Instant Yeast

Active Dry Yeast/photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

When I used to read bread recipes, I feared yeast for good reason: Bad bread recipes.  So many instructed me to heat the water to specific temperatures, between 110 and 115 degrees F., and bloom the yeast.  Some wanted sugar in the water.  Some told me to wait till I saw bubbles.  Or they were neurotic about when to add the yeast.  Or the amount, 1-1/4 teaspoons exactly.  Rest the dough in a warm place (because of the yeast), they said, or away from drafts. Or you have to bloom active dry but not instant.  Or don’t add the salt until the yeast has started its work.

Hogwash, all of it!  Truth of the matter is you can play fast and loose with the yeast and you can use any kind you want. I often just measure by eye or throw a couple 3-fingered pinches in.

Yeasts are living microbes that basically feed on the flour, releasing gas and alcohol that leaven and flavor bread.  Three types of yeast are available in grocery stores.  The most common is Active Dry Yeast, living yeast with a coating of inactive yeast cells (pictured above).  I prefer Red Star and SAF brands (same company).  Active dry yeast performs well and has a long shelf life, especially if you freeze it (you can freeze it indefinitely).

Fresh cakes of yeast are also available.  I love the smell and feel of this yeast but it’s less stable, even in the freezer, so I prefer the above active dry.

Unlike Active Dry Yeast, Instant Dry Yeast doesn’t have a coating of inactive yeast surrounding it, so it works a little faster and you need a little less of it. I find this makes the dough rise too quickly, and therefore less flavorfully, than either fresh or active dry, so I avoid it.  (If you’re a recipe fanatic and want to adhere absolutely to the recipe, fine by me: if so, to substitute one for another if your recipe calls for a kind you don’t have, The CIA’s New Professional Chef, recommends replacing fresh yeast with 40% by weight active dry and 33% instant.)

But it’s all just yeast, and the bottom line is that how much you use is variable.  The same dough can take 1/8th of a teaspoon or two teaspoonfuls and you’ll still have bread.  One will simply rise much more quickly than the other.

More important than measuring your yeast is paying attention to your dough. It’s a living thing until you cook it.  Treat it that way.  I think of each dough as a unique individual creature.

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65 Wonderful responses to “Don’t Fear the Microbes: Yeast Basics”

  • *susan*

    The most interesting thing I have learned about yeast since starting to bake all of our bread about two years ago is, the more bread you bake, the greater the variety of wild yeasts in your kitchen. So my barms and starters are far more interesting now, and give the bread a more complex flavor.

    If I had understood this at the beginning, I would have waited to try wild yeast methods until I had been baking bread for about 6 months and enjoyed greater success when trying the wild yeast methods.

  • Nick Dawson

    Thanks Michael for confirming something I had wondered about for some time. As you suggest, my own anecdotal experience is that yeast just thrives regardless how how it is handled.

    We (by which I mean my wife) have started brewing beer recently. After a lot of concern about exact temperatures during pitching, we’ve found again that yeast seems to do pretty well in in-exact ranges.

    • Kevin

      Nick,
      While your yeast will make ethanol and CO2 at a variety of temperatures they will also produce other chemicals (esters) that you may not want in your finished beer. Most ale yeast are happier and produce “cleaner” (better) beer in the mid 60 to 70 F range, while lager yeast will give better flavors at lower temperatures (40 – 50) over longer fermentation times.

  • Niki

    Wow – thanks for clarifying all of this in such a succinct manner. I suspected this was the case all along (I’ve been experimenting with bread baking lately and have found that the amount of yeast I use doesn’t seem to affect the outcome all that much), but am glad to have it verified. Would love to know your thoughts on protein in bread baking though – I’ve been using whey (from making cheese, not powdered) in place of water in my recipes lately with nice results.

  • latenac

    I used to suffer from anxiety about baking as well. Fortunately I have a good friend who bakes quite a lot who has helped to undo a lot of my anxiety so I’m a little freer in the kitchen to experiment with baking.

  • Mary Alice Kropp

    Agreed. I’ve found, after years of bread baking, that you can do more damage being too precise with yeast than any other thing. It’s easy, folks! Just let the yeast do what it does naturally.

  • David

    This is why I love bread baking so much. There’s no real recipe to follow. Want a more holey bread, have the mixture more moist. Want a tighter grain for sandwich or dessert bread, add some fat. Want to bake it in the morning, use only a little yeast and let it rise in the fridge. Magic!

  • Monty

    This post about sums up what’s been keeping me from baking bread, a fear of yeast. I am slowly overcoming this however and feel a loaf of bread is in the not too distant future, thanks largely in part to your extremely helpful post’s on bread making.

  • Susan

    I feel fortunate that the first bread I made was the no-knead bread. It only used the 1/4 tsp of yeast and that initially taught me that the amount of feeding and fermenting time did more for bread than the amount of yeast. When I saw the video where Mark Bittman said he improved Lahey’s process to make it faster by adding a tablespoon of yeast, I almost gagged. Too much yeast just makes bread too commercially-yeasty in flavor (not my favorite flavor) rather than help it do anything faster! Those two lessons really helped me eliminate my fear of working with yeast.

  • Carri

    We definitely have learned to use the different characteristics of each type of yeast to our advantage. And from baking the same bread every day for many years, I can say that if I accidentally use active dry instead of saf instant in the white trash dough (which we use for sticky buns and cinnamon rolls where a light fluffy texture trumps over lots of flavor), you can certainly tell the difference. That said, the result is still bread, just not quite the silky, sexy white bread we are striving for.

  • Denny Nustad

    I think you’re mostly correct about the yeast “issue”. But I must tell you that I had a ghastly experience two years ago when I captured some wild yeast on the kitchen counter — and added a small amount of store-bought dry yeast. Everything looked fine until I went into the kitchen the next morning…the yeast had blown the plastic-wrap cover off the bowl, and oozed all over the kitchen counter, requiring a major clean-up. I have no idea what this was all about; but the visual was extremely memorable — and the cleanup was a major nuisance. Nevertheless, baking artisinal bread at home continues to be my favorite kitchen activity.

    Thanks for your tutorial!

  • Scott_D

    Thanks so much. I feel vindicated. I’ve been playing with yeast levels for years. I often make focaccia when I’m in a hurry and just put more yeast in, 3tsp instead of 2tsp, to speed things up. Most people rave about it and I think it’s partly because it smells yeasty when done.

  • Laura

    Isn’t there a way of cultivating your own? I’ve heard of bread makers growing crazy science experiments of these out of various fruits and veggies, flour, and water and making really good bread. I’ve always wanted to try it, but I was wondering if you’ve ever done it?

    • Mantonat

      I tried the cabbage leaf method (flour, water, and an organic cabbage leaf left overnight on the counter) and got pretty good results. I took the cabbage leaf out after a day and continued to add flour and water over the course of a week. By the end, I had a starter with a nice sour dough aroma. I later learned that you don’t need the cabbage leaf; organic whole wheat flour has enough naturally occuring microflora to create a good starter. The key is patience and diligence because you have to feed the starter every 12 hours for about a week. After that I think you can keep it in the fridge and replenish it with a small portion of dough each time you make bread. I haven’t tried saving mine for extended use though.

      • Laura

        How big of a container did you put it in? Was it 2 parts flour 1 part water, or was it equal? I totally want to try this.

      • Laura

        Oh wow! I remember the BLT challenge! I failed the gardening miserably, LOL. That was too bad, because I had a great idea. In any case, thank you! I think I’ll try my hand at this by making pretzel rolls. :-D

      • Comal Caliente

        Just wondering how often do you feed the starter once it starts going after a couple of days? I heard that you can keep it in the fridge and feed it every couple of weeks. Do you simply feed with water/flour each time? can you feed with different types of flours and yeasts?

        Sorry for the multiple questions, this just seems very exciting!

        • Laura

          I think it’s every 12-24 hours. I love the fact that it “feeds”. I want to get a lab coat and really crazy hair for this…. ;-)

        • ruhlman

          I feed it once or twice a day if i’m using it. I store a half cup in the fridge indefinitely, no need to feed till you want to use.

          • Laura

            Okay, I have been feeding it every 12-24 hours. It’s starting to poof a bit, but I was wondering if it’s supposed to smell a little like vinegar? I used grapes. I know it’s supposed to smell like beer when it’s through, but I’m a little concerned about the vinegar scent.

      • Laura

        I just have to say thank you! After reading this link and some research, I just now made my very first starter, which I’m documenting on my blog. :-) I’m excited. :-)

  • Bbq Dude

    Much of the concern stems from the fact that older preparations of dried yeast were not as well prepared as modern preparations. We’ve gotten a lot better at preparing yeast in a form that survives for long periods inactive in the fridge, and as a result the reactivation of yeast is much less sensitive than it was thirty years ago.

    Your modern yeast is not your grandmother’s yeast (or even your mother’s yeast).

  • PastryCraft

    I too will often “eye-ball” yeast, especially when I’m just playing around or in a hurry. But one thing that you don’t mention is that baking good bread time after time calls for consistency. So measuring (in metric with a scale is the best way) and using the same yeast that you’re comfortable with will get you a consistent loaf with fairly consistent timing. There’s huge satisfaction in a beautifully baked bread every time.

  • Bill Hedeman

    Actually, the preferred method of implementing yeast – or other ingredients for that matter – for bread would be: in a mixer – water, salt, (malt/sugar) if desired, flour; develop for a few minutes then add yeast

  • Brandon

    One point you make in your book on ratios that is of value to me is the point that half as much yeast will leaven a dough, just more slowly than the full compliment called for by a recipe. I personally always proof my yeast, but I know from experience it’s not a required step, and I’m glad someone is finally writing about that reality. Hopefully you’ll inspire someone to bake some bread!

  • Victoria

    Good info. I have never had any problem making The Sullivan Street Bakery No-Knead bread, but I get a little neurotic about the yeast when I make Marion Cunningham’s Raised Waffles, proofing the yeast, worrying about the kitchen getting cold overnight, etc., etc. Now I will rest a little easier.

  • jbl

    “The CIA’s New Professional Chef, recommends replacing fresh yeast with 40% by weight active dry and 33% instant.”
    Just to be clear the remaining 17% is omitted?

    • The Master Brewer

      He/She’s a BS artist. All baking yeast pretty much comes from a brewery during or after primary fermentation of wort. Your best yeast should come from an active poolish. 100g water, 100g any flour, pinch of yeast. Cover with cling wrap, let it get to work for a couple hours, or overnight in fridge, top shelf. When she’s bubbling, use in your recipe, but make sure you integrate those ingredients into your recipe calculations.

      Don’t listen to anybody about instant vs. active. It’s all the same once you hydrate and integrate.

      And I say again: There is nothing better than an active poolish. Red Star brewing yeast was tested by brewers some time ago, and was found to be full of bacteria and void of yeast. Also some of the worst tasting brewing yeasts on the market. If you bake a lot, keep a container in the fridge and use a spoonful of this in your poolish preparations. This is very much like yogourt. Dead easy to make; just give it time.

      • ruhlman

        what yeast do you use? red star was bought a while back by SAF so I’m hoping it’s better now than when tested. agree there’s little diff between active and instant.

  • jeff

    i think that should read 40% active OR 33% instant… (one or the other, and less of the instant, as it is more potent)

  • JRB

    It’s amazing how the simple accumulated empirical knowledge of thousands of years of yeast cultivation has been, in some industries, simply thrown out in favor of strain-specific, laboratory-cultured preparations. I’m thinking specifically of the wine industry, where it is considered avant-garde in this age of technology to use wild yeast for fermentation.

  • Elise

    Great post Michael. I am so tired of hearing people say, when you bake, you have to measure exactly. Not with yeast! There’s so much wiggle room. Once you make bread regularly you start to realize what you need to do with it. I usually just look at the dough to decide if it’s risen enough. I rarely check the clock anymore.

    I use active dry yeast as well. I have tried instant before but it comes in those annoying pouches. Active Dry comes in those lovely jars.

    I also keep a sourdough starter, but that’s a subject for another post entirely…..

  • Paul

    But … commercial yeasts have a really tough time replicating and doing their work much below 60 degrees (and 80 is preferable, especially for the first bulk rise) so one should not get too carried away with the “whatever” approach. Natural leavening (aka sourdough starters) do much better at cooler temps.

    Remember that when push comes to shove, cooking is an art but baking is engineering.

  • rockandroller

    Ok, this may be true, but I am a novice baker. I had a recipe for yeast rolls for thanksgiving that took 2 days to make. They were a fucking diaster, and it was because of the yeast (which was red star, by the way). I bought the little 3 pack of it. I tried to proof it, like they said, but it just didn’t get very bubbly. The water was the exact temp they specified. I tried another packet. No go. Called my sister. She said add sugar. I did, saw a little action but not a ton. Used it anyway.

    The dough did not rise. I took it out to knead it and it had barely risen, certainly not to double it’s size. I threw it out and bought rolls at the store. It was Thanksgiving day and I didn’t have time to putz around any longer!

  • Comal Caliente

    My bread baking experiances began with your book and from reading this blog so I must say I had no fear of using yeast. I agree with you on it being a living thing, I’ve only made a couple of loaves but you sort of get a *feel* for the dough and what it is trying to tell you.

    My next experiment will be making a starter to bake my own sourdough bread. The thought of growing/taking care of your own starter seems just wonderful, its like having a pet!

  • Badger

    My fear of bread baking ended years ago when I read Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking. She described a rather lackadaisical approach to bread baking — leave the dough alone for hours? tend to it whenever you happen to get around to it? heresy! — that totally worked for me and removed whatever fear I had. Now I swear my best loaves are ones that thrived on neglect before being popped into the oven.

  • Marie

    When you say yeast will “freeze indefinitely” you really mean it. I bought a five pound bag of Red Star back in 1997, when my daughters were living at home and I worked part time…fourteen years later, what remains of that yeast is still leavening, I kid you not. I poured the bag into canning jars, sealed with waxed paper beneath the lid, froze immediately…and labeled with the date, or I wouldn’t believe it myself. Long may yeast raise.

  • Carolyn Zichterman

    I’ve never had a problem with Red Star or Fleishman’s active dry yeast. Could it be that the yeast had expired? I have some yeast from Trader Joe’s that is still fine a year later. I do take it out of the fridge to let it come to room temp before I attempt to make bread.

    I also use a thermometer to check the water temperature, because I have lost the ability to tell using my fingers/hand. Some recipes call for testing the yeast at first. The only time I test it is through using the sponge method, for example when making 100 percent whole wheat bread.

    I guess I’ve been pretty lucky. In another life I was a scratch baker, but that’s a whole nuther different process making danish using fresh yeast, not like the home baking I do now.

    Carolyn Z

  • Dave

    Good stuff, Michael – I remember having the same revelation years ago, and my bread baking improved immeasurably.

    Recommended reading for those who want to take a crack at artisinal bread baking at home: ‘Bread Alone’, by Daniel Leader. Dan owns the Bread Alone Bakery in the Hudson Valley, and does a nice job sorting out where science is needed and where it isn’t. Good primer for learning how to make sourdough starter, poolish and biga, too. His book got me started on the road to doing it well.

  • Ginger G

    … fear of yeast started when I watched a rerun of an “I Love Lucy” show and she made bread. She went into the kitchen and the bread was pushing out of the oven and she couldn’t stop it.
    Appreciate the info to conquer …

  • Melissa

    I like your style Michael Ruhlman! You make it all look so easy when sometimes we (or I) can get very fussy about matters in the kitchen. I appreciate that about you.

  • Teri

    Will you post a video on how to knead bread correctly, I have never been able to knead bread to a smooth ball. Thank you.

    • ruhlman

      There’s no trick, just time. You probably aren’t kneading for long enough. fold it over on itself, smash it down with the heel of your hand and keep doing that till it’s smooth.

  • Natalie

    Yeast is pretty forgiving. Using it gets tougher when you make gluten free bread. For me it then becomes a lesson in kitchen chemistry. The changes in flours, one or two rises, biga, poolish, or part sourdough, to knead or not, and whether or not there is sugar can infinitely change the outcome of your bread. At least my failures are biodegradable.

  • JC

    Well, unfortunately for me bread baking has ended up like trying to follow a pirate map to buried treasure (little mistakes that you don’t realize you are making along the way lead you to get very dirty for seemingly nothing).

    Now I must admit that almost all of my connection to yeast has come from trying to get a good pizza (which, I know, in a home oven is a dubious effort when trying to get high-quality). There still seems to be not enough information about the real warning signs.

    What I mean by that is that it seems that even following a recipie nerotically, the bread comes out either way too hard or puffy with no flavor and all while using the same yeast, flour, water and temps. Unfortunately I live in a dessert when when it comes to experienced bread bakers so although I get advice, it is often contradictory (e.g. – “it overproofed”, “it underproofed”, “not enough yeast”, “not enough time”, “not enough kneeding”, “too much kneeding”, etc).

    I have a feeling that the issue is that I don’t have enough experience at knowing what an overproofed dough looks/feels like or how to spot issues with a dough before it is baked. Any book/video/course/advice on how to get around this?

    • cleek

      i’m in the same boat. all the breads & pizza doughs i’ve tried come out gray, flavorless. even when i get a decent texture (as when i last tried to make sandwich bread), there is no browning but the temp inside says “done!”

      i don’t know if it’s my oven, the flour, the yeast, my measuring, my kneading, or what.

      i want to try the English muffin recipe from a few weeks back, but i’m kinda dis-enthused by the prospect of making a big mess and ending up with gray flavorless disks…

    • tomifesto

      Hi JC,

      Track down The Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown (http://www.shambhala.com/html/catalog/items/isbn/978-1-59030-704-5.cfm).

      This was my first bread book and opened all sorts of doors for me. The process revolves around mixing a “sponge” first (basically letting the sugar, water, half the flour and all the yeast become friendly), then adding the remaining flour(s), salt, fat and whatever additional ingredients are required.

      I make something out of this book every week or two (the cinnamon roll and pancake recipes are family favorites as well), always to rave results.

      • Mary Beth

        It was my first bread book too! For me, the reason it remains high on my list of recommended bread baking books is because Brown gives you the the basic rules of thumb and then encourages you to go play. I have never been afraid of bread baking because of that. Over the years, I have saved up all kinds of leftovers to put into my bread baking, from leftover bits of the kid’s cereal-and-yogurt, to pasta cooking liquid, even liquified day-old salad. My family has learned to not ask what is in the bread- they love it, but know that they don’t *really* want to know what’s in it. Only problem being when they ask me to repeat a particular loaf I can be in trouble, as I tended to not keep track of what I did from loaf to loaf. That has changed in the past few months, as I made up a template so I can easily record when I am experimenting or trying out a new recipe.

    • Kevin

      JC
      Take a look at Peter Reinhart’s books – The Bread Baker’s Apprentice or Crust and Crumb. As Michael mentions, you’re working with a living product so you have to keep an eye on it. More yeast – faster fermentation, higher temperatures – faster fermentation, more kneeding – higher dough temperatures. For pizza, Peter also has a book on that – American Pie (not the movie). For more flavor you may want to retard the dough in the frig overnight. For cooking in the home oven – crank the heat to full high and use a stone or bricks to keep the heat in the oven.

  • ekc

    Thanks for another great post Ruhlman – clear and concise as always! I am not much of an “exacting” cook or baker (which drives my husband – who graduated from cooking school – crazy) but usually have no problem baking bread. Your post explains alot, because I learned watching my mother do it and so I learned to do it by eye and feel. Thanks again!

  • JC

    Thanks for the advice guys. I had actually heard of the Tassajara bread book but hadn’t actually picked it up. Peter Reinhart, however, is new to me.

    I haven’t looked at this in a long while (almost a year) and was kinda disgruntled with the whole process. I think, however, I’m going to have to give this a try.

    Thanks again!

  • I-Wei Feng

    In my household, we use commercial yeast for more than making bread, we make beer and ginger ale as well. Then we go a step further and make kimchi using lactic fermentation. The book Wild Fermentation discusses methods and anecdotes on fermentation with naturally occurring yeast. It’s a really cool book!

  • Mary

    Wow! That’s just like yogurt. There is so much conflicting information and so many instructions calling for exact scientific precision when making yogurt with yogurt cultures — in America anyway. Yet when I moved to India where everyone makes yogurt every day (and it is dead easy by the way, and super delicious) I saw exactly what you are saying about yeast and bread. Definitely hogwash. Yogurt cultures are likewise far more flexible than people in America give them credit for — they are also a living thing, and very very easy to work with. Thanks for debunking the yeast myth. I hope the yogurt culture myth gets debunked too!

  • Mary Beth

    Tassajara Bread Book was my first bread book too! For me, the reason it remains high on my list of recommended bread baking books is because Brown gives you the the basic rules of thumb and then encourages you to go play. I have never been afraid of bread baking because of that. Over the years, I have saved up all kinds of leftovers to put into my bread baking, from leftover bits of the kid’s cereal-and-yogurt, to pasta cooking liquid, even liquified day-old salad. My family has learned to not ask what is in the bread- they love it, but know that they don’t *really* want to know what’s in it. Only problem being when they ask me to repeat a particular loaf I can be in trouble, as I tended to not keep track of what I did from loaf to loaf. That has changed in the past few months, as I made up a template so I can easily record when I am experimenting or trying out a new recipe.

  • robert

    And while we’re at it, can we declare an end to using “yeasty” as a positive quality for bread? Nobody wants bread that smells or tastes like yeast: we want the smell and taste of the grain.

  • Mattm

    Yeast has recently become a new friend of mine, hence I was thrilled to see it written about. Thanks! I grew up baking cookies but never breads ( I think my mom was affraid of yeast!). Then I hankered fresh soft pretzels for New Years Eve and ground mustard. The recipe called for yeast and I shivered, though tankfully the author was a “get in there and do it!” type of person. First batch, dough didn’t rise well, I didn’t let the yeast eat enough. Second batch, amazing! Though the author suggested one didn’t need to let the dough “ferment”, I did, even as a neophyte. The yeast did it’s thing and yeilded wonderful flavor unto the pretzels (now dearly departed into the stomachs of my family anf friends).

  • KosherCorvid

    See, everyone always calls me crazy for not being too finicky when measuring for bread. I tend to eyeball it, see if the dough feels right, add flour (or less often, water) if it doesn’t, and give it all the time it seems to want to rise. And it comes out great!

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