Working with Yeast: Be Not Afraid!

When I talk to people about baking bread, one of the first things I usually hear is "Oh, but I'm afraid of yeast." So if you feel this way, you are definitely not alone! I'm not going to try and convince you that there's nothing to be afraid of or that the satisfaction of a perfect loaf of bread is worth all the failed loaves that came before, but I will make a confession: I, too, once feared yeast...

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When I first started baking after college, loaf after loaf came out as hard as a brick. I couldn't figure it out. I thought I wasn't activating the yeast properly, so I kept dissolving it in hotter and then boiling water with more and more sugar. I finally called my dad (a life-long baker) and told him the whole story. He broke it to me gently: "Emma, you're killing that yeast. Don't use boiling water."

Oh.

And the rest, as they say, was history.

The thing is that yeast is a living organism. This is maybe part of what scares people so much! With baking soda, you just add liquid and the bread rises like magic. With yeast, you have to be a little more sensitive to the needs of those little cells quietly working away in your bread dough.

When you're baking, you have to start thinking about the temperature in the kitchen, how humid it is, how other ingredients in the dough are affecting the yeast, and so on. And then you have to adjust your method or your ingredients to compensate. This can feel a little odd and unintuitive at first, but the more you bake, the more it becomes second nature.

Here are some tips and tricks that I've picked up over the years:

Store dry yeast in the freezer. Yeast will last almost indefinitely when frozen.

You do not need hot water to activate the yeast. A small amount of room-temperature or slightly warm water works best. Let it sit for a minute or two and then stir it with a spoon or a fork until the yeast is completely dissolved. It should be smooth and silky.

You do not need sugar to activate the yeast. This is a half-true old wives tale leftover from when yeast wasn't preserved as well as it is now. A pinch of sugar will make yeast bubble up, thus proving that the yeast is still active and hasn't expired. However, it doesn't actually help (or hinder) the rising of the bread.

Yeast will feed on the sugar and starches in your dough and expire CO2, which is what causes the dough to rise.

Yeast feeds and reproduces best between 70° and 80°. If your house is too cold, turn on the stove for just two minutes and then let your dough rise in there. (Don't forget to turn the stove off!) If your house is too warm, find a cooler place for it to rise. Sometimes this is also the turned-off oven (though don't pre-heat it this time).

Yeast goes dormant below 50°.

One tablespoon of yeast will leaven 3-6 cups of flour.

Fat, eggs, dairy, salt, and cold conditions slow down yeast activity. Lean doughs made of mostly flour and water will rise faster than rich doughs that are made with more fat, eggs, or dairy. Rich doughs like cinnamon rolls, monkey bread, and brioche may not rise as much or may simply take longer to rise than other doughs.

If you're eager but nervous to start baking, the best advice that I can give you is to buddy up with someone who's already been baking for a while. It makes such a difference to have someone there watching you, talking you through each step, and showing you how it's done.

If you have any questions, ask away. For as many novice bakers we have here on the site, there are an equal number of experienced bakers! One of us should be able to help!

Related: Weekend Cooking: Bake Bread

(Images: Emma Christensen for the Kitchn)