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Raising (or leavening) agents
When we want to make a dough or batter rise when baking, either in patisserie or bread-making, we need to use a raising agent or leavening agent, one of which is called leaven.
In the context of baking, a raising agent is simply what "makes something rise". It is a substance which, when added to the dough or batter makes it swell up by creating thousands of tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide within it.
As there are 2 kinds of yeast, 2 kinds of leaven and baking powder as well, this can be confusing, so here is a summary of the different types and how they act.
This is the yeast used by bakers to make bread, brioches, etc. It is basically the same kind that brewers use to make beer, so it is sometimes also known as brewer’s yeast.
Yeast is a living organism, a microscopic fungus, which reacts with the sugars in flour to form carbon dioxide. It is this fermentation process that makes the dough rise. Yeast is available in 2 forms:
Fresh yeastThis is the classic baker’s yeast which is normally sold as a small, beige-coloured block. It should be kept in the fridge and not for too long.
Dried yeastThis is exactly the same yeast, but completely dehydrated. It comes as a beige powder and keeps very well.
This white powder is a mixture of bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar. It reacts on contact with the water in the dough or batter to form the carbon dioxide which makes it rise. There is no fermentation.
Baking powder is used mostly for cakes, scones, etc.
Leaven is a natural raising agent, like yeast. It is made from a mixture of water and flour that begins to ferment when exposed to the naturel yeasts present in the air.
It is a living substance and reacts with the sugars in flour to form carbon dioxide by fermentation, which makes the dough rise. Two different forms can be made:
Liquid leavenThis is a leaven made with equal parts of water and flour. As the name suggests, it is liquid, rather like pancake batter.
Stiff leavenThis is a leaven made with one part water to two parts flour. It has a consistency similar to bread dough.
Whether the leaven is liquid or stiff makes very little practical difference. It is just a question of what you are used to.
It is worth noting in passing that when making leavened bread, it is usual to combine a large amount of leaven with a little yeast. This improves the bread’s appearance especially the crust.
We can say that yeast and leaven work by fermentation, whereas baking powder uses a chemical reaction.
Last modified on: December 16th 2013
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