Leavening is the process of adding gas to a dough before or during baking to produce a lighter, more easily chewed bread. Most bread eaten in the West is leavened.
A simple technique for leavening bread is the use of gas-producing chemicals. There are two common methods. The first is to use baking powder or a self-raising flour that includes baking powder. The second is to include an acidic ingredient such as buttermilk and add baking soda; the reaction of the acid with the soda produces gas. Chemically leavened breads are called quick breads and soda breads. This method is commonly used to make muffins, pancakes, American-style biscuits, and quick breads such as banana bread.
The baker's yeast and sourdough methods follow the same pattern. Water is mixed with flour, salt and the leavening agent. Other additions (spices, herbs, fats, seeds, fruit, etc.) are not needed to bake bread, but are often used. The mixed dough is then allowed to rise one or more times (a longer rising time results in more flavor, so bakers often "punch down" the dough and let it rise again), loaves are formed, and (after an optional final rising time) the bread is baked in an oven.
Sourdough is a type of bread produced by a long fermentation of dough using naturally occurring yeasts and lactobacilli. It usually has a mildly sour taste because of the lactic acid produced during anaerobic fermentation by the lactobacilli.
Sourdough breads are made with a sourdough starter. The starter cultivates yeast and lactobacilli in a mixture of flour and water, making use of the microorganisms already present on flour; it does not need any added yeast. A starter may be maintained indefinitely by regular additions of flour and water. Some bakers have starters many generations old, which are said to have a special taste or texture. At one time, all yeast-leavened breads were sourdoughs. Recently there has been a revival of sourdough bread in artisan bakeries.
The rapid expansion of steam produced during baking leavens the bread, which is as simple as it is unpredictable. Steam-leavening is unpredictable since the steam is not produced until the bread is baked. Steam leavening happens regardless of the raising agents (baking soda, yeast, baking powder, sour dough, beaten egg white) included in the mix. The leavening agent either contains air bubbles or generates carbon dioxide. The heat vaporises the water from the inner surface of the bubbles within the dough. The steam expands and makes the bread rise. This is the main factor in the rising of bread once it has been put in the oven. CO2 generation, on its own, is too small to account for the rise. Heat kills bacteria or yeast at an early stage, so the CO2 generation is stopped.
Aerated bread was leavened by carbon dioxide being forced into dough under pressure. From the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, bread made this way was somewhat popular in the United Kingdom, made by the Aerated Bread Company and sold in its high-street tearooms. The company was founded in 1862, and ceased independent operations in 1955.