ASCORBIC ACID….why use it?
Probably the first thing to clear up is that everybody is free to use non injurious additives in their bread. This is done by all the major bread making companies (bakeries) and is the chemicalised factory bread of commerce. In this piece, Im attempting to examine the use of ascorbic acid in craft/artisan bread-making, and these are my opinions, which aren’t designed to convert anybody, but simply open the question for discussion. There are obvious correspondences with the use of chemicals in food per se.
There is no “dogma” of conformity associated with the questioning of the use of ascorbic acid in bread-making. It is more in the realms of truth of information, because some don’t publically admit that they use it, and a questioning of its use is simply for valid reasons in the same way one can and needs to question the use of any chemical additives to food. It is stated that to experiment with it is harmless, and one must agree, but this is different to using it as a matter of practice in breadmaking, especially that which claims some lineage or quality which distinguishes it from ordinary factory bread.
It is curious the amount of home or craft bakers who want to try ascorbic acid in their bread because it supposedly makes the bread “better”.
Even more curious is the amount of craft bakers who maintain some claim to “authenticity”/ “tradition” and who use organic flours, but regularly add ascorbic acid to their bread.
Ascorbic acid is NOT vitamin C , which is a complex of bioflavonoids, including ascorbic acid. Ascorbic is an isolate of vitamin C . Vitamin C does not work in the same way in a bread dough as does ascorbic acid, which has its own function. Therefore there can be no claim to ascorbic acid being “natural”, eventhough the latter term is devalued by modern marketing, it has an inherent meaning which clearly excludes chemical refining. The ascorbic acid generally used is not even isolated from naturally occurring vitamin C. It is an analogue which is manufactured by chemical means usually from glucose which is chemically isolated from white refined sugar. It would seem reasonable that this sort of provenance would preclude its use in any bread which claims some lineage or association with tradition or which claims status as healthful/wholesome.
Usually, labelling a bread as organic/traditional/authentic, or giving it a traditional title could be construed to mean that the bread is made according to some form of lineage, which could presumably include ingredients and method….such as sourdough. That ascorbic acid is a modern chemical isolate, would seem to preclude its use in any breads which claim some form of lineage or historical quality.
A “whats the problem” approach by a user is actually a type of ignorance, as this sort of baker clearly doesn’t care about their product enough to understand the process or the nature of the addirtive they claim there is too much “fuss” about. This sort of baker would clearly use any means and any method to sell their product and are outside of the scope of this article, which they would probably not be lucid enough to consider anyway. Here, im more referring to those bakers who have some craft and claim some lineage for their bread, but appear to have an ambivalence about the use of additives. Therefore Im attempting to put the use of ascorbic acid in some sort of perspective or context so that its use is more clearly examined…which surely cant be a bad thing?
Unquestionable is that Ascorbic acid is a chemical additive which it is claimed “improves” the bread or makes “better” bread. What do we mean by “improve” as this term has been subsumed by the bread industry as a synonym for “additive”. How does it make the bread “better”…this is a value laden term, which has to be assessed by technical and organoleptic criteria. As the recommended quantity to use is really tiny, it is easy for the baker to use too much, which is easy to taste, especially in a sourdough or for that matter any bread which should taste of the traditional criteria, but too much ascorbic leaves a noticeable taint.
That it is “better” in some way is perhaps a misnomer, validly replaced by “convenient”- for the baker who then doesn’t really have to engage with the process, but can rely on the chemical to do it for them….which is the antithesis of the idea of craft (artisan/non-factory) baking.
Also claimed is that “it completely disappears” in the process and leaves no residue. In this case it is the only substance in the history of chemistry which does so…even the effect on the dough as technically observed is a legacy whether detectable or not…and certainly the taint left when too much is used proves that it does not disappear magically, but has left a discernable residue for those who can taste.
As the important ingredient in the Chorleywood bread making process which was developed to make wonder bread, it is seemingly incongruous to use it in a “craft” bread or a bread which has a claim to some lineage or other quality…..using it brings such bread back into line with the chemicalising of food/bread characteristic of the chemical modernity of the 1950`s, now in disrepute as so many additives have been withdrawn as new knowledge reveals them to be injurious in some way for example, potassium bromate.
It would seem reasonable to assume that the aim of craft bakers is to make additive free bread, which was certainly the initial impetus to break away from the factory bakeries and make food which had a new quality, untainted by additives. It would appear ignorant not to realise this, and a “no-brainer” to put additives in bread which claims to be different from chemicalised bread….no matter what claims are made to the contrary, bread which contains ascorbic acid is “chemicalised”.
With regard to tradition or authenticity, that the French legal definition of for example a “baguette de tradition Francaise”, excludes the use of ascorbic acid, would appear to indicate its use is not within the sphere of “traditional” or “authentic”. Some bakers will shrug off concerns about the use of AA in breadmaking by saying that French bread makers use it…as if this was a claim to some form of authenticity.
The news is that French bread is as awful as anybodys bread, and for example the French are the biggest consumers of McDonalds stuff outside the USA, so the claim or perceived superiority of “French bread” is spurious, eventhough the French have a lineage of good bread and concern for good bread, and that authentic bread made in the traditional way is available there…well it is also in the USA, Australia, the UK and other modern economies…the “new” good bread is a world-wide phenomenon and was initiated outside of France, notably in the USA and Australia.
It can be claimed that ascorbic acid affects the sourdough process, so that it is not the same process (or bread) as that used by a baker who does not use ascorbic acid. This is clearly evident…it does change the sourdough process, giving a discernable effect…otherwise it wouldnt be used. Sourdough with ascorbic is not actually sourdough. Chemically, the gluten/gliadin hydrolysing action of the organic acids and enzymes in a sourdough is changed. They no longer break down the gluten/gliadin matrix in the same way, perhaps AA de-activates proteolytic enzymes which would appear reasonable, as their function is to breakdown protein which after all form the structural matrix. This could be crucial for those who eat sourdough because they have a sensitivity to gluten/gliadin., and is proven because this is the noticeable effect of using ascorbic acid…the bread structure (gluten/gliadin matrix) is higher and lighter, in fact barely altered by the fermentation as it should be in an authentic sourdough. In short, bakers use it to stabilise the dough so that it holds on longer and gives greater volume, both of which can be achieved by good craft and the intelligent scheduling of doughs, and with the time–based quantification of the amount of leaven used.
It would actually be more wholesome to add yeast to a sourdough to achieve greater gassing power than to use ascorbic acid, which demonstrates that its use in sourdough is a kind of subterfuge really.
Next question is the desireability of adding chemicals to an age-old process which has been revived to relieve us from the assault of chemicalised food. Seems a misunderstanding of the place of sourdough bread in the scheme of things…..to have in fact lost the plot….which is a kind of ignorance.
This is actually about the greater question of the use of chemicals in food. It is not congruous with the notion of good wholesome food, which often breads containing ascorbic are claimed to be, and which is definitely claimed for sourdough.
Just because ascorbic has no proven ill-effect, it doesn’t make one immediately overtly sick-doesn’t mean much as we now know from the bitter experience of chemicals which were previously used in food…or medicine or the environment for that matter. There is a long list of chemicals which have been previously used in bread, but which are now banned….from the erucic acid containing oils with which tins used to be greased , now known to be carcinogenic, to for example potassium bromate, which is useful to examine.
Bromate was used for decades in bread until its harmful effects were discovered….that it causes kidney damage. Bromate was used because it yields dependable results as it makes stronger and more elastic dough. Alarmingly, ascorbic acid is the chemical chosen in factory processes to replace it, as it performs the same function in bread making, and is itself under suspicion from some authorities…because blatantly obviously, if it has the same effect on dough as bromate, it may well have a similar sort of as yet undetected toxicity? Interesting is that Britain`s Committee On Toxicology has Ascorbic acid under scrutiny. In any case it is obviously a very powerful substance the use of which should be questioned, and this questioning is not in the manner of an “anti” stand, but as ive said is simply prudent as we are talking about food here, and I re-iterate, food/bread which is often touted as superior to factory bread in some way.
The lyricism and beauty of the baker-as-artisan or craftsman/woman is lost in the use of chemical additives. If there is any art in baking bread, especially sourdough, it is lost by the use of additives to do the job for you. Instead of using craft to achieve good bread, one uses a chemical crutch…almost like an addiction.