Thursday, May 12, 2016

Low sodium Bread – Demystified

A Variety of Homemade Low Sodium Breads

There really is no mystery to creating low sodium bread that looks good, tastes good, and has good texture. Unfortunately, most low sodium bread recipe resources rarely, if ever, discuss the role salt plays in yeast breads. And, a lot of misinformation gets passed around. Just last week I read the following in an article about baking low sodium bread: "When not using salt, we have to use a bit MORE yeast." Obviously, this writer doesn't understand the relationship between salt and yeast in bread.

Here's the scoop: Salt does more than flavor the bread. Salt is a yeast inhibitor, so it helps keep the yeast in check. In other words, salt slows the rate of fermentation (proofing or rising), acting as a check on yeast development. If there is no salt, the yeast will ferment too much and too quickly. Salt also strengthens the gluten, so it helps the bread achieve and keep its desired shape.

Think of a balloon. Blow in too much air, the rubber thins and weakens, and eventually, the balloon pops. That's what can happen when the yeast in bread dough is left unchecked by salt. The yeast goes wild, the dough overproofs (expands too much), it expands even more during the first few minutes of  baking (oven spring), and eventually the loaf collapses. Pop goes the bread balloon! That's how you end up with sunken crater loaves of bread. The misshapen loaves may not bake correctly and you could also end up with underdone doughy sections.

Sunken Crater Bread

So, armed with this basic information, how can those on salt restricted diets produce decent homemade low or no sodium yeast bread? For an authoritative answer, here's Peter Reinhart, one the world's foremost bread experts and author of several critically acclaimed bread baking cookbooks.

From Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day:
In the section entitled, "Common Questions about Ingredients," Reinhart responds to a question about reducing salt:
"As for cutting back on salt, yes it is possible to do so; however, the bread won’t taste as good. Another concern is that the yeast will have more leeway to ferment at will. (Salt is a yeast inhibitor, which is a good thing in breads.) So, if you cut the salt by, say, 10 percent, then also cut back on the yeast by the same amount. I’m not recommending this, because I like the breads with the amount of salt listed in the recipes, but I do understand that many people need to limit their salt intake. So as long as you’re willing to sacrifice some of the flavor, you can make these breads with less salt."
There you have it. The answer is as simple as can be. No need for culinary acrobatics. Whatever you do to salt, do the same thing to yeast.

Simply put, when you reduce the salt, reduce the yeast by the same percentage. If you reduce the salt by 50%, then reduce the yeast by 50%. Obviously, if you’re making totally salt free bread, you need to reduce the yeast by at least half, possibly more, and you'll need to watch the dough carefully during rising. Salt-free bread probably should not have more than about 1 teaspoon of yeast per three cups of flour. Anything more is inviting possible disaster.

Don't worry about not having enough yeast in a bread recipe. Many recipes, especially those for lean artisanal style breads, use small amounts of yeast. The slower rise develops more complex flavors and better texture. The bread will rise, it will just take longer, and, when dealing with lower sodium bread, that's not such a bad thing.
Examples of Reducing BOTH Salt and Yeast

The second part of the formula – because you're using less salt, make sure you keep an eye on how the dough rises. The suggested time for the rise may no longer apply. Dough is ready when it has doubled in bulk no matter how long it takes. Check out this article from King Arthur Flour about over-risen bread.

So, what are the guidelines for successfully baking low sodium bread or salt-free bread?
  1. If you reduce the salt, reduce the yeast by the same percentage
  2. Watch the rising dough carefully to avoid over-risen bread
This approach has worked well for me for 10 years, allowing me to use all sorts of regular yeast bread recipes and not limiting me to just salt-free recipes. I can make pretty much whatever bread I feel like making and that catches my interest – from recipes with only 3 cups of flour to those with over 6 cups.

I don't limit myself to saltless recipes. In fact, I prefer to use regular bread recipes and reduce the salt content myself rather than follow recipes found in low sodium cookbooks or on low sodium websites. There are a couple of reasons why I do this: one reason is that I like the variety of flavors and techniques offered by recipes from bread cookbooks, websites (such as King Arthur Flour), and other sources that focus on yeast breads. They’ve got the bread expertise because that’s what they concentrate on. I think their information is sound. Another reason is that I simply don’t trust most of the lower sodium bread recipes I’ve seen.

The yeast quantity seems too high for salt free breads, and often times, the role of salt in yeast breads is completely misrepresented.

In case you're wondering, the information about how salt affects yeast and the formula for reducing salt in bread is not anything new. It's been around and common knowledge for quite a while. All you have to do is a Google search on "The role of salt in yeast breads." (See this King Arthur Flour article about salt in yeast breads.) Why do so many low sodium resources, websites, cookbooks, and advocates neglect to discuss this information? Honestly, I don't know – it's disappointing, puzzling, and a bit frustrating.

Note: If you are already using a salt free bread recipe and experiencing less than stellar results  try reducing the yeast amount by ¼ teaspoon. If necessary, continue reducing the yeast by ⅛ - ¼ teaspoon increments until you achieve satisfactory results.
More Low Sodium Breads

You may be asking yourself, is it worth making homemade low sodium bread? My answer is a resounding, “YES!” I like bread with some “oomph” to it. I really don’t care for uber-soft and squishy loaves – whether white or whole wheat. I want bread with substance, and so does my husband. Before CHF, my husband’s favorite grocery store bread was Oroweat Honey Wheat Berry, definitely not a soft and squishy bread. The lower sodium breads available at grocery stores are OK, but they’re too much like all the other shmooshy breads on sale. They simply cannot compete with what I’m producing now. From soft Japanese milk bread rolls to sturdy harvest bread filled with all sorts of grains, seeds, and nuts. Breads, rolls, and sandwich buns seasoned with onion, dill, green chilies, rosemary, caraway, black pepper, sun-dried tomatoes, chives, on and on – flavors and texture I could never get from supermarket low sodium breads. Plus I can make all kinds of whole grain breads with real heft to them and that are not disgustingly squishy or sweet.

For more about making low sodium bread, check out these earlier posts:


Baking Low Sodium Bread Series:

Part 1 – Introduction  

Part 2 – Beginning Basics

Part 3 – Getting Started

Part 4 – Keeping It Fresh

Part 5 – Without a Bread Machine

Part 6 – Favorite Bread Recipes



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