Malt Powder: and related thoughts

June 28, 2019

Amazon delivered a pound of malt powder to our front door recently.  I ordered it after making bagels to try my Trader Joe’s “Everything Spice Mixture” on. Some bagel recipes suggest using barley malt syrup in the bagel boiling solution.  Others suggest using a caustic solution of lye.  Barley malt sounded safer and I’ve been curious to experiment with it for years.

Breads are leavened by yeast as they metabolize sugar and release carbon dioxide.  Yeast are capable of dramatic shape shifting.  Under a microscope they appear as either little spheroids or as tangles of long branching filaments. It’s the same thing. Baker’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, “… has the ability to undergo a dimorphic switch from growth in a yeast form (ovoid cells) to growth in a filamentous pseudohyphal form….” in a manner similar to pathogens such as Candida albicans or Ustilago maydis (corn smut). In other words, yeast can switch its form from those innocuous little dots to those long stringy filament forms. The human equivalent might be turning oneself into a tree.

Switching to the hyphal form is likely a response to hunger, a way to better explore the environment for new food sources. While some yeast subspecies produce the enzymes that break down starch into sugars, most forms do not.  Yeast pay a great deal of attention to how much sugar is available.  During every cell cycle, S. Cerevisiae, will pause in the G phase in order to ‘sense’ the amounts of sugar available; only if there is enough will the cell initiate another round of cell division.  

While this is fascinating to us one-time microbiology majors, the take home lesson is that to make bread, yeast need sugar. That is the bottom line. While some yeast can digest the starches in flour to obtain that sugar, most cannot. 

Yeast in spheroid (above) and hyphae forms (below)

If one wants bread to rise reliably there were a few tried and true methods.  The longest used has been to use a combination of bacteria and yeast to ferment one’s bread.  The bacteria produce enzymes that digest the starch releasing sugars that the yeast consume and then produce the carbon dioxide that allows the dough to rise. These same bacteria also produce acid and impart a distinctive sour flavor to the dough; we call such bread sourdoughs. Another option is to simply add a bit of sugar into to the dough.

A third option is to add the enzymes needed to release sugars from the flour starches in the dough.  One way to do this is with malted barley.

Malt is made by germinating grain and then drying it.  As the grains sprout, they release enzymes needed to convert the starch in the grain into sugars required by the sprouting plant embryo.  The germination process is stopped by drying with hot air, leaving grains saturated with enzymes.  As long as the temperature is kept below 131 deg. F, the enzymes remain active. Malt with active enzymes is called “diastatic malt”. Malt with inactive enzymes is called “nondiastatic malt”.

The yeast that ferments beer also needs sugar to produce alcohol and the enzymes in the malt provide it.  Wheat, rye, oats, rice, and corn are also malted but barley is the most common grain to malt as it produces the most enzymes.  Malted grains are often added back into the commercial flours used for yeasted bread products for obvious reasons.  

During the early 1900s malt extract, a thick sweet syrup extracted from malted barley, was promoted as a dietary supplement, usually in combination with cod liver oil.  The company that made it back then is attempting to revive this belief in its nutritional benefits though the benefit was mostly that it covered the flavor of the oil.

It was this idea that malt had a nutritional benefit that gave rise to Ovaltine and the belief that it was the healthy alternative to chocolate milk during my youth.  Ovaltine has been made since 1904, originally in Bern, Switzerland, where it was known as Ovomaltine (from ovum for egg and malt for its main ingredient). When brought to England in 1909, there apparently was a spelling error on the trademark application and the name was shortened to Ovaltine. I recall how certain my mother was that it was good for me.  I never acquired a taste for it.

There is some scant evidence in the medical literature that malted barley may offer some health benefit.  It appears to protect the liver from injury caused by carbon tetrachloride. [i]Back in 2013 Garcia-Moreno reported that in some beers, the interaction between malt and bacteria yielded high levels of melatonin. [ii]  Aside from that there seems to be little to  get excited about health-wise.

What does added malt do when baking bread? One home baking aficionado website describes malted barley as a magical ingredient: “the bread rises better, has a softer crumb and more crust color.” All this from adding about 5 grams of malted barley per pound of flour. That’s roughly a teaspoon per quart of flour.

Malt bypasses the baker’s reliance on added sugars for yeasted doughs to rise.  The amylase enzymes in the malt produce maltose from the wheat starch.  Maltose is a glucose disaccharide, that is two molecules of glucose joined at the hip. 

Yeast itself produces the enzyme maltase that readily breaks maltose into glucose molecules. These easily available sugars do help the dough rise faster.  One might suspect that adding malt to baked goods increases their glycemic index as the malt predigests the starches to some degree. Yet barley malt syrup even in its pure form has a relatively low glycemic index, about 40 on the standard scale. So perhaps this is not such a concern.

Many websites suggest adding malt to pizza dough. Tom Lehman of the trade journal Pizza Today is not that enthusiastic.

“The enzymes present in the diastatic malt will hydrolize starch into sugars that are fermentable by the yeast. This results in a softer, more sticky dough that will exhibit faster browning properties in the oven, resulting in a shorter baking time …. This reduces the thickness of the bottom of the crust (browned portion). The resulting finished crust might be crispy when first removed from the oven but could quickly turn soft and floppy within minutes, if not seconds, of removal from the oven.
Additionally, remember we now have a higher sugar level in the dough. So as the dough is baked into a finished crust, the loss of moisture from the dough further concentrates the residual sugars in the finished crust. Since sugar has an affinity for water, it pulls moisture out of the air (think of all the steam present with a boxed pizza) as well as from the moisture released from the toppings on the pizza to create a soft, soggy crust.…. If the use level is not too great, we can achieve a slight flavor improvement in the finished crust, although with the sauce and toppings present it is questionable if your customers will recognize any difference. Plus, the added malt (remember, it is a sugar) will typically require a shorter baking time. Also, the residual sugars will again be concentrated during baking, resulting in a finished crust with undesirable hygroscopic properties. So when can we use malt? If the flour that you are using is an un-malted flour, it may benefit from the addition of a small amount of diastatic malt. In this case the benefits will be in the form of more active fermentation over several days of cold fermentation and an improvement in crust color without the need to bake at temperatures approaching or exceeding 700 F.”

Thus, it sounds like there may be some benefit if you are using unmalted flour in your baking, as we do at home, grinding it fresh from whole wheat grain that we purchase when we drive through Wheat, Montana.  

There is usually malted barley flour added to most flours you might purchase.  The USDA allows it to be added to both all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour as part of their standard of identity.  That means it need not be listed on the label. 

Will these added enzymes that are capable of breaking down a range of chemicals, including proteins, enhance the flavor of the finished breads?  Well that’s the hope isn’t it?

There is an interesting history of making breads partially or entirely from sprouted grains.  These breads come in several variations. Grains are sprouted first, then ground.  In some cases, they are fully malted, that is dried before grinding, and in other recipes they are ground moist to form a paste-like dough.  This is something I am hesitant to do in our fancy flour grinder but will probably try in the Cuisinart one day. Some recipes knead in additional flour to this sprout mash.  

The classic Essene bread or Ezekiel bread (named after the recipe provided in Ezekiel 4:9: “And you, take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them into one vessel, and make bread for yourself. During the number of days that you lie on your side, three hundred ninety days, you shall eat it.” 

[While this portion of the recipe sounds fine, the baking directions are often omitted: “You shall eat it as a barley-cake, baking it in their sight on human dung.” The recipe and baking method were proscribed by Ezekiel as part of a punishment. Ezekiel was not giving out kindly nutritional advice.]

As the sprouted grains in these breads might be described as malted grains, minus the last step of air drying, it explains the surprisingly sweet taste these breads have, even though there are no added sugars.  The enzymes in the sprouting grains convert the starches into sugars.  The result is a dense, chewy, somewhat sweet bread.  

Many advocates of these breads insist that they be baked at very low temperatures to preserve enzyme activity. This will leave active alpha and beta amylase enzymes even if the bread tastes undercooked.  One might call these diastatic loaves. I have yet to find compelling evidence that the intake of exogenous amylase has any health benefit. If it did, one might presume similar benefit would result from drinking large quantities of malted beverages such as beer. Wikipedia tells us that these breads, “Sproute….have roughly the same amount of vitamins per gram. Sprouted grain bread has 47% less gluten than regular bread….[and] contain about 75% of the energy (carbohydrates), slightly higher protein and about 40% of the fat when compared to whole grains.”

In the United Kingdom malted bread loafs have been sold commercially for a long time.  John Montgomerie of Scotland first applied for a patent for such a bread in 1886.   I’ve never eaten this malted bread; they are described as ‘sweet tasting, chewy and very heavy soft breads.’   Online photos remind me of Boston brown bread.  Here’s a link to a malt loaf recipe from Paul Hollywood. You may recognize his name as he is one of the judges on the Great British Bakeoff Show on NetFlix:

My dear classmate, Dr. Macallan wrote to describe his pursuit of these malt breads: 

“Back when I worked as a hunting guide in the Scottish Highlands, I used to go regularly to a town around 30 miles away where there remained one of the few non commercialized bakeries, the Strathearn Bakery, and they made a fantastic malt loaf. Small, dense, slightly sweet, slightly crumbly, and without the fruit inclusions that have plagued the more “modern” versions of such loaves. It was absolutely fantastic, and for the remainder of my time in Scotland, …. I would go out of my way to detour there and grab a couple, as no-one else (that I had found) made that particular loaf. They also made a terrific tattie scone (nothing resembling an American “scoane”). 

So, when I went to Scotland last fall, I made my usual pilgrimage detour to Crieff, and was horrified to discover that my favorite little bakery had gone commercial, with a new name, now purveying “the worst of Scottish” instead of the best. I guess all good things come to an end . . . but it saddens me that as far as I know, that particular loaf no longer exists, except in my memory . . .”

If there is a lesson in his story, it may be a sad one, one that we may not want to ponder too hard.

[i]Quan M, Li Q, Zhao P, Tian C. Chemical composition and hepatoprotective effect of free phenolic extract from barley during malting process. Sci Rep. 2018 Mar 13;8(1):4460. 

[ii]Garcia-Moreno H1, Calvo JR, Maldonado MD. High levels of melatonin generated during the brewing process. J Pineal Res. 2013 Aug;55(1):26-30.