how to bake with yeast
We’re taking time today to talk about how to bake with yeast. One of the most frequently asked questions I get is: “How do I bake with yeast?” Great question! Baking with yeast is a learned skill that’s like riding a bike: It takes practice, but once you get the hang of it you’ll open yourself up to a world of possibility (aka lots and lots of yummy bread recipes). Let’s dive in on all things yeast!
How to Bake With Yeast
Whether you’ve been baking for years or are just getting started, yeast can be a tricky ingredient to work with. It’s a living thing, after all, and living things require a little more attention to thrive (I’m looking at you, children/dog/plants). That said, I truly believe anyone can bake with yeast with a little know-how and practice. Once you do, you’ll realize that it’s not so scary after all, and you’ll end up with delicious homemade bread in your home — a true win-win!
What Is Yeast?
Let’s go to science class for a second. Yeast is a living, single-cell organism also called Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and it needs food, warmth and moisture to thrive. When yeast eats two things — sugar and starch/flour — there is a transformation process through fermentation into carbon dioxide and alcohol. Yeast not only helps baked goods rise (carbon dioxide), but it also adds depth of flavor and texture (alcohol). There are two main forms of yeast: dry yeast (tiny pellets of dried yeast) and fresh yeast (little cakes that are stored cold). Both are sold in grocery stores for bakers’ use, but for this post, we are going to focus on dry yeast, which is more widely used in home baking.
Active Dry Yeast Vs. Instant Yeast
Often sold in jars or packets at room temperature in the baking aisle of your grocery store, active dry yeast is literally dormant yeast that needs water and sugar to “wake up.” This process is commonly called “proofing.”
Instant yeast, sometimes called “fast-acting yeast” or “fast-rising yeast,” is sold in the same manner as active dry yeast, but the pellets are smaller and they don’t need to be activated/proofed to “wake up.” You can simply add the yeast directly to the dry ingredients in your baked goods and it will work its magic.
When sold in packets, both active dry yeast and instant yeast come in 2 1/4-teaspoon amounts, which is the typical amount of dry yeast needed for one loaf of bread.
How to Use Active Dry Yeast
The amounts vary from recipe to recipe, but in general, you’ll need 1 packet (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast + 1/4 cup warm water (105° to 115°F) + 1 teaspoon granulated sugar. Whisk these three ingredients together in a bowl or measuring cup, then let the mixture sit for about 10 minutes. In that time, the mixture should double in size (this is where a measuring cup comes in handy, so you can visualize that it has doubled!). If it does, your yeast is alive and active; if it does not, this means your yeast is dead/expired.
Once you’ve proofed your yeast, you can add it to the dry ingredients in the recipe as directed.
How to Use Instant Yeast
The amounts vary from recipe to recipe, but in general, you’ll need 1 packet (2 1/4 teaspoons) instant yeast for one loaf of bread. With instant yeast, you can skip the activation in water/sugar and directly add the yeast to the dry ingredients in your recipe (e.g., flour, etc.). Once you mix dry ingredients with wet ingredients in the recipe, the instant yeast will activate.
Can I Swap Instant Yeast for Active Dry Yeast, or Vice Versa?
Yes! In general, you can do a 1.25:1 swap with active dry yeast and instant yeast. In other words:
1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast = 1 teaspoon instant yeast
Some recipes will call specifically for one type of yeast over the other for various reasons, but overall, you can use both in bread recipes interchangeably.
How to Store Dry Yeast
You can store active dry yeast and instant dry yeast at room temperature in a cool, dry place (such as a pantry), but I like to store mine in the fridge or freezer to extend its shelf life. I never thaw or warm up the yeast before using it if it’s been in the fridge/freezer, but some do recommend letting the yeast sit out at room temperature for up to 1 hour before using — up to you! Refrigerated yeast stays fresh for 4 to 6 months; if frozen, use within 6 to 8 months.
If you use a jar of yeast, you can keep the yeast tightly covered in the jar in the fridge/freezer. For open packets, tightly reseal the packet(s) before storing.
How Do I Know My Yeast is Alive?
When you use active dry yeast, the proofing stage (mixing yeast + water + sugar) will help you indicate whether or not the yeast is still alive. If the mixture puffs up and turns foamy over the course of 10 minutes, the yeast is alive and you can use it in your baked goods. If not, the yeast likely has died and won’t work in the recipe.
For instant yeast, it’s harder to tell once you’ve made your bread dough. When added directly to the dry ingredients, the only way to know if instant yeast is alive or dead is to observe whether or not your bread dough is rising as indicated in the recipe. If it does rise, then your yeast is alive. If it does not, the yeast is likely dead. If you are unsure, before you begin your recipe, you can proof instant yeast the same way you do active dry yeast to be sure it’s fresh.
This is the number-one reason I often prefer to bake with active dry yeast. While instant yeast provides a nice shortcut in prep time, it is more difficult to know if the bread is going to rise or not if you aren’t confident your yeast is fresh or you haven’t proofed it.
Best Practices for How to Bake with Yeast
Now that I’ve written you a novel all about how to bake with yeast, let’s cover just a few more important tips I’ve learned along the way:
- Water temperature is extremely important. In general, you don’t want any water or other liquids used in a yeast-based recipe to be hotter than 135°F. This is the temperature point at which yeast will die because it is too hot. My recipes will always indicate the ideal water temperature (which I measure with an instant-read thermometer) so you can keep your yeast alive and well.
- Dissolve active dry yeast completely to proof it. When you whisk the sugar + water with the yeast, make sure almost every particle of yeast has dissolved before you let the mixture sit so it can do its thing.
- Don’t let yeast and salt hang out together. When a recipe calls for yeast and salt (most do), I always add the yeast to one side of the bowl and salt to the other. Yeast does not play nicely with salt, and will die/not activate if it comes in direct contact. That said, whisking the two together is fine. Just don’t dump them on top of each other in the bowl beforehand.
- Always opt for a warm environment. Yeast loves warmth, so whenever I bake bread, I make sure the bowls I’m using aren’t ice-cold. Also, I always leave the dough in a warm place (such as a microwave, or a turned-off oven with just the light on) so the yeast can thrive.