On The Three Types of Leavening

[Note:  I owe a great deal in my analysis of the three types of leavening to a friend of mine from my days in Los Angeles, Dr. Hoover, who was the first person I remember hearing discuss leavening beyond the usual chemical means.  I therefore wish to share such insights originally heard from him with others who may be unaware.]

This is the time of year when I and many of my friends remove leavening from our houses (and vehicles), carefully checking boxes and food items to make sure that there is no leavening in them so that we may keep the Days of Unleavened Bread.  However, yeast and baking soda and baking powder are merely one of the three ways in which bread products can be leavened.  If we wish to truly keep the Days of Unleavened Bread, we must have a wider understanding of leavening than chemical leavening alone.  It is therefore the goal of this particular note to help inform those who wish to keep the Days of Unleavened Bread (or to know more about it) to understand leavening in its fuller context.

Chemical Leavening

The most familiar type of leavening to most people who seek to remove leavened products from their homes is chemical leavening.  This type of leavening is easy to recognize because one can read the ingredients on the side of the box to determine that leavening is present.  The ease of discovery of chemical leavening and the lack of work one has to do to discover leavening means that this is the type of leavening that is most frequently recognized.  Those who are unaware of leavening may falsely assume that simply by removing this type of leavened product from their homes they are fulfilling the biblical command to abstain from unleavened bread, but that would be a mistaken assumption, as this is merely one type of leavening.

Chemical leavening, technically speaking, refers to the use of chemical means to combine an acid and a base to create the carbon dioxide of leavening along with a chemical salt.  Though adding yeast to a product is itself biological leavening, the pre-packaged nature of baker’s yeast in the present days is analogous to the chemical leavening found in baking powders and is present on the ingredients of foods, so it is included here under this type as well because it is easy to discover.

Chemical leavening has been around since the late 1700’s (1796 to be precise, at the latest), when Amelia Simmons noted the leavening tendencies of pearl ash [1].  Typically speaking, chemical leavening uses two different agents to create a chemical reaction in a food like a quick cake or cookies.  One is an acid, like sodium bicarbonate, calcium phosphate, or some sort of sodium phosphate, or ammonium bicarbonate, and the other is a base like cream of tartar, pearlash, or hydorgen peroxide.  When chemically combined either separately or in a baking powder, the two create a salt and the carbon dioxide of leavening, making a bread soft and smooth in texture.

Natural Leavening

However, chemical leavening, though easy to recognize, is only one of three means by which leavening occurs.  Throughout the course of human history the main form of leavening used by mankind has been natural leavening.  This type of leavening can also be called biological leavening because it takes advantage of the yeast that naturally can be found in the air.  The fact that yeast is naturally present in the air means that no one can completely deleaven their homes (no matter how hard they try), and also ensures that simply looking at the ingredients on a box for yeast or baking powder or soda of some kind will be insufficient to avoid leavened bread.

During the time of the Exodus, it seems quite likely that the most prevalent form of leavening was the use of a sourdough “starter” to leaven a whole lump quickly (what Paul means when he says, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” in Galatians 5:9, also talking about sin).  Additionally, biological leavening also takes place when dough is left out in the air to make sourdough bread, or when beer is made by yeast fermenting the “hops” (a bread product) and making a leavened bread drink product that many people may unknowingly drink during these days contrary to biblical law [2].  Wine would not be leavened bread, nor would wine vinegar, but malt products would be considered “leavened bread” under biblical law and therefore unacceptable for the Days of Unleavened Bread.  Nor is beer the only type of product that can be used to create “natural leavening”–the same is true of buttermilk and yogurt, meaning any bread product with beer, buttermilk, or yogurt would be a leavened bread product [3].

Mechanical Leavening

The third type of leavening is even more subtle, and it is in this area that perhaps the most common mistakes can be made concerning leavened products are made.  Mechanical leavening (which includes leavening by the use of “creaming” or through the use of cream and egg whites, cooking bread with steam, or the use of whisking in bread products).  All of these means are leavening because they serve to mechanically induce the yeast in air to react with food items to produce “structure” to a bread product.

Many breaded products are made through the use of mechanical leavening in ways that are not obviously “leavened.”  The use of whipped cream makes bread products leavened by mechanical means, by foaming the buttermilk of a cream.  Likewise, steam gives structure to bread by holding in the steam (and the yeast in the air) and giving the bread the structure and form of leavening in items such as popovers or tempura.  Whisking in foods like angel food cakes leavens the bread by foaming the cream as well.  Creaming, as in making cookies, integrates the yeast in air with a bread through the use of sugar cutting through the fat and allowing air bubbles to form within the cream.  All of these mechanical means create leavened bread, even without adding chemical products, and are to be avoided during the Days of Unleavened Bread.


Therefore, as the Days of Unleavened Bread approach, let us go beyond merely removing yeast, baking soda, and baking powders from our fridge and pantry.  Let us also abstain from taking advantage of natural or mechanical means of exploiting the leaven that is present naturally within the air to leaven products unknowingly or indirectly.  Let us remember that whisking or creaming or steaming bread products is itself taking advantage of the leaven in the air.  Let us also remember that sourdough products, beer, and using yogurt or buttermilk to make bread also breaks the command against leavened breads during this time of year.  Let us therefore obey the Bible fully, rather than only partially, and gain a greater understanding of the many ways in which bread can be leavened.  In doing so, may we also gain a greater understanding of the way that sin, like leavening, is in the air all around us, and can leaven our own lives in indirect and unexamined ways.  Therefore let us examine ourselves as well as our pantries during this Passover season.

[1] http://www.answers.com/topic/leavening-agent

[2] http://www.karaitejudaism.org/talks/Leaven_Leavened_and_Unleavened.htm

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leavening_agent

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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18 Responses to On The Three Types of Leavening

  1. Kelly Irvin says:

    Interestingly, the Bible only defines leaven in ONE way, and that is the way you describe as “natural”, which we now know is caused by yeast. Active yeast (and it must be actually working, otherwise every breath we took would be a sin during DUB) in dough does two things, not one, to the bread. It both sours the bread and creates gas to make it rise. None of the other “leavenings” defined by man since the Bible record do both of these things. Following are the Strong’s words for leavening and unleavening:

    2556 chamets khaw-mates’ a primitive root; to be pungent; i.e. in taste (sour, i.e. literally fermented, or figuratively, harsh), in color (dazzling):–cruel (man), dyed, be grieved, leavened.

    2557 chametz khaw-mates’ from 2556; ferment, (figuratively) extortion:–leaven, leavened (bread). see HEBREW for 02556

    682 matstsah mats-tsaw’ from 4711 in the sense of greedily devouring for sweetness; properly, sweetness; concretely, sweet (i.e. not soured or bittered with yeast); specifically, an unfermented cake or loaf, or (elliptically) the festival of Passover (because no leaven was then used):–unleaved (bread, cake), without leaven. see HEBREW for 04711

    2219 zume dzoo’-may probably from 2204; ferment (as if boiling up):–leaven. see GREEK for 2204

    2220 zumoo dzoo-mo’-o from 2219; to cause to ferment:–leaven. see GREEK for 2219

    106 azumos ad’-zoo-mos from 1 (as a negative particle) and 2219; unleavened, i.e. (figuratively) uncorrupted; (in the neutral plural) specially (by implication) the Passover week:–unleavened (bread). see GREEK for 1 see GREEK for 221

    I’m making no commentary other than to observe that everything else has been added through human reasoning, teaching, and tradition, outside of biblical definition. Analogies have been made in detail, but not based on the biblical definition. Has a sweet bread been puffed up? Yes. Is it soured? No.

    There is no definition in the Bible for a “leavening agent”, either, by the way. If there were, the nation of Israel would have died out long ago from suffocation, unless they would make exceptions to their own definitions. Interestingly, natron, a natural form of baking soda, was known about in biblical times, but it was used for soap, and may have been used to treat wounds. (Prov. 25:20; Jer. 2:22)

    From God’s own definitions, the “fermentation” of dough (a food), not a beverage, was very significant to the meaning of sin, and, then, only 7 days out of the year, relevant to the notion that Israel left out of sin in haste, and was led out of sin by God, Himself, not by their own works. They still made bread even, but they had to make it quickly.

    Even the comment, “a little leaven, leavens the whole lump”, is only possible via the natural way. The other ways require thoroughly mixing a specific measure of the reactant to cause proper rising of the batter, and the agent itself neither multiplies or reduces in any other sense than to be converted to something else. Yeast is a living organism, a fungus, and literally feeds on the dough, multiplying it’s population exponentially until all is consumed or the dough gets so hot (baking), the yeast is killed. Nevertheless, it changes the nature of the flour product, not just the structure.

    • Indeed, the Bible does speak mainly of “natural” leavening (which is why it is called natural leavening). As I mentioned, chemical leavening was not even used until the 1700’s, making it far too recent an innovation to be recorded in the Bible. That said, it is chemical leavening that is the easiest type of leavening to spot when one is a grocery shopper. One can recognize unnatural agents by looking at ingredients on a box, which is all the type of leavening most people (perhaps even including yourself) search for at this type of year. Natural leavening, since it takes advantage of the yeast that is present in the air, is not going to appear on an ingredient and will therefore escape the notice of most people unaware of the process of leavening.

      It appears that you are unaware of the problem of leavening in its full extent (the reason why I wrote this article, directed particularly at those whose knowledge is incomplete in the matter), as the purpose of mechanical leavening is to use steaming or whisking to speed the transfer of air and thus accelerate the natural process of leavening through the means either water or physical labor. It is leavening that provides the pleasant “structure” to bread, whether beer bread (using the natural leavening found in the barley of beer, which is what makes beer a forbidden product during the Days of Unleavened Bread according to the biblical definition of leavening, since beer is made through the natural leavening of barley–let us not forget that drinks are also food products), buttermilk biscuits, shortbread cookies, or sourdough bagels. It is leavening that makes the bread smooth, makes the dough of cakes easy to work with, and makes the pie crust fluffy, regardless of how that leavening is used. Since you have been made aware, if you choose to sin in this matter now you do so knowingly, rather than inadvertently.

  2. Shawn says:

    Kelly is correct, however, that the scripture does not go beyond the “natural” leavening (yeast). Certainly, anyone can take the scriptures and break them down further by bringing them “up to date”, but Yehovah God does not need to be brought ‘up to date’ and His commands, like Him, withstand the test of time. Adding additional rules and man-made definitions would be adding to the scriptures (which we are not supposed to do). If you find it in your heart to take these additional precautions during DUB to remove other methods/ingredients beyond the simply stated “yeast”, by all means – do it! But do not call others “sinners” because they don’t follow your additional rules (that’s not your place).

    • Here is the problem with your line of reasoning. The main type of leavening that is called sin by those who keep the Days of Unleavened Bread is chemical leavening (baking soda, baking powder), which (as you helpfully pointed out) is not referred to in the Bible. It is only chemical leavening that is found in the ingredients on a box, while knowledge of natural or mechanical leavening (which were the ways in which items were leavened traditionally throughout human history, and which were recorded in the Bible, since chemical leavening did not begin until a couple of hundred years ago) are largely ignored.

      By your own argument, you would have to consider chemical leavening (baking soda and baking powder) to be acceptable to eat since it is not referred to in the Bible, but that the sourdough starters that are referred to in Exodus 13, for example, would be improper to eat. Nonetheless, we (in my belief properly) avoid chemical leavening despite the fact that this practice was not current in biblical times because of the fact that it amounts to a novel way of leavening bread, and we recognized that leavened bread is to be avoided during that week. If we can do so for those types of leavening that were not done in biblical times, the least that we can do is also avoid those types of leavening that were.

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  4. Raymond Ramlow says:

    Nathan, where did you learn that the bread texture produced by mechanical leavening has anything to do with yeast? I would be fascinated to learn the actual science behind that.

    • In a nutshell, mechanical leavening serves as a means for the yeast in the air to do its action quicker. Naturally, most “unleavened” products that try to mimic leavened bread in reality act as ways to increase the effectiveness of the leaven that is all around is the air, which sort of defeats the purpose of leavening. I think it might be worth a specific blog post, so I’ll try to work on a more extended writeup at some point during this pre-Passover season.

    • I wanted you to know that I did a more in-depth study about the workings of mechanical leavening. Did you read the entry or do you need a link?

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