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I came across a recipe for buttermilk yeast bread which includes:

pinch of ginger (helps activate the yeast)

I tried searching around for more information about that, and the best I came up with was this "ask a scientist" question which suggests that it's some unknown compound(s) that somehow affect the yeast's growth - and that cinnamon inhibits it.

Does anyone have any more information? How strong is the effect? Are there any other things which similarly affect yeast growth?

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Dextrous malt or malted barley increases gluten formation without extra yeast. With regards to ginger I don't know. – justkt Feb 12 '11 at 17:21
up vote 13 down vote accepted

From Cookwise, there's a table given from Wright, Bice and Fogelberg's "The Effect of Spices on Yeast Fermentation" from Cereal Chemistry, March 1954. where amount is the grams of the given spice with 2 grams of sugar and 1 gram of yeast in 30 ml of water, and the change in yeast activity is measured in ml of gas increase in 3 hrs. Here's the section for ginger:

Amount     Change in Yeast Activity
------     ------------------------           
0.1        + 87
0.75       +172
1.0        +136
2.0        + 72

Of course, cinnamon shows an even larger increase at the 0.1 gram addition (+103), it just starts hindering at larger increments.

update : and to answer the second part of the question; Cookwise only listed a few additives (cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, dry mustard, nutmeg, and thyme), and they weren't all tested in the same amounts; the only two that were inhibiters were cinnamon in larger amounts, and dry mustard (for which they only had one point). It's possible that there was more in the original article, as the lead-in to the table said "The accompanying table shows the effects of some of these spices".

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Very interesting--and I would note that the ginger appears to hinder production at higher volumes like cinnamon does. I wonder if what the spices at low volumes are adding is digestible free amino nitrogen or some kind of fatty acid--both of which are great yeast nutrients--but at larger volumes their other constituents come into play. – bikeboy389 Feb 15 '11 at 15:51
@bikeboy389: they don't have enough data points. The benefit decreases for the amounts they tested, but it's not a hinderance in the amounts tested, where the yeast actually produced less gas. (which occured at 1g of cinnamon added, and 0.25g of mustard) – Joe Feb 15 '11 at 16:27

Yeast grows at an exponential rate until its fermentation poisons catch up with it and start inhibiting growth. Ginger acts as a buffering agent in small quantities. Very small quantities. A buffering agent controls the pH of the dough. As long as the dough pH remains within a certain range, yeast will continue to grow at an exponential rate. The effect of small amounts of ginger added to the dough can shorten rise time approximately 50 percent. it also improves the quality of the rise, giving smaller, more consistently sized bubbles. The key here is very small quantities. I never use more than a pinch, added to the initial proofing of the yeast mixture.

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I don't think the Ginger helps activate the yeast. In fact, ginger has anti-fungal properties, and as yeast is a very simple fungus, it seems very unlikely to particularly thrive in the presence of ginger.

I don't think it's reputed to be outright bad for yeast like cinnamon is, but it is supposed to kill other fungi.

I also looked into the chemical components of yeast nutrients for brewing (baking and brewing yeast being so similar as the be almost indistinguishable in most uses), and couldn't find anything listed as a desirable nutrient that matched up to what ginger brings to the table.

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I did expect someone might say "that's an old wives' tale; it doesn't do anything," but I wasn't expecting it to be harmful to the yeast! Interesting! – Jefromi Feb 14 '11 at 21:40

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