Yeast Basics for Beginning Bread Bakers

One of my favorite things to do in the kitchen is to make bread. There’s something just so satisfying about taking flour, water, salt and yeast and making the most scrumptious artisan bread, or achieving the perfect, tacky-but-not-sticky texture for apple fritter dough.

…or challah

In my home bakery, I’m most at peace than when my apron’s covered in flour and I’m kneading bread by hand. Something about the repetitiveness of the motion, the fresh, yeasty smell, the smooth firmness of a shaped boule before its final rise…just gets to me. I swear that time slows down when I’m working with bread.

It was not always that way though. When I purchased my first (several) tiny packets of active dry yeast at the grocery store, I promptly ruined whatever I made with them. Promptly.

For those of you who confided your fear of yeast to me over the years, this post is for YOU. Today, we conquer your fear of this wonderfully simply yet perfectly complex ingredient.

Let’s go.

In this post:

What is Yeast?

Like its cousins baking powder and baking soda, yeast is a leavening agent for baked goods. Unlike its chemical cousins, though, yeast is a living microorganism that needs warm liquid (but not too warm) and food (sugar) in order to activate.

Once the yeast hits the warm water and sugar, it wakes up and begins to transform. This is what recipes refer to as the proofing or proving stage, and it looks like this:

This process takes place over aout 8-10 minutes.

In this time lapse video, the warm liquid gently wakes up the yeast, and the sugar encourages the yeast to transform into its final phase.

As the yeast proofs, it creates byproducts of carbon dioxide and alcohol. Those byproducts cause the yeast to expand and create beautiful bubbles on top of the liquid.

Once this yeast mixture (also known as activated yeast) is added to wheat flour, it expands the dough. For more about gluten networks, take a quick look at this section of my post about flour.

The holes….??

As a quick refresher, though, when flour and water mix, they create a honeycomb-like structure called the gluten network. The gluten network is like a bunch of flat, interconnected honeycombs that need gas to expand, or create “rise”, in your baked goods. The carbon dioxide byproduct from yeast is that gas!

It looks like this!

Different Types of Yeast

There are three types of yeast most commonly used in baking: fresh yeast (cake yeast), active dry yeast, and instant yeast. There is also brewer’s yeast, but that’s…not for bread.

As the name implies, brewer’s yeast is for beer and wine.

Fresh Yeast (Cake Yeast)

Baking yeast in its purest form is fresh yeast. Also known as cake yeast, this is a highly perishable form of yeast that’s mostly used by advanced and commercial bakers. Fresh yeast can be difficult to find in regular grocery stores.

A block of fresh yeast.

Fresh yeast is sold in solid blocks. It should break cleanly, and then crumble into small pieces when broken from the block.

Some professionals prefer fresh yeast because many professionals generally prefer to use the most unadulterated products available; some also claim that fresh yeast gives bread more of that trademark, yeasty aroma. There are also additives in dry yeast products that sometimes make them undesirable to some professionals. But those additives make baking yeast more shelf stable and less perishable, so it’s really a value judgement for the individual baker.

Fresh yeast should have a neutral tan color, a crumbly texture and should break cleanly when you use it. If it stinks or is brown, it’s past its prime. This is not an ingredient to play with. If it’s clearly gone off, throw it out.

Fresh yeast can last about two weeks in your refrigerator, but it can go bad before that. Best to check it every time you bake so that you know if it’s viable or not.

If you’re substituting fresh yeast in a recipe that calls for dry yeast, use double the amount of fresh yeast.

Active Dry Yeast

If you’ve purchased “yeast” at your local market, you’ve probably purchased three tiny packets of active dry yeast for an exorbitant amount of money.

Seriously. It’s criminal how much they charge for those three little packets of yeast. But I digress.

Active dry yeast is still live yeast! It’s been dehydrated from its fresh state, which gives it a texture that’s more like dried grits.

Great. Now I want grits. Without sugar please.

Active dry yeast has to be proofed before using, and any bread made with active dry yeast needs a longer rise time than bread made with instant yeast. Some say that the longer rise time helps flavor develop in your bread more, but that’s honestly a matter of personal preference.

Instant Yeast

Like active dry yeast, instant yeast is still live yeast that’s been dehydrated from its fresh state. The texture of instant yeast is even finer than active dry yeast, though, which means that you *can* add it directly to your dough without proofing.

I NEVER EVER do this. Instant yeast can be dead too. Plus, the proofing process is so short that it honestly doesn’t make sense to me to skip this step. Why not figure out if your yeast is alive?

I actually use SAF instant yeast more often than any other type of yeast. And the only time that I don’t proof yeast to put into a recipe is when I’m making this five minute artisan bread. To be completely transparent, though, I do separately proof just a *tiny bit* of yeast (1/2 tsp of yeast in 1/2 cup/125g of 110°F/43°C water) for 5-10 minutes before making five-minute artisan bread. I just don’t add that proofed yeast to my dough.

My personal favorite.

Making bread dough that actually rises will make you a much more confident kitchen boss. Proofing yeast before you start is one small tip that will increase your confidence exponentially when you’re making bread. As you practice with yeast more and more, you’ll develop your favorite type and brand of yeast too!

How to Proof Yeast

There are two main reasons for proofing/proving yeast before you begin baking. First, this is the best way to figure out early in your baking session whether your yeast is alive or dead. Second, for fresh and active dry yeast, the yeast cannot begin to do its leavening job until it’s been awakened from its dormant state.

This step is actually quite easy. To proof, you just need warm liquid (usually water or milk) and a touch of sugar.

I begin by warming the liquid to somewhere between 110°F/43°C and 115°F/46°C in a container that’s twice the size of what I need. Because yeast expands, and we want to catch all of it in our recipe. Not clean it off our countertops.

I add all of the yeast into the warm liquid, along with anywhere from 1/4 tsp to 1 tsp of natural sugar (depending on the amount of yeast in the recipe). The yeast doesn’t need a lot of sugar to activate, and too much sugar will actually kill the yeast, so it’s important not to go crazy with the sugar at this step.

Once the yeast and sugar are in the liquid, I give them a vigorous whisk in the container to combine, making sure to capture the yeast that always creeps up the side of the bowl. Crusty yeast on the side of the container would be useless in your recipe, so I recommend incorporating ALL of the good stuff in the liquid so that you can get the biggest bang for your buck from this ingredient!

Next, wait 5-10 minutes for the magical transformation. When ready, live yeast should be a bubbly, foamy dome in your container. If this doesn’t happen right at the five minute mark, it’s okay. Sometimes, especially with milk, it takes a few more minutes to really get going.

The bubbles are carbon dioxide and alcohol.

If your yeast hasn’t done anything at the 7-8 minute mark, it’s safe to say that it’s not going to do anything. Better to start over at this point than to add this batch to your dough.

When Your Yeast Doesn’t Bubble, or When Your Yeast Overproofs

If your yeast doesn’t bubble during proofing, it doesn’t always mean that started with dead yeast! Other things can kill your yeast as well. These things include water that’s too hot (above 115°F/46°C is pressing your luck, but above 130° and you can pretty much expect to kill it), adding too much sugar to the yeast, or adding salt directly to the yeast.

If there’s even a faint possibility that one of those things happened, I’d recommend trying again with the same yeast and seeing if you get a different result.

I KNOW that this is the very definition of insanity, Family. But I hate food waste so I still recommending double checking to make sure that the yeast is actually dead before throwing it out. You might surprise yourself!

The flip side of yeast that doesn’t proof is yeast that overproofs. Overproofed yeast is yeast that sits too long and then loses its leavening power. You’ll know that your yeast is overproofed yeast if the yeast foams into a perfect dome, then deflates and goes flat. With overproofed yeast, you’ll need to start again.

Storing Yeast

All yeast is eventually perishable. Fresh yeast, like the name implies, is the most perishable of the bunch. It can safely be stored in a refrigerator for about two weeks at a temperature south of 45°F/7°C. It’s prohibitively expensive for the occasional baker, so some people like to freeze it.

To freeze fresh yeast, separate it into individual serving sizes (because you can only thaw each piece once!), wrap it in one layer of freezer paper, one layer of foil, and another layer of freezer paper. Place it in a freezer bag and remove all of the air from the freezer bag. Put the freezer-ready yeast in a part of your freezer that’s not constantly being disturbed (so, away from the frozen waffles that you’re using every morning).

To use, figure out how much of your yeast you need for a recipe, then thaw exactly that amount in your refrigerator overnight. This ingredient is extremely fickle, so thawing it too quickly on the countertop could lead it to spoil and ruin all of your hard work.

Don’t forget to proof your fresh yeast before using!

Both active dry and instant yeast can be stored in either the refrigerator or freezer. With refrigerating and freezing, unless you’re working with single-serve packets, I recommend putting your yeast in an airtight container. I use this container to store my yeast in a freezer, since I buy it in large quantities and I don’t want it to go bad.

For me, freezing instant yeast has been the best solution. Dry yeast can be stored for a very long time in a freezer without losing potency, and you don’t have to stress yourself out going to the store for one ingredient if you wake up with a sudden desire to make bread.

I don’t thaw instant yeast once I take it out of the freezer. Unless, by “thawing”, you mean that I scoop the yeast that I need directly from the airtight container to its warm spa bath with its sugar snack.


Yeast has a truly bum rap as a difficult ingredient, but that isn’tthe case! With these few tips, you can work confidently, competently, and consistenly with yeast from here on out.

Feeling better about bread? Don’t forget to tag @beginwithbutter on Instagram and show me your amazing creations!

Until next time!

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