Thursday, May 6, 2010

On The List: Yeast

My neighbor called to tell me she had a yeast problem, and I'm all 'I like you and everything but shouldn't you talk to your doctor?' Turns out the problem was above the waistline, in the kitchen.

If bread is life, yeast is life force.  It causes dough to rise and literally breathe, and yields delicious results. Cinnamon buns. Challah. Coffee cake. Parker House rolls.  Bread sticks.  Donuts. Are you drooling yet? But yeast can also be a bit daunting for the uninitiated. This post will attempt to enlighten on how to buy, store, and bake with yeast.  Once you get the hang of it, it turns out to be a lot of fun to work with, and you'll be telling your friends who in turn will want to learn, and the whole yeast experience will become gloriously...infectious.  

Buying it
Unless otherwise specified, most recipes call for dry, active rise yeast, commonly found in the baking goods aisle of your local grocery. It is often packaged in small packets of three, although buying it in bulk is much cheaper and more cost effective.  Each packet is about 1/4 ounce in volume.  Active dry yeast must be proofed (see below), and then employs two dough rises.  

Before you grab that packet of yeast, double check to make sure it is not the Rapid Rise variety, which is only used for very specific (and often not very good) recipes.  It is a time saver, as you do not need to proof it and can add it directly to ingredients.  However, please note that this product has been genetically engineered to accomplish this feat.  Generally, I find it results in an overly dense crumb, invariably made soggy buy whatever is baked on top of it per said not very good recipe.  Rapid Rise yeast is also sold in small jars and labeled as "Bread Machine" yeast.  

Fresh yeast can be found in your dairy aisle, often near the eggs.  It is sold in little cubes, or cakes, and yields delicious results - by far the tastiest choice.  Fresh yeast and active dry yeast have similar usage and cooking cycles, and can be used interchangeably.  

1 packet of yeast = 1/4 oz = 2 1/4 tsp = 1 fresh yeast cake (.6 oz)

For those of you completely off the grid, you can make your own yeast by adding equal parts flour and water.  Cover, leave in a warm space for a few days, and you will come back to a smelly mess also known as wild yeast, or a starter. 

Storing it
Different storage and shelf lives apply:
Active dry:
  • Packets will have expirations printed on them, and are probably good for one year past this date.  Store at room temperature.  
  • If you buy it in bulk and then open the package, the clock starts ticking.  It will keep in the fridge for 6 months, and the freezer for 12 months.  In both cases, make sure it is tightly sealed.  If you leave it at room temperature, it will gradually decrease it's potency at a rate of about 10%/month.  
Fresh yeast cakes:
  • It should have an expiration date on it, usually for a few weeks after it was packed.  You can also store it in the freezer for 4 months (you will need to defrost it before using).
Using it
Let's assume you use Active Dry or Fresh Yeast - you need to test it before adding, also known as proofing.  Although I am sure you have taken my storage tips to heart, it is important to know that your yeast is active, and ready for use.  Otherwise you tend to wait around a lot and waste much eggs and flour.  

Proofing yeast is one of those things you need a visual on.  It really is not hard, but unless you know what it is supposed to look like, a written description will not suffice.  Many concise/lazy/patronizing authors will tell you to proof the yeast, end of story unless of course you have a friendly neighbor who can help you out.  Otherwise you feel pretty silly.  I know, because I remember learning myself; it took me 7 tries to get it right, and even then I was not sure it was correct, having no proper frame of reference.  And so gentle reader, allow me to show you the way home. 

First, check the directions for the yeast to water ratio.   Turn your kitchen tap on, and put it on the warmest setting.  Once it is heated, add required amount of water to a doubly sized measuring cup (ex: use a 2 cup tool if 1 cup of water is required).If you have a thermometer, shoot for 105 - 110 degrees Fahrenheit.  Add the dry yeast and one teaspoon of sugar.  Whisk (maybe for 5 - 10 seconds). Within a minute it should look like the picture on the left, just a little foam on top.  

After about 10 minutes, the foam should be doubled or greater, proof that it is ready to be used in a recipe.  It should look like the picture to the right.  You add the entire contents of your measuring cup, foam and all.  

What if it doesn't work?  It happens.  A number of things can adversely affect yeast rising.  Extremely humid conditions can throw it off.  The water may be the wrong temperature.  The yeast may have expired; it keeps active in Egyptian tombs for thousands of years, but not so shelf stable after a while.  

Finally, here are links to some of my favorite recipes that use yeast.  Enjoy, and comment below to tell me more about your own experiences working with it. 


  1. read it, and it helped me see that my yeast was not right but still having trouble with how to make it right -- pictures very helpful

  2. it worked, it worked ...I followed your instructions to the are awesome