What is malt?

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A scholarly article about malt and its uses in baking bread by Paul Merry from Panary.  Thank you Paul!

Students often ask me about malt. The home baker and anybody interested in the world of bread is aware of malt products, seeing flours at the supermarket that have added malt, enjoying the maltiness of granary type loaves, noticing recipes that call for barley malt syrup. Most people agree that malt is an attractive flavour. However, not many students will have much of a grasp of the complicated field that is malt.  After all, just like the crafts of milling and baking, there is also the craft of malting.

As background it is important to consider what is happening in the fermentation process. “Fermentation” involves the breakdown of sugars by micro-organisms, typically yeasts and bacteria, causing the production of carbon dioxide gas and ethyl alcohol as these micro-organisms consume the moist host that provided the sugar. In our bread making fermentation the yeast that we bakers use, brewer’s yeast, needs to be supplied with the class of sugar called maltose, which it in turn breaks down to glucose – the sugar it likes to absorb. Maltose does not exist as such in the grain, but is created when the enzymes that belong in the grain convert the starch to sugars, mainly the maltose type.

Another critical background area is what happens in nature: these enzymes are placed there to convert the grain’s starch into sugar to feed the germ when the seed sees fit to germinate. Germination, sprouting, is automatically triggered when suitable ground moisture and temperature levels prevail. In our artificial world of bread making, in the moist medium of dough we utilise the same enzymes to break down the damaged flour starches (damaged by the abrasive impact of milling) to provide the maltose to feed  the yeast that we implant into the dough.

The producer of malt, a craftsman called the maltster, is working with barley to provide malt for his main customers – brewers. On the  floor of the malting room the maltster will artificially germinate the barley which, moist from pre-soaking, is set down at a particular temperature(usually about 18°C) to germinate, and soon the grains grow their sprouts. Inside the grains there is an upheaval as the two enzymes known as amylase attack the starch to produce the maltose, being the type of sugar required by the seed to perform its germination and grow the sprout.  The raw barley grain has now been “malted”, and turned into malt, as a pre-treatment for the beer brewing industry.

If the malting process was left to carry on, not only would the growing embryo (germ) consume too much sugar but, running out of starchy material, the enzymes themselves would be depleted with nothing left but the sugar. Hence, to retain adequate amounts of the active enzyme, the maltster abruptly stops the process. There is a brisk drying off, followed by a steady kilning that kills the germination process, and curtails any more enzyme activity because enzymes need moisture to function.

Various malt products are produced, some made from grinding the malted grain, others made by vacuum boiling and rendering a syrup. Whether or not the malt is described as diastatic or non-diastatic ( diastase was the older name for the amylase enzymes) depends on how high the temperature was taken to in the kilning and syrup boiling  stage. Lower temperatures  leave the enzymes relatively unharmed so that the particular malt can go on being used as an aid to fermentation, and will be described as diastatic. The non-diastatic types will have been taken to higher temperatures, with diastatic activity both exhausted and destroyed, amounting to a product rich in maltose (sugar) but with no fermenting capability. A typical non-diastatic product is the malt syrup that can be easily bought in jars at a health food shop. It is a sweet syrup, rich in maltose that can be used directly as yeast food.  It also delivers that malty  flavour, and by raising sugar levels it ensures bright crust colour because the yeast will not have had time to eat all the sugars present, and plenty will be left to caramelise in the crust.  The malt powders (also called malt flours) will be added to proprietary branded malty preparations like granary, would be added by a miller if the grain was perceived to be low in amylase activity, and can be used by the individual baker to enhance fermentation.

You can contact Paul for more information here:  info@panary.co.uk

14 thoughts on “What is malt?”

  1. I use Dry Diastatic Malt in my pizza dough, but I add it after the sugar & dry active yeast has done their job … my question is, am I adding the Malt in the right sequence? with the salt and oil, stirred before I put in the flower? .. or should I add Dry Diastatic Malt with the sugar and yeast at the beginning?

    Thank you in advance for your reply


      1. Thank you, I thought so, just wanted to make sure lol … always trying to improve the product .. by the way, can I ask you if you have any tips for getting more volume i.e. Air-pockets (webbing)

        I am trying to achieve that artisan look and texture.

        1. Hi there, four things:

          1. How wet if your dough? All else equal, a wetter dough will blister more
          2. Are you stretching and folding it a few times while it prooves? This elongates bubbles and thins membranes, making it easier for it to blister
          3. Are you rolling it (less likely to blister) or stretching it (more likely to blister) when you shape it?
          4. High heat – as high as you can get!

  2. Hi,
    Can I use diastatic malt powder as it is for digestive enzyme with meal? If not, is there any other way to improve my digestion with this powder, or any suggestion? Thanks.

    1. Hi Judith, you write “malted ye” – I am guessing you mean malted rye? Let me know and also I would need to know more about the recipe and how much of everything is in it!

  3. I have a bread machine recipe that calls for 1/4 cup malt powder. How do I know if I should use diastatic malt or non diastatic malt since both can be used in bread. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Brenda, It is odd that it does not tell you which kind to use. Diastatic malt is used for the extra enzymes it puts into the dough which helps it rise faster. Non diastatic is used for sweetness and flavour. I am at a loss as regards which one you should use for your recipe. So sorry I could not help more.

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