The Ultimate Guide to Baking with Yeast

Essential tips and tricks for baking with yeast. Learn about the common types available at the market and how to substitute these ingredients accordingly. Prepare to have your baking knowledge rise to new heights!

Baking with yeast to create breads and rolls

The smell of freshly baked bread is one of life’s many gifts. From crusty baguettes, foldable slices of pizza, to fluffy cinnamon rolls, –yeast is the magical ingredient responsible for so much goodness. Because of that, I think it’s worth taking some time to cover the art and science of yeast-leavened dough.

What is yeast?

Yeast are living organisms, just like us. They’re used in baking recipes to create flavors and texture. The most common strain is called Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and this baker’s yeast can vary slightly by brand and product. Nowadays, yeast technologies offer a handful of convenient dried options that are used to develop baked goods faster.

How does yeast work in bread?

Yeast love carbohydrates like sugar and starches, and there’s an abundance of this in dough. During the fermentation process, where you leave the dough alone to let it rise, two things are happening. The yeast organisms eat the sugar and starches and this produces carbon dioxide gas and alcohol. The gluten formation in the flour traps the bubbles which add lift and texture in the bread. Without yeast, loaves and rolls would be hard and dense.

The importance of temperature

If you learn just one thing, let it be this: hot water kills yeast! Remember yeast are alive but exposed to temperatures at 138ºF (59ºC) and above they will die. If this happens, they will no longer ferment. There are different ranges of liquid temperatures to use when adding to the dough, so make sure to check the manufacturer’s guidelines. Yeast is the most active in fermentation between 75 to 95ºF (24 to 35ºC).

Common types of yeast in baking

  • Compressed fresh yeast
  • Active dry yeast
  • Instant yeast
    • Fast-Rising or Fast-Acting
    • Rapid-Rise
    • Bread Machine

Compressed fresh yeast (fresh cake yeast)

Compressed fresh yeast

This perishable fresh yeast is sold as solid cubes or blocks in the refrigerator section of some specialty markets. It combines living cells, starch, and about 70% moisture. No proofing is required, just crumble and add it to the dry ingredients or soften it in warm water before using. You must store it in the refrigerator and use it within a few weeks.

Compressed Fresh Yeast
Use Liquid Temperature Of 95 to 100ºF (35 to 38ºC)
1st Fermentation (after kneading) 1 to 1 ½ hour+
2nd Fermentation (after shaping) About 1 hour
Good For Lean, rich, or sweetened doughs.
Longer duration, slow-rising time bread like no-knead or artisan loaves. Recipes that require sponges.
Not Good For Not recommended for bread machines.

 

Active dry yeast

Active dry yeast

Shelf-stable dried and dormant yeast granules are typically sold in 2 teaspoon-sized (¼ ounce) packets or jars that can last for 1 to 2 years. The high-temperature drying process reduces the number of living cells on the exteriors. The yeast must be proofed in warm water with sugar to remove the nonliving cells and activate the living ones.

Active Dry Yeast
Use Liquid Temperatures Of 100 to 110ºF (38 to 43ºC)
1st Fermentation (after kneading) 1 to 2 hours+
2nd Fermentation (after shaping) 30 minutes to 2 hours
Good For Lean, rich, or sweetened doughs.
No-knead bread, pizza, sandwich bread, bagels, rolls, laminated doughs, sweetbreads, overnight doughs, and artisan bread.
Not Good For In a bread machine when the cycle is 1 hour or express.

 

Instant yeast (Fast-rising or Fast-acting)

Instant yeast

Sold in packets, small bags, and glass jars, you can add it directly to flour as it doesn’t require proofing. It’s dried similar to active dry yeast, but it dissolves faster and has a much gentler processing that keeps all of the organisms alive. It requires two rise steps but compared to active dry yeast, it’s quicker, as the fermentation time is about half.

Instant Yeast (Fast-Rising or Fast-Acting)
Use Liquid Temperatures Of 120 to 130ºF (49 to 54ºC)
1st Fermentation (after kneading) 30 to 1 hour+
2nd Fermentation (after shaping) 15 minutes to 1 hour+
Good For Quick rolls, cinnamon rolls, flatbreads, sandwich bread, donuts, rolls, anything with a shorter rise time.
Not Good For Not optimal to use in lower-moisture formulas like bagels or croissant dough.

 

Instant yeast (Rapid-Rise)

The fastest option for baker’s that are short on time. The dried granules are smaller than instant yeast and some products even contain enzymes to accelerate leavening and ascorbic acid for increased volume and structure. Sold by the packet or bottle, just add directly to the dry ingredients and hydrate with warm water. The flavor of the end products is usually not as developed due to the short fermentation.

Instant Yeast (Rapid-Rise)
Use Liquid Temperatures Of 120 to 130ºF (49 to 54ºC)
1st Fermentation (after kneading) 10 minutes
2nd Fermentation (after shaping) 30 minutes to 60 minutes
Good For Quick rolls, cinnamon rolls, flatbreads, Hawaiian rolls, brioche bread, bread machine recipes.
Not Good For Products that require a long slow rise, like no-knead or frozen doughs.

 

Instant yeast (Bread Machine)

Used specifically for bread machine baking and requires less yeast, due to the higher rise. For regular cycle machine us 1/2 teaspoon yeast per cup of flour. For one-hour or express machines the amount may be 2-3X more. Active dry yeast can be substituted for regular cycle only at 3/4 teaspoon per cup of flour. Some brands can use instant and bread machine yeast interchangeably in recipes.

Instant Yeast (Bread Machine)
Use Liquid Temperatures Of Instant yeast (Bread Machine)
1st Fermentation (after kneading) Varies
2nd Fermentation (after shaping) Varies
Good For Sandwich bread, loaves, rolls, buns, sweet rolls, doughnuts.

 

How much yeast to use

For a maximum of 4 cups of flour, use about 2 ¼ teaspoons (7 grams, ¼ ounce) of active dry/instant yeast OR use about 0.6 ounces of fresh yeast.

Main differences between active dry and instant yeast

  • Active dry yeast has a longer and more moderate rate of rising.
  • Active dry yeast is dissolved in warm water and sugar before adding it to dry ingredients.
  • Instant yeast can be added directly to dry ingredients.
  • Instant yeast may have a more yeasty off-flavor due to its faster initial fermentation activity.

Formulas for substituting yeast products

RECIPE CALLS FOR SUBSTITUTE WITH MULTIPLY QUANTITY BY
Compressed Fresh Yeast Active Dry Yeast 0.5
Compressed Fresh Yeast Instant Yeast 0.33
Active Dry Yeast Compressed Fresh Yeast 2
Active Dry Yeast Instant Yeast 1
Instant Yeast Compressed Fresh Yeast 3
Instant Yeast Active Dry Yeast 1

 

Yeast dissolving in warm water and sugar mixture

Wake them up!

Some recipes call for a quick test to “prove” its viability, a gentle nudge to get the organisms to work. It’s most often used for active dry yeast. This usually involves mixing ¼ cups of warm water, about 100 to 110ºF (38 to 43ºC), with the yeast and a small amount of sugar (usually 1 teaspoon). After about 5 to 10 minutes you should see bubbles formed in the bowl. This means the yeast is alive and okay to use.

The role of kneading the dough

Kneading helps to evenly distribute the ingredients while developing the gluten network to trap the gases created from the yeast. This process makes the dough rise and adds a little or a lot of chew to the bread texture. Whether using your hands or a stand mixer, gentle and rhythmic motions help to stretch the dough. A dough hook is a recommended mixer attachment for longer knead times.

Do a test for proper kneading

The dough can get over kneaded, becoming too tough to stretch with your fingers and will not rise. It should be smooth, elastic, and have small visible bubbles beneath the surface. To check, pinch off a small piece and stretch it, this gluten window should not tear easily and be translucent in appearance.

How does no-knead bread work?

No-knead bread recipes work because the dough sits for at least 6 hours, to overnight on the counter. During this time the carbon dioxide bubbles formed during fermentation moves the dough particles around. This tiny kneading action over several hours effectively develops gluten to give a wonderful structure and crust.

Best conditions for fermenting the dough

Yeast begins fermenting between 60 to 70ºF (16 to 21ºC) which is perfect for extended countertop rises. Baguettes, no-knead doughs, and artisan loaves benefit from longer gentle fermentation for more flavor development.

To accelerate the process without killing the yeast or over-producing gas, a range of 75 to 95ºF (24 to 35ºC) is the best temperature for activity. I find that using a homemade oven proofing box creates the ideal warm humid conditions. It also reduces the rise time to about an hour or less per fermentation step.

Bowl with dough that has doubled in size from fermentation

A quick test for “doubling in size”

An easy way to see if the rising step is complete is to use two fingers to lightly and swiftly press about ½-inch into the dough. If the impression stays indented, the dough is ready.

What happens if the dough rises for too long?

It’s important to keep a close eye on each rising step. Too long of fermentation and you start to smell a yeasty or alcohol aroma due to overproduction of the waste products from the yeast. This may infuse into the final taste, and also make it difficult for the gluten network to stretch any further, causing a deflated bread.

Punch it!

After the first rise, there are plenty of gas bubbles formed by the yeast that have visibly expanded the dough. A gentle punch down pushes out some of those air pockets. The yeast, organic acids, sugars, and water gets better distributed for the second and final round of fermentation. Don’t worry, finer-sized bubbles will be formed again. The other benefit is the gluten gets to relax a little so it’s easier to shape.

Refrigerating doughs

Yeast are inactive at 34ºF (2ºC), therefore chilling dough for several hours will halt the rising process. This is typically best for sweeter or rich doughs with perishable ingredients like eggs and milk that shouldn’t be left out all day on the counter. Lean crusty bread benefits from sitting several days to chill for extended flavor development. Let the dough sit at room temperature briefly before shaping and during the second rise before baking.

What ingredients control yeast fermentation?

Sugar and salt adds flavor while helping to control and reduce yeast activity. They have the osmotic ability to attract water and remove some from living cells. This can make it tougher for the yeast to ferment and function as quickly which moderates the rise in the dough. It’s best not to have direct contact, instead, dilute sugars in water or add salt with the dried ingredients or later on during mixing.

Storing yeast

  • Fresh yeast: Always store in the refrigerator, in an airtight container if opened. Do not use if it’s overly hardened or past the expiration date.
  • Dry yeast: Store unopened bottles or packets in a dark, cool, dry area or in the freezer to prolong shelf life. Allow any refrigerated or frozen dried yeast to come to room temperature before using to increase its activity,

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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5 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Donna says

    Thanks for this article about yeast. It will come in handy for when I’m actually able to buy some! 😄

  2. Ron says

    Having very little yeast available in store right now. I there a way to drag out the one packet of yeast over several breads? Do something like a mother dough, but not be sourdough?

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Ron- I’ve used as little as 1/2 teaspoon of dried yeast in 3 cups of flour, and just gave it more time to ferment and rise, usually 8 to 24 hours instead of just a few hours. You could probably use less, depending on the amount of flour in the formula.

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