Anytime I ask someone why they don’t bake bread, they usually offer one of two excuses:
Either they don’t have enough time, or they don’t know anything about yeast.
Well, we solved the first issue with Overnight Artisan Bread. One of the easiest and most hands-off bread recipes known to man, even the busiest schedule can handle a loaf or two of a wanna-be sourdough boule.
The second issue is just a wee bit more than a dump and mix, but to be honest, yeast really isn’t that difficult to work with. Once you know a few of the basics and employ an incredibly simple tip to make sure your bread turns out perfectly every time, you’ll be well on your way to making fresh bread on a regular basis.
A Beginner’s Guide to Using Yeast
No lesson would be complete without a definition or two, so let’s define proofing as a method to ensure that yeast is alive, and ready to work in the dough.
Personally, I proof yeast 90% of the time to ensure that I’m not wasting precious ingredients and even more precious time only to have the recipe NOT turn out because my yeast was dead.
That my friends, stinks.
I learned that lesson once and have been proofing my yeast nearly every time since.
The only reason I don’t proof yeast the remaining 10% of the time is because we bake fairly often in our house, and the chances of my yeast dying between the last time I proofed and now are slim to none.
The process of proofing is simple: yeast + water + sugar = beer foam bubbles.
Although seemingly insignificant, let’s talk about the water.
When proofing yeast, the water temperature needs to be between 105-115F. Any thermometer will do the trick, so long as it can read between these two limits.
If the water is too cool, the yeast won’t activate. If the water is too hot, you’ll kill the yeast.
Tip: For safety reasons, we have our hot water heater set to just one tick hotter than the recommended setting. I’ve found that turning my sink water on as hot it will go is the perfect temperature for proofing yeast. You CAN use a microwave, but my water always ends up too hot and then I have to wait what feels like an eternity for it to cool. As a point of reference, boiling is 212F (a.k.a. way too hot). As always, use a thermometer to be sure.
Sugar is the necessary evil. Some recipes call for sugar, some don’t. The yeast feeds on the sugar, and in my personal experience, using some sort of sweetener offers a better indication than no sweetener at all. Stirring the water and sugar together seems to help the process develop too (as opposed to just measuring and letting them sit).
Note that this sweetener does NOT have to be granulated white sugar. You can use honey or maple syrup if you prefer, but when you’re only using a couple of teaspoons that will be spread out over two large loaves of bread, I find it more cost effective to use typical granulated white sugar.
Tip: The typical ratio of sweetener to bread is 1 teaspoon per 1 loaf. Adding more sweetener, or baking less loaves out of a batch of dough will cause the flavor of the sweetener itself to show through. As a point of reference, most honey whole wheat breads use 1/4 cup of honey or more for flavor. Something to keep in mind when you’re debating whether to use maple syrup in a pizza dough.
Beer foam is your friend. I use this phrase because that’s the type of bubbles you’re looking for. Not soap bubbles, not the bubbles you get from kids toys – beer foam bubbles. It can take anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes for bubbles to appear, but the key is that they appear. No bubbles means dead yeast, so there’s no point in continuing because your recipe will more than likely not turn out. Beer foam bubbles is the green light to proceed.
The Three Main Types of Yeast
#1 – Active Dry Yeast
This is what most bakers use traditionally. They’re granular, range in color from light to dark brown and give two rises in recipes. Active dry yeast should be proofed before using in recipes.
#2 – Instant Yeast
Also known as bread machine yeast, this type of yeast was designed so that it could be added directly to the dry ingredients without having to go through proofing first. You CAN proof instant yeast, but you don’t have to.
#3 – Fast-rise Yeast
This yeast is instant yeast with added dough conditioners, typically citric acid (Hodgson Mill adds vitamin C). This is to aid the quickness factor of the yeast, and is best in recipes that only call for one rise. Proofing is not required for fast-rise yeast, although it can be done without issue if you’re unsure if your yeast is fresh.
Tip: Even newly opened packages can contain dead yeast. From one frugal baker to another, always proof your yeast.
Storing & Buying Yeast
Yeast performs best when it’s kept away from air, moisture and warmth. Unopened yeast can be stored in a cupboard away from heat sources like the refrigerator or oven, and open yeast should be stored in a fridge.
When we buy yeast in bulk, I pour some into a glass jar and store the jar in the fridge. Then I keep the rest of the yeast in a freezer-safe bag, remove excess air and store in the freezer. Some manufactures don’t recommend the freezer, but I’ve been doing this for over two years and haven’t had any issues so far.
The majority of baking recipes call for 2 1/4 tsp of yeast, and that’s why so many individual packets come with just 1/4 oz (the equivalent of 2 1/4 tsp).
However, be sure to read the weight before you just open a new package and dump it in. Some individual packets can have up to 5/16 oz (approximately 3 1/8 tsp). In most cases, adding more yeast to a recipe won’t hurt it, and will actually help the rise a bit more.
In fact, recipes like Overnight Artisan Bread benefit from adding more yeast, for both flavor and rise! You could use just 1 teaspoon of yeast and the bread will still rise, but the extra yeast adds flavor that I thought tasted too good to leave out!
Buying in bulk is something worth considering if you stay on the homemade baked goods road for any period of time. You’ll find recipes that use just 1/2 teaspoon and some that use up to 3 teaspoons. Being able to measure from a larger container, like a glass jar, is much easier than opening several packets and then finding a creative way to store them.
Tip: If buying yeast in bulk isn’t an option in your area, consider opening up the individual packets and pouring them into a glass jar. You’ll get the same benefits from measuring from bulk, without yeast spilling all over the fridge!
The Biggest Takeaway
There’s only one sure-fire way to get to know how yeast works: use it!
Pick a type of yeast (I recommend active dry yeast), start using it and watch it in action. See how it foams up. See what happens when you use honey instead of sugar. Watch the first rise of bread, and then watch the second rise.
Tinker with simple recipes and double the yeast – or even triple it!
Yeast is incredibly affordable – regularly priced at just 10¢ per teaspoon, or as little as 2¢ when bought in bulk – so it’s no skin off your back to proof it and see if it works… Shoot, you just might end up with a new family favorite bread recipe!
Experienced bakers – do you have any tips or advice to share with novice bakers? Let’s share the knowledge so we can all become better bakers!
Disclaimer: This post is sponsored by Hodgson Mill, a family-owned company whom Crumbs is proud to partner with. As always, I would never recommend anything on Crumbs that I wouldn’t recommend to a close friend or neighbor, and all opinions here are my own. This post also contains affiliate links. By making a purchase through those links, you support the ministry of Crumbs without any additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting Crumbs in this way! Read my full disclosure statement here.