Science is everywhere when you’re in the kitchen. Just think of your bread dough bubbling away and expanding while proofing. Or a beer in the works.
You might not even recognize the science, so common the processes are. The processes described above both involve yeast and fermentation. The so called fermentation process is pretty common one in food which is why it’s time for a deep dive.
In this post we’ll be discussing fermentation reactions, the products that are formed during fermentation and what exactly fermentation is. In separate posts you can learn more about two common uses of yeast & fermentation: beer and bread.
Let’s take one step back before diving deep into the fermentation process and products. Why discuss fermentation and yeast? What are fermentation and yeast?
Yeast has been used for millenia, even though we might not have known it were yeasts at play. Yeasts were used for making bread and brewing beer. Yeasts are part of the kingdom of fungi, being a specific type of fungus: a unicellular one. That is, they are made up of only one cell. They grow by splitting themselves in two.
In food yeasts have several functions, for example: production of ethanol in beer brewing or the production of carbon dioxide in bread making. The most common yeast used for these processes is the so-called Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
A side note here, fermentation can also occur without yeasts being present. A common example is lactic acid fermentation (as happens with sauerkraut). Lactic acid bacteria cause fermentation in that case.
Anaerobic vs. aerobic conversion
In order for yeasts to grow and survive they can convert carbohydrates (e.g. glucose) into energy, just like people. This energy is then required to keep all sorts of processes in the yeast going. We do this conversion mostly with the aid of oxygen, which is why we breath. Yeasts however can do so pretty ok both with and without oxygen.
When there is no oxygen the environment is called ‘anaerobic’, if there is oxygen it is called ‘aerobic’. So, yeasts, can convert carbohydrates into energy both in an anaerobic and aerobic environment.
When oxygen is used to convert carbohydrates into energy this is called ‘respiration’. Fermentation on the other hand is nothing more than the opposite: this is the process that occurs in the yeast when it converts carbohydrates into energy without using oxygen.
The interesting thing about yeasts used for beer and bread making is that they can do this conversion without oxygen even though oxygen is present. This is interesting because actually the reaction that does use oxygen is a lot more energy efficient!
What happens during fermentation?
Fermentation is nothing more than a chemical reaction. It all starts with glucose. This glucose might already be present (e.g. sugars), but the yeast might also have to convert another larger carboyhydrate into glucose.
This molecule of glucose then reacts in a series of chemical reactions, ultimately releasing ethanol and carbon dioxide! The overall (simplified) reaction scheme looks as follows:
C6H12O6 → 2 C2H5OH + 2 CO2
You can see that 1 glucose molecule (C6H12O6) is converted into 2 ethanol (C2H5OH) and 2 carbon dioxide (CO2) molecules. You can see that no oxygen is required for the reaction to occur.
Fermentation – chemical reaction equations
In reality, this reaction does not occur in just one step. Instead, a series of reactions leads to this overall equation. There are other molecules that are formed in between. But, these are converted again until only ethanol and carbon dioxide are left. Let’s discuss those individual steps.
Step 1: Glycolysis
First of all the glucose (remember, the molecular formula of glucose is: C6H12O6) is converted into 2 individual pyruvate molcules (C3H3O3–).
Wondering what happened to those H-atoms of which there were 12 in glucose and only 2×3 in the pyruvate molecules? These haven’t disappeared but have moved on to larger molecules in the cell.
Glycolysis again is more complex than is looks. The conversion consists of 10 consecutive steps. During the reaction energy is released, which is what the overall process is all about. This energy is caught and stored by the cell for use in other processes.
Step 2: Fermentation
The glycosis process is not limited to fermentation only. Once the pyruvate has been formed it can still be converted with the use of oxygen (what we call respiration) or travel through various other reaction pathways. If the yeast is fermenting, the pyruvate will go into the fermentation process.
This next step is relatively simple, it only consists of two steps, so we’ll show them all here
C3H3O3– (pyruvate) → CH3COH (acetaldehyde) + CO2
CH3COH (acetaldehyde) + NADH + H+ → C2H5OH (ethanol) + NAD–
Both these steps are catalyzed by enzymes. You might have come across enzymes before on this blog. Enzymes catalyze a lot of reactions in food, e.g. the browning of pesto or that of bananas. Again, energy is released which is stored in the process.
Notice the sudden occurence of NADH and protons (H+)? The NADH are important structures in cells that facilitate a whole range of reactions, including this one.
Using fermentation in food production
Now that we’ve covered the basics we’ve learned that yeasts convert glucose without any oxygen (which is what we call fermentation) into ethanol and carbon dioxide. But why do we want that to happen?
Let’s stick with the two examples from the beginning again:
- Beer: of course, we want alcohol (=ethanol) to be formed during beer production!
- Bread: it’s all because of the carbon dioxide, carbon dioxide is a gas and this is what leavens our breads!
Controlling fermentation processes
Despite the advantages, fermentation is a challenging process since we’re using a living organism to perform the chemical reactions. When dealing with a living microorganism it is important that the circumstances are as ideal as possible for the yeast. Yeasts can die or stop fermenting if the conditions aren’t ideal.
So if you want fermentation to stop, or to continu, slow down or speed up, there are a lot of ways to influence the process!
Influence 1: Temperature
This is probably one of the most important variables. Yeasts will die at too high temperatures (most don’t survive temperatures above 50°C). Also, their growth rate depends on the temperature. If it’s too low they will barely grow, the same goes up if it’s too high. The ideal temperature (range) differs per yeast type though.
Influence 2: Alcohol content
Most yeasts can only handle a certain maximum alcohol content. If the content goes over this value they will simply stop growing or die. This is the reason drinks with a high alcohol content are generally not fully made through fermentation.
Influence 3: ‘Food’ supply
In other words, the food supply, if not enough food is present for the yeast they won’t be able to grow and thrive. This is a reason that when bottling home-made beer you often add an extra shot of sugar to the mix (after the 1st fermentation). This assures that the yeasts can ferment again and produce gases which will remain in the bottle.
It’s not only the fermentation reaction
Since yeasts are living organisms, there’s never just one reaction that takes place. During fermentation a whole lot of other processes can take place which result in the formation of flavours, aromas, etc. It’s also what makes beer and bread making and all those other processes so interesting, not only in a factory but also at home!
Good luck with your future fermentation endeavours.