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Working with Yeast

Many amateur chefs are eager to take on the task of making dessert breads and other bread-like recipes that fall into the Quick Breads category, but when it comes to a recipe that contains yeast, many bakers shrink away from the task – afraid of being at the mercy of this living organism that can quickly turn a loaf of bread from a shining example of baking perfection to a total flop.

So what is it that scares so many bakers about working with yeast? Well, many cooking experts believe one of the factors that frightens amateur bakers is the fact that yeast is indeed a living organism and therefore unpredictable. As a matter of fact, yeast is all around us, not just in our baked goods. Spores of yeast are in our homes, on our plants, and just about everywhere we look. The other issue is that the yeast has so much control over the end result of our creation, and if we use it incorrectly, we’ll likely be running to the store to replace whatever it is we ruined. So, why bother?

Because homemade breads and other yeast-containing goodies are simply delicious! And learning to use yeast properly isn’t a big deal. Once bakers have a better understanding of yeast and what it does as well as the kinds of yeast available, the mystery usually disappears.

How Yeast Works

Simply put, yeast is the ingredient that makes the bread rise. Most people understand that. More specifically, however, yeast feeds on the starches in flour and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. (The alcohol will disappear throughout the baking process.) The carbon dioxide expands the gluten proteins in the flour, which cause the dough to expand and rise. The result is a soft, light bread that’s delicious!

Scientist Louis Pasteur first discovered how yeast works way back in 1859 and within a decade after his discovery, companies like Fleischmann’s were packaging yeast for bakers’ use. This marked the beginning of the era of modern baking.

Different Kinds of Yeast

Active Dry Yeast – This is the type of yeast most often used by home bakers and it is generally purchased in small, pre-measured packets of about ¼ oz. Before you use this type of yeast, you must “activate” it, hence, the name. To do so, follow the instructions on the package, which will instruct you to dissolve the yeast in warm water. The temperature of the water should be about 110 degrees. (Use a thermometer as the yeast will die if the temp is too high.) Beginners should add a pinch of sugar or flour to the mixture. This will cause it to foam and verify that the activation is taking place and that the yeast is alive.

Rapid Rise or “Instant” Yeast – This yeast works differently in that you can stir it directly into the dry ingredients contained in the bread. It will activate when liquid is added. Bakers on a busy schedule might opt for this variety but the other is more reliable. Experts note that instant yeast is also good for those who make artisan breads with cool water instead of warm since it doesn’t need the warm water to activate.

If you’d like to substitute one kind of yeast for the other, it’s necessary to remember that they are not used in equal quantities. A teaspoon of active dry yeast can be substituted for ¾ tsp. of instant yeast or a teaspoon of instant yeast can be replaced with 1¼ tsp. of active dry yeast.

Storing Yeast

Just like all living things, yeast doesn’t last forever, even in those little packets purchased at the supermarket. It is recommended that you store active dry or instant yeast in the refrigerator or freezer in an airtight container, where it will last for up to 6 months. Anything older than that should be discarded as, chances are, it won’t create a successful end result.