Fermentation generates flavor in bread
This loaf of artisan bread owes its complex flavor to a lengthy fermentation, which breaks down big molecules into smaller flavorful ones.
Photo: Judi Rutz.
As Harold McGee, the author of On Food & Cooking, has pointed out, big molecules in proteins, starches, and fats don't have much flavor, but when they break down into their building blocks—proteins into amino acids, starches into sugars, or fats into free fatty acids—they all have marvelous flavors. Fermentation, whether it's acting on fruit juices to make wine or on flour to make bread, does exactly that—it breaks down large molecules into smaller, flavorful ones.
At the beginning of fermentation, enzymes in the yeast start breaking down starch into more flavorful sugars. The yeast uses these sugars, as well as sugars already present in the dough, and produces not only carbon dioxide and alcohol but also a host of flavorful byproducts such as organic acids and amino acids. A multitude of enzymes encourages all kinds of reactions that break big chains of molecules into smaller ones—amylose and maltose into glucose, proteins into amino acids.
As fermentation proceeds, the dough becomes more acidic. This is due in part to rising levels of carbon dioxide, but there are also more flavorful organic acids like acetic acid (vinegar) and lactic acid being formed from the alcohol in the dough. (This is similar to what happens to a bottle of wine that has been left uncorked for a while: the alcohol combines with oxygen to make vinegar.) The acidity of the dough causes more molecules to break down. The dough becomes a veritable ferment of reactions. Eventually, the amount of alcohol formed starts to inhibit the yeast's activity.
Yeast has help in producing flavorful compounds. Bacteria are important flavor builders as well. There are bacteria in the dough from the beginning, but as long as the yeast is very active, it consumes sugars as quickly as they're produced, leaving no food for the bacteria, which also like sugar. But when bakers chill a dough and slow down its rise, the cold dramatically reduces yeast activity. The bacteria, on the other hand, function well even in cold temperatures, so they now have an opportunity to thrive, producing many more marvelously flavorful acids.