Which type of yeast should I use for home bread-making?

Whether you make your bread by hand or in a machine, it's vital to use the right kind of yeast.

By Janey Macleod

packaged yeast

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Whenever someone tells me that their attempts at bread-making ended in disaster, the first thing I suspect is the yeast. Either the would-be baker used the wrong type of yeast, or they used the right type in the wrong way.

If you have been in that situation, don't blame yourself. Many published bread recipes fail to make clear what kind of yeast you should use. Some of the people who write the recipes - people who should know better - seem either not to know the difference or are unable to communicate it to their readers. To add to the confusion, the labeling of the yeast itself is often misleading.

The different types of yeast

As a home baker, you're likely to come across yeast in three different forms.

First, there is fresh yeast. This comes in blocks or cakes, which are soft and crumbly. This is the type that professional bakers prefer, but it has unfortunately become very hard to find in retail outlets - in part perhaps because of its very short shelf-life.

For that reason, most recipes for home-baked bread stipulate dried yeast, which is much easier to find. There are two types of dried yeast.

So-called dried active yeast consists of tiny bead-shaped granules. It usually (not always) comes in a vacuum pack or tub. It has a long shelf-life - several months or more - and doesn't need refrigeration.

By contrast, instant dried yeast - also called fast action, rapid rise, easy rise, or simply quick yeast - is a relatively fine powder. It usually (but not always) comes in quarter-ounce (7 gm) foil sachets. Once you've opened the sachet, you should either use the yeast straight away or keep it for no more than two days in the refrigerator. This type of yeast is sometimes combined with a flour treatment agent (usually ascorbic acid - Vitamin C), and might also contain a desiccant (typically calcium sulfate) and an emulsifier (such as sorbitan monostearate).

Misleading names

The names that manufacturers give to the different types of yeast only add to the confusion.

For a start, the term "active yeast" doesn't really make sense. All yeast is active. If it wasn't, it wouldn't do its job. As well, it's misleading to describe any yeast as "instant". No yeast works instantly. Terms such as "fast action" and "rapid rise" are equally unhelpful.

To complicate matters further, old recipes might refer to fresh yeast as dried yeast. This was to distinguish it from the liquid fermentations that were once used in baking. Fresh yeast is also sometimes referred to as compressed yeast or German yeast.

Yeast for bread-making machines

If you bake your bread in a machine, the choice is simple: You must use the instant or fast action variety. Nothing else will work. If in doubt, make sure the label states that the product is suitable for bread-makers.

Yeast for hand-made bread

Both forms of dried yeast are suitable for hand-made bread, but they are used in different ways.

If you are using instant yeast, you can just add it to the flour straight from the pack. You don't need to re-activate it in any way. Just be sure to use it as soon as possible after you open the sachet.

So-called active yeast, by contrast, needs to be brought back to life before being put to use. To do that, take about half a cup of tepid water, that is, water that's a little warmer than room temperature. If it's too cold, it won't work; if it's too hot, you risk killing the yeast.

Add about half a teaspoon of sugar. This is necessary to "feed" the yeast. Many recipes will tell you to use much more sugar, but this is not necessary. You could also use honey, but, again, you only need a little.

Then sprinkle about a teaspoon of the active yeast onto the water. Don't stir it. Just leave it to stand for ten to 15 minutes. During that time, you should see tiny bubbles appearing on the surface. The yeast is ready to use when the liquid has a good covering of froth.

You don't need a lot of yeast. One teaspoon of dried yeast is usually enough for a large loaf. If the recipe calls for fresh yeast, you can substitute half the quantity of dried yeast. And don't make the mistake of thinking that more yeast will make the dough rise faster. It will only spoil the texture and make the bread taste, well, yeasty.

Practice and experience

Making your own bread can be very satisfying, but it does take practice and experience. I hope that the advice I've given in this article will help you avoid one of the most common causes of bread-making disasters.

October 2011

Please note: Neither Veg World nor its contributors are qualified to give medical or nutritional advice. If in doubt, always consult a suitably-qualified professional.

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