Working With Yeast

Working With Yeast

If you’ve ever had fears about not having something rise, or wondered what yeast to pick at the grocery store, this page will help answer your questions!

What is yeast?

Did you know yeast is “alive”? It’s a living organism, which means it’s perishable and needs to be treated right to work properly. Ever heard of “killing” your yeast? Sounds scary, but it’s true and possible. Specifically it’s a type of fungi (kind of like mushrooms, molds that ripen cheese, etc.) And yeast loves one big thing – SUGAR. When yeast feeds off of sugar and gluten, it ferments and creates carbon dioxide gas, which is what makes your baked goods grow and rise. 

Kinds of baker's yeast

There’s brewer’s yeast (for beer making) and baker’s yeast. Most baker’s yeast is a dry yeast and comes in 3 main types – active dry, instant, and rapid rise. None are necessarily bad, but they all respond differently so it’s important to know what you’re working with. Here are the differences:

Active dry: This works well for long rises. It also lasts the longest on your shelf as it has not been activated. This does mean though that it needs to be activated properly in order for it to work. You activate it by putting it in a warm liquid (such as milk or water depending on the recipe) and adding a sugar component (like sugar or honey). Let it sit for about 10 minutes until the yeast gets foamy. It’s now activated and can be used in the recipe. Most recipes will specify the amount of liquid and sugar to use to activate. 

Instant: This one is my favorite, particularly the brand “saf-instant” – comes in a white and red package. You can buy it in a specialty kitchen store or online. It’s a yeast that has been partially activated, so I don’t have to ensure it’s activated prior to diving into the recipe. (So yes, that means I could add it with my dry ingredients!) It also works well for medium-long rises and is considered the most versatile yeast because of that. I use it in shorter rises like pizza dough, and longer rises like my bagels or raised doughnuts. One yeast in my house – and this is the one. 

Rapid Rise: This is a yeast that is fast acting. It works in recipes that require a really fast rise. It also means that this yeast is slightly more unstable and can have a higher chance of “dying”. It doesn’t work well in recipes with a longer rise, because it’ll make things happen too quickly and you can loose a depth of flavor in what you’re baking. I’m not saying throw it out – just know what its best used for like a quick pizza dough and save it for that!


How long does yeast last?

Yeast is best stored in the refrigerator or freezer for longest shelf life. I’ve heard a lot of people say “6 months” for the freezer once it’s been opened, but I’ve used my yeast past that point and it’s still worked great. One way to see if your yeast is still fresh is by testing the activation. Put it with warm (not hot!) water and sugar and if gets foamy in 10 minutes, it’s fresh. If it doesn’t, throw it out. 

Proofing yeast properly

You can kill your yeast by having your liquid component to hot. On the flip side, it won’t activate well if you put it in cold water. So what does yeast love? A nice warm bath with some sugar. It’s true. For those of you who crave a specific number, I always recommend 110 degrees F. To be honest, I don’t take the temperature anymore. I aim for the feel of nice warm baby bathwater and I get great results every time. But everyone has a difference sense of what warm bathwater is, so if you’re new to bread making, taking the temperature will definitely resolve the #1 potential problem variable. Your recipe should specify the amount of liquid and sugar to use. 

When using active dry yeast, be sure to proof and activate your yeast before applying to the recipe. When you are using instant or rapid rise yeast, it won’t hurt to ‘proof’ it before using, but it doesn’t need to be. You can use it in your dry ingredients and it’ll still work since it’s been partially activated already. If you aren’t sure if your yeast is still “alive” (for example, if it’s old) I recommend proofing even instant yeast before using just to be sure. That way you don’t waste a ton of ingredients and time to find out you have dense, flat bread. 

Proofing ingredients & steps:
Your recipe may indicate the ratios to proof, in which case, follow that. But if it doesn’t, or if it recommends instant and you want to do a proof anyway, I like to follow this method:
1. Combine 1/2 cup of warm water (110 degrees F), 1 tsp sugar or honey, and 2 1/4 packet of yeast (1 packet).
2. Stir until dissolved and let it sit for 8-10 minutes, until it gets foamy and rises (meaning – activated!)
3. If your yeast activated, it’s ready to use in the recipe. If it did not activate and you’re sure your yeast was at proper temperature, then your yeast is likely dead and you’ll need to start over with new yeast. 

During the rising process, keep your dough in a warm environment to achieve best results. It’ll continue thrive off of those sugars in the dough and release that carbon dioxide, creating a nice risen dough. 

Favorite brands

Like I said above, my favorite brand is “saf-instant”. If you don’t have great access to a kitchen store and don’t have time to get it online, my grocery store recommendation is Red Star. Most importantly though, just be sure to look at the label to know what you’re buying “active dry”, “instant”, or “rapid rise” and know you’ll know how to use it!

Happy baking! Questions or comments about yeast? Feel free to leave a comment below! 

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Lee rafferty
Lee rafferty
2 months ago

Cinnamon rolls. I found the dough extremely sticky and when I went to roll it up it was difficult to get it tight because of the softness of it. I weighed the flour before making the recipe. Should I have used a lot more flour? The rolls once cut were misshapen. Suggestions please! Thank you.