Yeast 101: What Every Baker Needs to Know

by Sheela Prakash, EPICURIOUS


Why is baker’s yeast so scary? Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a living, breathing organism. Or the fact that if you don’t treat it right, it dies—and so does your bread. To complicate matters, there’s no such thing as a simple yeast purchase. You don’t buy yeast—you buy active dry yeast, instant yeast, rapid rise yeast or, if you’re a serious baker, fresh yeast.

So what’s the difference between these? We asked Susan Reid, Publications Manager at King Arthur Flour, and she hooked us up with Yeast 101—a crash course on everything you need to know to dissolve your fears and start baking.

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According to Reid, you should really only pay attention to two types of yeast:

Active Dry Yeast: A yeast common in supermarkets. It’s made by removing the water in live yeast and grinding it into fine granules. The biggest myth surrounding active dry yeast is that it needs to be “proofed” by dissolving it in warm water with a pinch of sugarif it foams and bubbles, it’s alive, active, and ready to be used. This is unnecessary, Reid says; active dry yeast is produced in a such a way that it can be added directly to the bread dough with the dry ingredients.

Instant Yeast: Sometimes called “bread machine yeast,” this type of yeast is ground into finer granules then active dry yeast, so it dissolves quickly in the dough. While you can proof instant yeast if you want to, it’s not necessary; just like active dry yeast, can be added in with the dry ingredients.

So then what’s the difference between active dry and instant yeast? “Instant is a slightly different strain, so it produces a bit of a different flavor,” Reid says. But “frankly, you can use them exactly the same way.” In other words, there’s no need to buy both—buy one and stick with it. Reid recommends SAF Red Instant Yeast, which is what they use in the King Arthur Flour test kitchens.

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What about the other varieties you may see at the supermarket?

Rapid Rise Yeast: Another variety of yeast often found on supermarket shelves. Many say that it’s exactly the same as instant yeast, but this isn’t true. Rather, it’s “a strain of instant yeast formulated to give you one strong rise,” says Reid. It’s intended for recipes that require only one, quick rise, like these Cinnamon Rolls with Cream Cheese Glaze. Otherwise, Reid discourages home bakers from using it, especially for long, slow rise recipes like no-knead bread and pizza doughs.

Fresh Yeast: Also called compressed or cake yeast, this yeast comes in a solid, clay-like block. It’s a little harder to track down—look for it in the refrigerated section of the supermarket. Reid calls fresh yeast a “special occasion yeast,” best used for occasions when you’ll be baking a lot, such as the holidays, as it “will only last maybe a week in your fridge. To use it in a recipe that calls for dry yeast, double the amount, crumble it and let it soften and dissolve in whatever liquid the recipe calls for (warm the liquid to just lukewarm) before adding it to your dry ingredients.

The takeaway? For everyday baking, go for either active dry or instant yeast. And store it in an airtight container in the coldest part of your freezer. “It will last up to a year there,” Reid says—which means it will be at least a year before you have to make a big yeast decision again.

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photo: Courtesy CNP Montrose