What is Malt?

I didn’t make any malts this past week, but even so reader Loni wants to know what “malt” is and why we eat it. It’s a great question since not only is malt rather unusual as ingredients go, it occurs in several forms in the baker’s kitchen.

I should start by observing that malt isn’t so much a thing as it is a process. “Malting” is a word that means the same thing as “sprouting”, or perhaps more precisely, “germinating”. It happens when a seed, notably a grain like barley, is exposed to water and a temperature of around 65 degrees Fahrenheit. The seed, which is composed of an embryo (the germ) and a food supply (the endosperm) breaks open so the embryo can grow. The embryo sends out a shoot and enzymes in the endosperm switch on and begin slicing the long-chain starch molecules stored there into simple sugars. Why? Because starch is a storage strategy, a way for plants to bank energy in a form that’s less palatable to sugar thieves. However plants can only use those sugars when they’re in their simplest form, and when they’re in the process of germinating they need fuel. Typically germinating seeds produce sugars faster than the shoot can consume them, giving us humans a big opportunity.

So what do we do with these sweet sprouts? On the one hand we can simply dry the malted barley (stopping the malting process but without deactivating the enzymes) and grind it into powder. The result is so-called diastatic malt powder, a grain-sugar mixture that still has active enzymes in it, enzymes which are capable of breaking down starch when they’re mixed with water (the word “diastatic” comes from the Greek diistanai, which means “to separate”). Diastatic malt is useful for baking types since it boosts the sugar content of bread (both by itself and as a result of the action of enzymes), enhancing taste and darkening crust (which occurs as a result of caramelization). Almost impossible to find in stores, diastatic malt usually has to be custom-ordered.

If one were to dry the malted barley and then toast it (destroying the active enzymes but creating lots of nice flavor), the result is non-diastatic malt powder. This is the stuff that’s usually combined with sugar and dry milk to make malted milk powder. People add it to chocolate shakes to make “malteds”, mix it with cocoa powder and sugar and form it into balls, or simply add it to hot water and/or milk and drink it.

If one were to dry the malted barley, then toast it, then mash it to goo and cook it, the result would be malt syrup (at least after it was filtered). Malt syrup is a sticky molasses-like liquid that you can find in health food stores under the name “barley malt”. Healthy food types use it as a “natural” sweetener, though there’s really nothing any more “natural” about malt syrup as compared more conventional syrups, it’s just composed of different kinds of naturally occurring sugars (mostly maltose and glucose). It’s about half as sweet tasting as sugar, though it has every bit as many calories. Bakers use malt syrup for the same reasons they employ diastatic malt, to enhance flavor and color, but of course without adding active enzymes to their dough, which depending on the recipe, might not be either welcome or necessary.

Where else does malt occur? Why in baking and distilling of course, also in vinegar production where it adds deeper, more complex and sweeter flavor notes.

14 thoughts on “What is Malt?”

  1. Alternatively, you could take a few pounds of malt powder, dissolve it in several gallons of water, perhaps add some hops or other flavouring, add some yeast, and in a week or two you’ll have beer. Which is what my husband does.

  2. A while ago I came across a recipe for croissants in an Argentinian cookbook that called for malt powder. As I didn’t have any on hand at that time I skipped it, so I don’t know what the results would be. Why would they add malt to a dough that is basically flour and butter?

  3. As a kid I thought malteds and shakes were synonymous, but I quickly learned that shakes were much sweeter…as an adult and a beer aficionado (Doppelbocks!) I intimately understand the involuntary social benefits of malted barley and it’s prismatic effects on the palate of the illuminati.

  4. I tried a malt ice cream recipe a few years ago, as I’d always liked malts more than milkshakes. It was a let-down, and the husband and neighbors agreed. I don’t know if the freezing affects the flavor but the author usually has such great recipes (maple syrup ice cream anyone?) I figure he hit one dud.

    1. Hm. It may well be as you say that the cold puts the hammer down on some of the malt flavors. That’s very possible since malt flavors are quite subtle to begin with. I may have to run an experiment the next time Mrs. Pastry makes ice cream (which is often). Thanks again, Naomi!

      – Joe

      1. Seems odd when malt in malts seems significant but maybe it is because it is added in the malt-making vs. the freezer and the ice cream making. I know it will be a burden to test that, Joe, but I’m sure you will be up to the task.

        1. No problem, Linda!

          As you know, cold really inhibits taste receptors of certain kinds, I’ll bet that has something to do with it. But I shall give it a try!

          Cheers and happy 4th,

          – Joe

  5. Now you are talking good flavor. Did you ever visit The 50s Grill in Minneapolis?? Great place to eat and their malts are worth every calorie. My favorite is vanilla because you can taste the malt in it. They also make an amazing chicken and wild rice soup served with individual French bread. Incredible. Check it out next visit to that area. Fun decor in the 50s style and poodle skirts on the waitresses and a soda jerk who knows how to make a soda…and malt.

    1. Hey Linda!

      I was a creature of The Wedge and Uptown when I lived in the Cities way back int he 90’s, I never got up that way (you know, young hipsters never do anything genuinely fun, it’s too un-cool). Next time I visit I will absolutely drop in…because a good malt is worth the drive!

      – Joe

  6. I have a recipe for New York Bagels that call for “malt powder flour” Can you tell me which one I need? There seems to be several types and I’m not sure which one would be best for making bagels.



    1. Hi Donna!

      I don’t know the term “malt powder flour” to be honest, but if it’s a small quantity then odds are they mean “malt powder”. I don’t have a preference among brands, but a diastatic malt powder is what you want for bagels. Does that help?

      – Joe

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