey or sugar to whole wheat bread?

I know there must be a science related Cooks Illustrated-style answer for this, but I can't seem t find any information on it.

Can any experienced bakers help me out with this? Does it have to do with providing extra food for the yeast?

Perhaps something in the crystalline sugar structure breaks down the husk of whole wheat to help form more gluten?

I really have no idea... and input would be appreciated.


Mr Taster

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. The only use I know of is providing extra food for the yeast. If you're mixing the sweet stuff with the water and yeast before putting it into the bread, it kick starts the yeast and the bread will rise faster. Maybe someone else can elaborate.

    1. I believe it has to do with achieving the browning effect in baked goods via the Maillard reaction. Some bakeries will leave out the sugar, which is why you sometimes get pale-looking bread. It also affects the flavor a bit.

      1. actually, jvanderh and AllaSiciliana are both right!

        1 Reply
        1. re: goodhealthgourmet

          Also, depending on what % whole wheat you are using, vs. unbleached flour; it takes more "power" from the yeast to make the ww jump. Sugar/honey as mentioned abvove provides the food to make the yeast grow faster, thus more rise.

        2. There is no hard and fast rule that whole wheat bread needs a sweetener, there is enough simple sugar (glucose) present in flour to get the yeast started. Sure, a pinch of sugar helps enliven the yeast, to prepare for a flour that is heavier with bran and germ than white, but it's not necessary. The lower protein content in WW is often why white bread flour and whole wheat are combined for bread, or a smaller ratio of whole wheat to white flour is used, or vital wheat gluten is added; whole wheat's not so great for developing gluten.

          Whole wheat flour from the supermarket, containing the germ, which may have been sitting on the grocer's shelf for some time and could be rancid, and can be a bit grassy and bitter tasting. Many people like a touch of sweetness in the bread to cover that up. It's not completely about feeding the yeast, more about flavoring the loaf. Whole wheat has an affinity for a touch of sweetness. I have a recipe for 100% whole wheat bread that only contains two tablespoons of honey, for flavor, added after the dough and the poolish are combined.

          Yeast doesn't feed on table sugar anyway, it's too complex a sugar. That's why you see honey or other types of sweeteners used in WW bread.

          If you make a poolish or sponge (pre-ferment) first, just flour, yeast and water, no need to add the sweetener to that. This "good" fermentation process releases sugars trapped in the grains, and that adds to flavor and loaf color after baking. You have to be cautious with added sugar and yeast anyway; too much sweetener can kill the yeast by working it to death.

          If the flour is freshly milled, it won't have the grassy bitterness, but a nice sweet, nutty quality.

          The sweetener present in the dough, whether naturally occurring or added, also adds to the golden color of the loaf after baking, through caramelization.

          13 Replies
          1. re: bushwickgirl

            Great answer! This is precisely the jump start I was looking for on this topic.

            Mr Taster

            1. re: bushwickgirl

              +1 on this answer by bushwickgirl. I baked two loaves of whole wheat sourdoughs within a week of each other, using the same batches of ingredients. The only difference was I forgot the honey in the second loaf. My husband, who generally hates 'sweet' supermarket bread loved the first loaf and said the second was bitter. Maybe the flour was "old", the slight honey flavour certainly masked the bitterness.

              1. re: bushwickgirl

                Yeast certainly seems to feed on table sugar. Do you have a source on this?

                1. re: jvanderh

                  Yes, The Bread Baker's Apprentice, page 63, in a technical but approachable discussion of fermentation under the catagory of enzyme science, second paragraph:

                  "This is what allows French bread to rise even though no sugar is added to the dough (and even if it were, the yeast can't feed on sucrose, or table sugar, because it is a two-chain sugar and thus too complex for the yeast)."

                  HFCS or corn syrup would actually be better yeast feeding choices, at the yeast proofing stage, as they contains glucose and the F in HFCS, simple sugars that yeast likes, but it's not necessary to add any sweetener when activating yeast, the yeast will tell you if it's viable or not. If you do a pre-ferment, the flour used with yeast and water provides the glucose present in the flour necessary to feed the yeast; sugar is not necessary in bread, unless the formula calls for it.

                  I rarely add sugar to yeast when activating it, but I know that the foaming of the yeast is more vigorous when a sweetener, even sucrose, has been added than when not. Maybe there's something else in my table sugar...

                  1. re: bushwickgirl

                    "This is what allows French bread to rise even though no sugar is added to the dough (and even if it were, the yeast can't feed on sucrose, or table sugar, because it is a two-chain sugar and thus too complex for the yeast)."
                    But yeast have the enzyme invertase which efficiently converts sucrose into glucose+fructose so it most definitely can feed on sucrose.

                    1. re: kmcarr

                      Just quoting Peter Reinhart.

                      However, invertase in yeast does indeed metabolize sucrose into glucose and frutose to a lesser extent, so the fermentation process can work sucessfully. Sucrose is too complex for the yeast to metabolize, (two chain sugar vs. simple sugar, yeast likes it simple) so the invertases enzyme breaks it down into simple sugars, which is what Mr. Reinhart wrote about. That does not conclude that yeast can "feed" on sucrose for fermentation; the sucrose must be converted into monosaccharides for consumption to begin.

                      1. re: bushwickgirl

                        "That does not conclude that yeast can "feed" on sucrose for fermentation; the sucrose must be converted into monosaccharides for consumption to begin."
                        That seems like an awfully fine hair to split. By this definition no organism could "feed" on sucrose, or any disaccharide since they always must converted to glucose before entering glycolosis. The way I see it, if a species possesses the requisite enzymatic machinery to utilize a particular carbohydrate as an energy source, regardless of how many intermediate steps it passes through, it can be said to be able to feed on that carbohydrate.

                          1. re: jvanderh

                            "it can be said to be able to feed on that carbohydrate."

                            Conversion is a better description for the initial enzymatic action of invertase on sucrose, then zymase converting the resulting glucose and other simple sugars, to create carbon dioxide and ethanol, the ultimate goal of the fermentation phase, so the bread will rise. The fact that invertase cannot "feed" on sucrose, but needs to convert it to another substance for further enzymatic activity by zymase for proper fermentation, is clear to me.

                            I'm convinced that Mr. Reinhart's quote was not made in error, and not made without considerable research and a great understanding on the subject of enzymatic action of yeast in fermentation.

                            1. re: bushwickgirl

                              OK, sorry I just want to throw my two cents in here as a degreed brewer. I only bake as a hobby, but brewers do deal with yeast and all. Yeast can digest sucrose, using invertase. It is fairly well known however, that simple sugars will be digested much faster. Only glucose goes into the glycolosis, fructose requires glucose-fructose-transmutase. Generally speaking however, when adding fermentable sugars, one tries to add mixtures of glucose and fructose, or maltose, sucrose will be fermented eventually, but leads to residual sweetness and different byproducts. Corn syrup, honey, corn sugar (check your home brew store), glucose or fructose from a health food store, should all work. Also people generally assume all yeast metabolism is fermentation, since it is well known that yeast produce alcohol. In reality, the initial stages of fermentation are not usually fermentation at all, but respiration. During this stage the yeast will eat up all oxygen available to them, and produce several times as much energy from the sugars they digest. This is when most of the cell division takes place, after that the oxygen is used, and they are forced into alcohol fermentation, and tend not to multiply nearly as fast.

                              1. re: breandan81

                                That's interesting to know! Maybe I'll switch to a drizzle of corn syrup when proofing yeast instead of a pinch of sugar.

                  1. re: bushwickgirl

                    graham flour actually has a higher protein content than standard white.

                  2. The whole reason I started making my own bread was that I wanted 100% whole wheat WITHOUT added sugar. Not because I have anything against sugar -- I love it in other applications -- but for some reason I hate it in bread. And, as some of you may know, it's practically impossible to find commercially baked whole wheat bread without it. I do use vital wheat gluten, however. It comes out great.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: visciole

                      Generally, adding much sucrose actually inhibits yeast growth, unless it is a special strain of osmo tolerant yeast. Yeasted breads often have double the normal amount of yeast to offset the osmotic pressure caused by sucrose. So to bake your whole wheat bread and avoid adding sugar of any sort, your best bet is to step up the amylase content in one of three ways. You can add a very small amount of diastatic malt to the flour. Unfortunately, I don't have a reference handy, but I think it works out to about 1/8 teaspoon per 5 oz cup of flour. But don't take my word for it. Or you can add rye flour. Rye has much more amylase. About 1 tablespoonful per cup of wheat flour will do it. Finally, you can malt some wheat berries by starting them to sprout and then drying them in a low temperature oven. (High heat will denature the enzymes.) Full directions for that are given in the description of desem bread in Scott and Wing's "The Bread Builders." Also, keep in mind that the longer and slower the rise, the more sugar will be formed since the enzymes, which do not take part in the chemical reaction, still keep doing their thing until they are cooked. For my sourdough whole wheat, I generally add rye and use a slow rise. But I have to admit that our guys are fond of yeasted whole wheat mixed with some oatmeal and a wee bit of honey. And, oh yes, I bolt (sift) the whole wheat flour to reduce the bran content but leave the germ in the flour.

                      1. re: visciole

                        Visciole, I've been looking for a 100% WW bread recipe without added sugar and with vital wheat gluten. Would be so kind as to share yours, please? Thanks!