Is adding sugar to sourdough bread necessary?
This is a question often pondered by home bakers.
Adding sugar to sourdough bread can be a good thing in some circumstances. It can increase the rise, flavor and crustiness of the bread.
This blog aims to explore what happens if you add sugar to sourdough bread and how much sugar to add to sourdough bread.
Does Sourdough Bread Need Sugar?
In short, no sourdough bread does not need sugar.
It should consist of just flour, water, salt and of course sourdough starter (which is essentially flour and water).
The yeast and bacteria in your sourdough starter actually feed off the sugar from the starches in the flour. They essentially don't need any extra food.
In fact, while adding sugar to the dough may provide "fast food" for your sourdough yeast, this quick food source is unlikely to provide any protein.
The yeast and bacteria in your sourdough starter require protein to be able to grow and reproduce.
While sourdough bread doesn't need sugar, there are instances where you may want to add it, or a recipe calls for it.
What Happens If You Add Sugar to Sourdough Bread?
Adding sugar to sourdough bread affects the dough in several ways.
- provides easier, more accessible food for the yeast which results in a faster rising time.
- tenderises the crumb (good for sandwich bread and rolls)
- increases browning of the crust (through the Maillard Reaction).
There are some instances where you may want to use sugar for these purposes.
Perhaps you are in a rush and want true sourdough, but need it to rise more quickly. You could add a small amount of sugar to make this happen.
Want a darker, deeper sourdough crust. Adding a little sugar to your dough can help the Maillard Reaction, resulting in a darker, more caramelised sourdough crust.
How Much Sugar To Add To Sourdough Bread?
If you do want to add some sugar to sourdough bread, how much sugar should you add?
This really depends on the type of sourdough bread you are making.
For example, a sweet roll will require more sugar than say a crusty sourdough loaf.
Here is a basic guide to adding to sugar to sourdough bread recipes:
- Basic crusty sourdough loaf (500g flour) up to 30g sugar.
- Dinner rolls, hotdog rolls, burger buns (500g flour) up to 50g sugar
- Sandwich bread (500g flour) up to 30g sugar.
- Sweet rolls (cinnamon, sticky etc) up to 50g sugar (remember that you can add more sugar with the filling)
Can You Add Too Much Sugar to Sourdough?
Yes you can add too much sugar to sourdough.
While sugar can increase the rising time for your bread, adding too much can actually have the opposite effect.
If you add too much sugar, it can actually damage the yeast cells, effectively lengthening the rise time.
Adding too much sugar will actually draw water out of the yeast cells - this is what causes them damage.
Dehydrated yeast cells cannot rise bread.
Too much sugar also slows down gluten development.
This can most certainly be a disadvantage when making sourdough bread as gluten development is what gives you a lovely lacey open crumb.
What Type of Sugar Should You Add To Sourdough?
There are many types of sugar that you could add to sourdough bread.
If you are adding sugar at the beginning of the mixing process, you might want to dissolve the sugar in the water (or whatever liquid you are using) to ensure that it doesn't stay granulated.
I tend to use a fine caster sugar if I'm adding sugar to my dough, but I've also used raw sugar too (I just make sure I dissolve it well).
Types of sugar you could add to sourdough bread:
- Caster Sugar (white fine sugar)
- Raw Sugar (granulated sugar)
- Brown Sugar (light or dark)
- Coconut Sugar (Rapadura)
You can also substitute sugar with honey. You'll find a full guide to adding honey to sourdough bread here.
Disadvantages To Adding Sugar To Sourdough
While adding sugar to sourdough isn't harmful, there are a few things you should be aware of before you go ahead.
Adding sugar to the dough will decrease the time it takes for your dough to rise.
This can decrease the sour flavor in your sourdough bread. If you enjoy the sour taste from a long, slow ferment, adding sugar may not be for you.
Too much sugar will affect the gluten development of your sourdough. This can be a problem, particularly if you are wanting a lovely open crumb.
An increase in sugar in the dough will also increase the risk of you burning your sourdough. Sourdough is baked at high temperatures. This means you do have to watch your crust a little more closely if you are adding sugar.
You could increase the lid on time or lower the temperature and bake for longer to ensure you don't end up with a burned crust from adding sugar.
In summary, the disadvantages of adding sugar to sourdough can be:
- decrease the sour flavor in your sourdough bread
- reduce the development of the gluten network
- increased risk of burning the crust
Should You Add Sugar to Your Sourdough Starter?
Short answer - no! You don't need to add an additional food source to your sourdough starter. Flour and water are truly all you need.
I encourage you to have one strong, healthy sourdough starter made with just flour and water.
Both of these starters do contain sugar. This sugar is purely for flavor, not for any other reason.
But I would never add sugar to my "mother" sourdough culture.
Sourdough Bread Recipe With Sugar
Like most things in sourdough, there are no hard and fast rules.
While majority of the time, I bake a pure sourdough using just flour, water and salt, there are occasions where I like to add a little sugar.
I really love the crispy crust that I get when I do add just a little sugar. It certainly gives a deeper, more caramelised crust.
Sourdough Recipes with Added Sugar
If you want to bake some sourdough with a little sugar added, here are a few recipes where the sugar actually adds to the flavor and texture of the sourdough.
In most cases, the sugar in a sourdough recipe is there to tenderise the crumb and bring color to the baked goods.
In particular, sourdough sandwich bread and dinner rolls have sugar added to give you that soft, dreamy, pillowy crumb.
Of course you can omit the sugar, however, it is there for a reason - and in most cases in quite minimal amounts.
- Soft Sourdough Dinner Rolls
- Sourdough Sandwich Bread with a Soft Crust
- Hawaiian Sourdough Rolls
- Sourdough Fruit Loaf
Frequently Asked Questions
No you cannot. Once sourdough bread has been through the bulk ferment (risen) you don't want to add anything to it. It needs to be shaped and placed into the banneton.
Adding something like sugar to the dough at this stage would disturb all the beautiful bubbles that have built up during the bulk ferment process. Any inclusions, including sugar, should be added at the beginning of the mixing process or during the stretch and fold stage.
Sugar is almost always added at the beginning of the mixing process.
Proceed with the recipe and just bake as is. While the sugar is there for a reason (to tenderise the crumb), omitting it is not the end of the world. If you have forgotten to add it and you're already past the kneading stage, just proceed. If you haven't finished the mixing/kneading, you could still add it in.
Adding sugar to sourdough will not necessarily make it "less healthy", however, rather than having just 3 ingredients, it will now have 4. Sourdough bread is commonly touted for it's low phytic acid and not spiking blood sugars, so adding sugar to this mix will affect the way your body digests the bread. It's not necessarily bad, just something to be aware of. It will also increase the calories per serve in your sourdough bread. In most cases, like the salt we add, the amounts are very minimal, particularly when you work it out per serving.
While you don't need to add sugar to sourdough bread, you can add other alternatives to sugar. Honey, rapadura, rice malt syrup or molasses make good alternatives to sugar.
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