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Dough Conditioners/Enhancers

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The terms “dough conditioners” or “flour treatment agents” may initially seem intimidating, but in practice, there is no need to fear them. In this post, we will discuss the main types of baking improvers, their effects, reasons for use, and why there are situations where they are essential to achieve ideal dough.

Dough Conditioners – Introduction

In many cases, the flour label will specify additives that were included in the flour at the mill level, commonly known as “dough enhancers” or “dough conditioners”. Some of these additives are also available for purchase by consumers and can be added by bakers when preparing the dough. The types of additives and their quantities are regulated by relevant government ministries, such as health and agriculture. According to the law, flour manufacturers must* indicate on the label if any additives have been incorporated during the flour production process.
* The only exception to this is European flours, including Italian flours. In Europe, there is no requirement to indicate on the packaging the ingredients or dough enhancers that are added to the flour during its production.

It’s important to note that while the word “conditioner” implies a softening agent, the term “dough conditioners” is a general term that refers to all types of dough enhancers, including dough strengtheners, dough softeners, enzymes, maturing agents, and emulsifiers.

Vitamins and Minerals

As we seen previously, the process of milling white flour leads to the loss of many essential nutrients found primarily in the bran and germ of the wheat kernel. To compensate for this loss, certain vitamins and minerals are reintroduced to the flour. This type of flour is known as “enriched flour”.

In order for flour to be classified as “enriched”, it must contain four (type B) vitamins: thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folic acid. Additionally, other vitamins and minerals, such as phosphorus, calcium, and iron, can also be added to the flour.

Flour Aging, Oxidizing and Bleaching

Air (or more precisely, the oxygen in the air) acts as an oxidizing agent, and plays an extremely important role in the context of flour; It causes the oxidation of the flour, which has two main effects: (1) it whitens the flour, and (2) it enhances the flour’s ability to form gluten.

How do these two processes occur?
(1) The oxygen in the air oxidizes the carotenoid pigment in the flour (as mentioned earlier, the pigment that gives the flour its creamy color), resulting in a change in its chemical structure and causing it to become whiter.
(2) The oxygen also oxidizes the gluten-forming proteins in the flour, allowing them to form more bonds during the gluten formation process, which leads to stronger gluten. Dough made from oxidized flour is easier to work with, less sticky, less prone to tearing, and enables the preparation of baked goods with a larger volume.

There are two methods of aging (oxidizing) flour: natural aging, and artificial aging using chemical agents.

Natural aging refers to the intentional exposure of fresh (“green”) flour to the air for a period of 8-10 weeks. However, this process has some drawbacks. Firstly, it requires a significant amount of storage space; Secondly, there is a risk of the flour becoming contaminated by insects, bacteria, mold, and rodents; Additionally, the results of natural aging are less consistent compared to artificial aging, and it generally proves to be less efficient in terms of aging the flour.

Artificial/chemical aging is achieved by adding various chemical agents to the flour, either at the flour mill or during dough preparation by the baker. These agents can be classified into three categories:
(1) Whitening agents, which solely whiten the flour
(2) Agents that modify the flour’s properties, either by strengthening or weakening it
(3) Agents that simultaneously affect both aspects

Nowadays, the most commonly used oxidizing agent to strengthen flour is ascorbic acid, also known as vitamin C (labeled E300).

In the past, the most common and effective oxidizing agent (at least in the US) was potassium bromate. However, it has been banned for use in most of Europe due to studies showing its carcinogenic properties (although other studies have shown that the carcinogenic component is no longer present after baking). Flours containing potassium bromate are still available in most of the US (and are especially popular in pizzerias), but they must be clearly labeled on the flour package as “bromated” flour.

Two commonly used agents for bleaching (whitening) flours are benzoyl peroxide and chlorine dioxide. Benzoyl peroxide is highly effective in whitening flour and is used in all types of flour. It is important to note that benzoyl peroxide only whitens the flour, and does not have any additional effects on it.

Chlorine dioxide is “unusual” in this context because, in addition to bleaching the flour, it also significantly weakens the gluten by allowing the starch in the flour to absorb more water, effectively “diluting” the gluten. This is particularly desirable in cake flour.

Enzymes (Alpha-Amylase)

As we have seen, alpha-amylase enzymes are responsible for converting starch into sugars, and are crucial in flour. Normal white flour contains amylase, although usually not at a sufficient level to achieve optimal dough characteristics, such as providing food for yeast and promoting browning during baking.

To achieve proper amylase levels in the flour, the mill can take two approaches:
(1) Adding amylase to the flour during its production. This can be done by incorporating malt (a sprouted grain, typically barley) that is rich in amylase, or by directly adding fungal amylase
(2) Blending different wheat

If alpha-amylase has been added to the flour (using malted barley or enzymes), it will be stated in the list of ingredients on the label, usually as “enzymes” or “barley malt/malted barley”.

In the US, flours treated with the addition of amylase are labeled as “malted flour”. However, it is important to note that this classification is merely semantic – a flour can still have a high natural enzymatic activity without the “artificial” addition of barley malt; Therefore, a flour labeled as “unmalted”, does not necessarily mean it has low enzymatic activity.

It is worth mentioning that in Italy, it is customary to not treat flour with alpha-amylase, resulting in most Italian flours having low enzymatic activity.

Dough Reducers/Softeners

Dough softeners, as their name suggests, speed up the softening of dough by breaking down gluten bonds, similar to the action of protease enzymes (although not exactly the same). Dough softeners are used to achieve a softer and more manageable dough in a shorter period of time. Unlike protease enzymes, which only work during fermentation and take longer to soften the dough, dough softeners start working during the kneading stage. This allows for a reduction in mixing time and improves the workability of the dough.

An example of common dough softeners include L-Cysteine (labeled E920), glutathione (also known as dead/inactive yeast), PZ-44, sorbic acid, and bisulfite.

Additionally, there are other ingredients that serve as dough softeners but function differently from protease enzymes and the dough improvers mentioned above, including starch (potato, rice, or corn starch) and fat (oil, butter, or shortening). These ingredients help soften the dough, although they do not do this by breaking down gluten bonds.

Emulsifiers

Normally, water and oil do not mix and repel each other. Emulsifiers enable the mixture of water and oil, forming an emulsion. Emulsifiers possess hydrophilic (water-binding) and lipophilic (oil-binding) properties that allow them to bring water and oil together, creating a uniform mixture.

Using emulsifiers in pizza dough is generally not advisable; This is because they allow the crust to draw moisture from the toppings during baking, which can result in an undercooked layer of dough known as “gum line”. Instead of repelling moisture from the toppings, the fat in the dough (naturally occurring in the flour or added as part of the dough formula) binds to it, causing moisture to accumulate in the crust during baking – not a desirable thing when making pizza.

Some common emulsifiers include lecithin (labeled as E322), polysorbate-60, and monoglycerides.

Chemical Leavening Agents (Self-Rising Flour)

Artificial leavening agents are chemicals that are used to make the dough rise and increase in volume during baking. The most commonly used type of chemical leavening agent is baking powder, which is a mixture of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate, labeled E500ii) and an acid (usually monocalcium phosphate).

When baking soda comes into contact with an acid, a chemical reaction takes place, and carbon dioxide is produced, which causes the dough to rise. The presence of acid in the baking powder mixture is crucial for this reaction to occur, as baking soda alone cannot produce carbon dioxide without an acid.

One example of a product that contains artificial leavening agents is self-rising flour, which is regular white flour pre-mixed with baking powder.

Vital Wheat Gluten

Vital wheat gluten (VWG) is a cream-colored powder that contains approximately 75% of the “vital” proteins (glutenin and gliadin) needed for gluten formation. The production of VWG involves mixing a dough until it reaches full gluten development, followed by a process known as “gluten washing” to separate the gluten from the remaining dough (mostly starch). Afterward, the resulting gluten is dried and ground into a powder, so what is obtained is a powder that contains gluten-forming proteins that have retained their ability to produce gluten and can effectively “recreate” it. For more information about VWG, please refer to the VWG page in the Encyclopizza.