Learn the science behind:
You may have seen it used in a recipe for a loaf of bread, or a recipe for bagels: non-diastatic or diastatic malt powder. It claims to improve the consistency and flavor of your bread. But, does it really do so? And what’s the difference between the non-diastatic and diastatic versions?
- Malting grains to make malt powder
- Diastatic vs non diastatic malt powder
- Why use (non)diastatic malt powder in bread?
- Testing the impact of diastatic malt powder
- Alternatives for (non)diastatic malt powder
Malting grains to make malt powder
Both non-diastatic and diastatic malt powders start out as grains. Barley is often used, but most other grains can be used as well, such as rye, corn, wheat, or rice. Remember that grains are a seed for a plant. If you’d plant unprocessed grains, they would grow, to form a new bushel of wheat for instance. When malting grains, manufacturers want to ‘fool’ the grains and have them think they’re in a good place to start growing the plant. Malters create ideal conditions for these grains to start to grow, or germinate.
However, instead of allowing the grain to truly grow, malters stop them prematurely. They do so by drying the grains since grains need water to germinate and grow.
Most malting isn’t done for bread ingredients. Instead, malting grains is a key process for brewing beer. Large quantities of grains are malted to make beers.
Germination activates processes
So why partially germinate a grain?
Well, during germination a lot of desirable chemical changes occur within the grain. For a grain to grow into a plant, the grain needs to dip into its energy reserves. To do so, grains activate a range of processes during germination including a lot of enzymes. Enzymes are a special type of protein that can help along, catalyze, chemical reactions.
Enzymes tend to be very specialized. They can only catalyze a specific chemical reaction. For example, during germination proteases are released that can cut proteins into smaller pieces. However, for use in bread, another enzyme is a lot more important: amylase. Amylase is specialized at cutting starches, large carbohydrates, into smaller pieces, creating sugars such as maltose.
Malted grains contain more of these enzymes, and they contain a higher amount of sugars since starches have been broken down. Both the active enzymes, as well as the higher sugar content can be a reason to germinate grains.
Technically you can malt a wide range of grains. However, most malted grain is made from barley. Barley contains a lot of enzymes and is therefore often preferred.
To stop germination manufacturers need to dry the grains again. Depending on how this step is executed, you end up with either non diastatic or diastatic malt powder.
Diastatic vs non diastatic malt powder
So how do they differ? To understand, and remember, it’s helpful to know what diastatic means.
Diastatic = relating to or having the properties of diastasefrom: Merriam Webster, link
If you’re familiar with enzyme terminology you might recognize the -ase phrase at the end of diastase. Diastase is one of those enzymes that is activated during germination. More specifically, it’s a group of enzymes that can catalyze the breakdown of starches into maltose. These enzymes are individually referred to as the amylases we discussed previously.
Inactivating enzymes: diastatic → non-diastatic
If a malt powder contains active diastase enzymes, it’s called diastatic. The enzymes can still catalyze reactions.
Enzymes however are quite sensitive molecules. A too severe heat treatment breaks them down and they lose their functionality. When that happens to a malt powder it becomes non-diastatic. The enzymes have been inactivated.
Making non diastatic vs diastatic malt powder
To make diastatic malt powder it is important to dry the grains gently. A too harsh treatment would break down and inactivate the previously activated enzymes in the grains. As such, drying is done at moderate temperatures.
Non-diastatic malt powder on the other hand is dried somewhat more aggressively. Higher temperatures can be used to dry the malted grains, since the enzymes can be inactivated.
Why use (non)diastatic malt powder in bread?
So why would we use either of these malt powders in bread?
Wheat flour is mostly made up of starch, alongside some proteins (gluten) and some other minor ingredients. Starches are large molecules, long chains of sugar molecules. When making bread, some of these starches are broken down into smaller molecules such as maltose and glucose. Yeast eats these smaller molecules to grow, and thus proof the bread.
Yeast needs enough easily accessible food to thrive in a bread dough, or in any situation for that matter. Wondering how yeast is made? We dug into the world of yeast manufacturing.
Adding amylase can improve bread quality
For quite some time, (professional) bakers have realized that adding amylase enzymes to bread helps to improve breads. The amylase helps to break down some of these starches into smaller molecules so yeast can easily access it. You can buy pure amylase for this purpose and flours may already be fortified with enzymes (you’d see this on the label).
Want to learn more about the role of amylase in bread? Read our: Bake better bread with enzymes article.
Adding diastatic malt powder adds enzymes
Instead of adding pure amylase, you can also opt for adding diastatic malt powder. Just like pure amylase, diastatic malt powder contains those amylase enzymes to help with the break down of starch.
Adding non-diastatic malt powder adds sugars
So why add a malt powder without any active enzymes? Well, remember how the composition of the grains did change during germination? Even malt powder without any active enzymes still adds value by providing a resource for more easily accessible sugars.
Both diastatic and non-diastatic powder can add some flavor to bread. Malted grains taste a little different than non-malted grains do. However, for this to work, you’ll need to add quite a significant amount. Malt powder isn’t very strong in flavor, so a few teaspoons in a large loaf of bread will hardly make a big impact.
Testing the impact of diastatic malt powder
So far the theory. We also wanted to see whether this would hold up in real life! So, we baked a few loafs of breads and several bagels (bagels recipes seem to contain these powders quite often) to see whether we could find a difference*. We looked out for both differences in appearance (e.g. color) as well as taste and texture.
No impact on no knead breads
It’s generally recommend to use diastatic malt powder on breads with longer fermentation times. So, we tried it out in a no-knead bread. Three times to be exact.
But despite testing several variations, e.g. we increased the amount of diastatic malt powder that we used, we did not find any noticeable differences. Both breads, with and without diastatic malt powder proofed in a similar way and tasted pretty much identical.
Bagels with diastatic malt powder did behave different
We then decided to test diastatic malt powder in bagels. Here we could see some differences. The dough with diastatic malt powder had clearly risen more. However, in the final boiled and baked bagels, we couldn’t really taste that difference anymore.
We also made a bagel with some extra added sugar, to see whether that could help the dough without diastatic malt powder. This one proofed in a similar manner to the one with the diastatic malt powder.
Even the color of the final bagels didn’t really differ significantly. What’s important to note here also is that boiling bagels in a water bath with different ingredients had a way bigger impact than using diastatic malt powder or not.
Learn more about the lessons we learned when boiling bagels.
It reminded us to always look for the biggest wins first. Sure, diastatic malt powder may have improved our bagels by 1 or 2%. But, in our case, just slightly tweaking the boiling conditions had an impact of maybe 50%. Then it’s best to focus on that big win first, before looking at the smaller wins out there.
Alternatives for (non)diastatic malt powder
So what do you do if your recipe calls for diastatic or non-diastic malt powder, but you don’t have any at hand?
Try it without!
As we saw in our experiments, using diastatic malt powder barely impacted our specific recipes. Of course, in your recipe it is possible that they play an important role. But, if the quantities are small, just try it without first. Maybe you get a perfectly fine bread!
If not, try one of the other options below.
Diastatic malt powder replacement: use other enzymes
If you’re looking for a replacement for diastatic malt powder, you’re mostly looking for a way to replace those active enzymes. As such, you could opt for purchasing flour that already contains these enzymes (if available in your region), or, you could purchase amylase enzymes sold for baking. In some countries, including the Netherlands, you may find sourdough based powders. These often also contain active enzymes which can take over the diastatic malt powder role.
In researching diastatic malt powder alternatives we came across from interesting research. The diastase enzymes from diastatic malt powder can also be found in honey. If the enzymes haven’t been inadctivated, you could give honey a try.
What’s more, honey is full of sugars, so also serves as a source of food for yeast if that’s why you’re using the malt powder.
Looking for malt flavor only?
If you just want to add some malty flavor and don’t need the active enzymes, you have a few more options. For instance, you could use malt syrup. Malt syrup is made from diastatic malt which has been mixed with other grains to allow the enzymes to break down the starches in those grains. It is then cooked down to make a syrup.
Only looking for extra sugars?
Non-diastatic malt powder doesn’t contain any active enzymes. So, the main reasons for using this powder are flavor and added sugars. We’ve just look at flavor. If you want to add extra sugars, you can also use regular sugar, brown sugar or just about any type of sugar syrup. They will all help the yeast and speed up fermentation compared to not adding any of these (as we found with our bagels experiment).
Do NOT use malted powder
So yes, there are some clear differences between diastatic and nondiastatic malt powders. But, be aware. There is an even bigger difference with ‘malt powder’, also referred to as malted milk powder.
When looking for malt powders to use in bread, be careful not to choose these malted milk powders. Yes, these powders also contain malted grains. However, they also contain milk and often various other ingredients. Whereas it might work great in bread, it is NOT the same as the powders we discussed here. Though, it might still make a delicious bread, or bagel…
Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking, p.679, link
Modernist Pantry, Non-diastatic malt powder, link
Phadebas, Diastase activity in honey, link
Wikipedia, Diastase, link
*We did these tests in January & February 2022, using freshly bought diastatic malt powder.