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


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much. I’ve been at 2000mg of salt a day since January an am doing well. But I like good bread ant the low salt breads are awful��And I’ve had many failures. I will try your methods and low less salt and decrease the yeast by percentage. I’m wondering if doing this in a recipe will change the texture, as in perhaps being heavier? So glad I found your website. Thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

I have been low salt for only 9 mos and tried making no sodium bread and it’s pretty awful. I’m wondering if lowering salt and yeast at equal percentage will make the bread heavier? I’m testing a recipe this evening. Thank you for your website. I was getting discouraged and had many bread making nightmares. Not to mention bad texture and taste. The bread machine has not been my friend. Deb M

shambo said...

Bread Lady, I understand your frustration. But, truly, using less salt in a bread recipe does not result in heavy, dense bread. Since you're having some trouble, I heartily recommend lowering BOTH the salt and the yeast amount. But be sure to do it proportionally. If you lessen the salt by 50%, then lessen the yeast by 50%.

And along with following that formula, I'd start off just lowering the salt and yeast by 25%. Give yourself a better chance for success. Once you get the hang of lower sodium bread, then go ahead and lower the amounts by 50%. If you want to try even lower sodium bread, then lower them by 75%. And if you're going for totally salt-free bread, eliminate the salt, but keep 25% of the yeast.

Sometimes problems occur when you use a published low sodium/salt free bread recipe. Often times the authors of those recipes do not understand the relationship between salt & yeast, so they just eliminate the salt altogether without adjusting the yeast amount. I've found such recipes even on websites from so-called low sodium experts.

Other problems happen when using a bread machine. Without salt to restrain yeast activity, the dough may over expand to the point of collapsing. You end up with a crater topped bread that bakes unevenly. The issue is that the machine follows its pre-set cycles, no matter what's happening with the dough. By shaping and rising the bread manually, you can see when the dough is ready for baking and pop it into the oven before it rises too much. I love using my bread machine, but experience has taught me that if I want good bread, it's not a dump and walk away proposition.

Hope this helps a bit. Don't give up. As I said before, producing good tasting, nice looking low sodium bread products is not impossible. It does take some practice. But that's what bread crumbs, croutons, stuffing cubes, etc. are for.

Teresa D said...

Thank you for the information on salt/ yeast ratios. I received a Zojirushi breadmaker for Christmas and I want to jump in and make some bread.... but I am leary...yikes! Do you ever let the machine bake the bread or do you always just use the dough cycle and finish it yourself?
Do you have recipes posted somewhere?
Thank you so much! Teresa

shambo said...

Teresa, thank you for your kind comments. In answer to you question, yes, I frequently use my bread machine for baking, especially during the hot summer months.

Baking with a machine is not as simple as just dumping in the ingredients, turning it on, and waiting for the bread to bake. Along with handling the salt to yeast ratios, it's very important to check the dough as it is kneading. Open the lid and feel the dough. It may need more water or more flour. Make corrections during the kneading process before the bread goes into the rise cycle.

If you check out the Bread Baking Series listed at the end of this post, you'll find some helpful hints for successfully making low sodium bread, both with or without a bread machine. I suggest reading Part 1, near the end, where I discuss three types of low sodium bread recipes. Also, Part 2, the section about adjusting the liquid and flour during kneading. And Part 3 sections about getting to know your bread machine, starting with small loaves and white bread, bread machine cookbooks, and keeping notes of your efforts.

I list some of my favorite recipes in the last two parts of the series.

Hope this helps. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I have made dinner rolls 2 times using 50% salt and yeast. It turned out great. I think the process of bread baking requires more than just mixing it up, kneading and rising. I notice I put too much flour in my bread. It has to be the proper soft/sticky feeling. I’m improving. Thank you for your help.

shambo said...

Thanks for your comments. You're right that bread making is simple but does require some attention. I use a bread machine for kneading but automatically check the dough several times during the process. In fact, I keep a spray bottle filled with water nearby because of my penchant to adjust every recipe to include close to 50% whole wheat flour. I know that the whole wheat flour absorbs a lot of liquid, so I usually spray my dough a few times during the kneading in order to get the right consistency.

There's a lot of trial and error involved. And I find some comfort in knowing that even experienced bread bakers make mistakes and sometimes end up with flops. That's what bread crumbs or croutons are for.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for your informative blog posts on making low sodium bread! My husband has to restrict his sodium intake and he wants me to try making a completely salt free loaf. Your experience and your blog are a godsend! I've never baked yeast bread before, so I'll need all the help I can get! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thank you SO much for your most valuable information. I've saved this website to my favorites, and I'm certain I'll refer to it often. My husband is in Stage 4 renal failure, and salt is poison for him. We are huge bread lovers, and commercially made bread negates all efforts to be salt-free (I love to cook and am able to make great-tasting meals using fresh ingredients and no salt). But bread is the killer. I recently received a KitchenAid stand mixer with a dough hook attachment and am eager to get started. Your advice about not using low-salt bread recipes was great -- I wasn't to keen on using any that I found. My next trip to the supermarket will include the purchase of bread flour so I can try my first loaf. I am impressed by the amount of different breads you make, and I just can't wait to try my hand at low-sodium bread options, and I like that you use regular salt recipes and just do the science to make those recipes low salt. Can't wait!! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge!

Craig Faustus Buck said...

Shambo, thanks so much for your blog. You gave me the basics to dive in and make bread. Because of my kidney disease, I'm making no-salt bread which, as you know, is taste-challenged. I'm working around that by using other flavorings, such as sourdough starter, caraway and anise seeds, onions and scallions and so on. I got an inexpensive bread machine and am making three or four 1.5 lb. loaves a week, doing a lot of experimenting (using pureed over-ripe pears instead of water, for example). Thanks for all you've done here. The sodium-free bread allows me to get my meager sodium allotment from my sandwich fillings instead of my bread.

shambo said...

Craig, thanks for the kind words. You've discovered the secret of low sodium/no-salt-added breads: Flavorings! Yes, adding all sorts of aromatic seeds gives your bread a punch it wouldn't have otherwise. Same with adding various herbs and spices. Plus you can use the same recipe over & over again and just change the flavors. Congratulations!