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If you've ever worked with yeast, you know it's a magical ingredient. You add this leavener to a recipe and *poof* your dough rises to great heights. It is the secret to Ree Drummond's famous cinnamon rolls, savory focaccia, and practically every type of bread. And while yeast comes in many different forms from natural sourdough starters to fresh yeast, the most common options are active dry yeast and instant yeast.
Are there differences between active dry yeast versus instant yeast? They are both dehydrated dry granules often sold in jar or packets, so they look the same. However, they are used differently in baking recipes. Additionally, there are manufacturers who adjust their products to work faster and label them with different names. Confused? Don't worry, we're here to break down all the details, so you know exactly what you're dealing with and you can (ahem) rise to the occasion.
First things first, read the recipe carefully. It should indicate exactly what to use: active dry yeast, instant yeast, or fast-acting instant yeast. Now, read on understand the differences.
What is active dry yeast?
Active dry yeast is a dehydrated and dormant form of yeast. Contrary to the name, it needs to be hydrated in warm water to actually become active. That is why in the directions you will often be instructed to mix it with warm water or milk, sometimes with a little sugar to help "feed" it, and let it sit for a few minutes. When it gets foamy, it's ready to use!
The problem with active dry yeast is that it is temperamental and not super shelf stable. If your liquid is too cold (under 90 degrees), it may not work. If it's too hot (over 120 degrees), you may kill it. It also may be dead already or expired regardless. If it doesn't foam up, chances are that it won't make your dough rise, so toss it and get yourself some new yeast.
What is instant yeast?
Instant yeast, or instant dry yeast, is manufactured so it's ready to use right out of the package. Think: it's ready to use instantly, hence the name. The good news is that you don't have to hydrate it first and you can add it right into the dough.
And since instant yeast is more stable than active dry yeast, simply checking the expiration date will more times than not be the best indicator of success.
This is where it gets a little tricky. Most grocery store brands sell "fast-acting" instant yeasts with such names as "Rapid Rise" and "Quick Rise." Think of these as a subcategory of instant yeasts, not just interchangeable brand names. They are designed to work significantly faster. When reading a recipe, it's very important to note whether it specifically calls out a fast-acting yeast because your proofing times will differ dramatically.
Can I substitute instant yeast for active dry yeast?
Yes, in many cases, you can substitute instant yeast for active dry yeast. But—and this is a big "but"—you will need to adjust your recipe accordingly. If you're not a seasoned baker, this can seem intimidating, which is why it's probably best if you use the yeast that the recipe suggests. However, there are some easy guidelines to follow if you're in a pinch. First, you can add the instant yeast to dry ingredients like the type of flour instead of hydrating it in liquid. The liquid can be added wherever in the recipe it states to do so without the yeast included.
Second, if you're using fast-acting yeast, the time it takes to proof will be significantly shorter than the original directions. Rather than follow the time suggestion such as 90 minutes to two hours to rise, use the standard visual cues like "doubled in bulk" to know when to move to the next step. Note: this swap may not be successful for specialty doughs that require cold, refrigerated proofing or very long, slow ferments. But if you have a standard recipe where it advises that the first proof takes between one to two hours, the above guidelines should work.
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