Fat, Flour, Sugar and Timing

Reader Jim writes:

Your fine pastry story — about the struggle between the forces of Up and the forces of Down — illuminates the dark “glutenian” conflict at odds when we bake. It has inspired me to question “when” I add the various ingredients into my bread recipes. Any future post regarding “ingredient timing” would be much appreciated.

That’s a fascinating question, Jim. I may have written down all I know in the below post. What I will say is that it is possible to create a variety of textural effects depending on when — and how much — fat you add to your mixture. Since gluten is going to develop quickly once flour and water are combined, you’ll want to add at least a little fat at the very beginning of the process if you want to cut down on the gluten development and create a more tender crumb: some egg yolk, oil, cream or very soft or melted butter. The longer you wait the tougher the gluten network is going to become and the more difficult it will be to mix the fat in, since as I mentioned once those gluten molecules are bonded to each other, fat can’t break them apart. Fat added late to a well-developed dough will tend to want to pool up and run out of the bread as it bakes.

How much fat you add is of course up to you. Generally speaking a dough that’s had fat introduced to it is not only going to be more tender and flavorful, it’s also going to have a finer crumb. Think of an egg bread like challah versus an big-holed French baguette.

Sugar doesn’t have as dramatic an effect on gluten formation, but it will have a significant effect on yeast growth if it’s introduced early in any quantity. In large amounts it’s as lethal to microbial life as salt, as it robs tiny critters of the water they need to live and reproduce. As your dough develops larger amounts of sugar can be added, but expect slower rising time as a result. Of course if the bread is chemically leavened sugar isn’t a problem at all.

Let’s see…what else can I add? If anyone else would like to weigh in on this subject please feel free. I’ll go on noodling it and add to the post if anything occurs. Thanks Jim for a terrific question!

7 thoughts on “Fat, Flour, Sugar and Timing”

  1. Just last night I watched an America’s Test Kitchen on which they made a dacquoise. They said the texture of the meringue layers was very much affected by when the sugar was added. A dump of sugar early in the process of bringing the egg whites would result in a drier and more brittle meringue while adding the sugar in parts in the middle and at the end of the whipping created a more tender meringue.

    They, of course, explained that in terms of the hygroscopic properties of sugar interacting with the denaturing of the proteins in egg white. I sorta ZZZZ’ed out a little at that part so you might want to look for that episode of ATK. I wish I could point you at the title of the episode but I erased it after I had seen it. It was the one most recently aired in Los Angeles but I don’t know if they air in the same order around the country. Sorry.

    No doubt Joe will have info to add.

    1. Hey Rainey!

      Thanks for that. Foams are another universe all their own, but this is instructive. I’ll check out the video!


      – Joe

  2. Hi Joe!

    For even more on the development on dough, I loved J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s post on the science of chocolate chip cookies. He focuses on a cookie in the post, not bread, but a lot of the information is useful to bread making too. Plus, he includes many pictures, which I know all of us who love joepastry appreciate.

    I should note that Kenji usually focuses on savory dishes, particularly meat, with only the occasional dive into pastry.

    1. That a whole lot of fun, Mari! Thanks for alerting me to it!


      – Joe

    2. Thank you for that link, Mari. Lots of interesting information and I look forward to trying his recipe. Sounds like he has similar tastes to mine.

      Have you already tried it? Did you find them different for all his experimentation and tweaking?

      And, Joe, a little affirmation on your cheap vanillin theory. ;>

      1. I just tried the recipe, and the first batch is quite tasty, although I didn’t let the batter rest overnight yet. I tweaked the classic recipe for chocolate chip cookies years ago, and have loved my version. These are at least as good. It will probably take a few more trials to decide whether they are better.

        Kenji’s recipe has a lovely texture and flavor. You can taste the browned butter, but it’s not a dramatic flavor change. Mostly just rich and chocolatey and sweet. The texture is just right… crisp at the edge, with a center that is simultaneously substantial and melts in your mouth.

        So yes, I found the tweaks in the recipe produced a change in flavor that was lovely, and definitely recommend it!

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