Any baker knows that making bread can be tricky business. It requires a little extra time, a little elbow grease (all that kneading!) and some extra know-how, especially when it comes to yeast. Yeast is responsible for that lovely rise in a loaf of homemade bread (plus some of that delicious flavor). But when working with yeast, a lot can go wrong—luckily we have tips to help you when you’re bread’s not rising. But sometimes the biggest challenge in making bread is knowing exactly what kind of yeast to choose in the first place: active dry, instant, rapid-rise?
Don’t worry—I’ll get you through this dough dilemma. So let’s dive in and see what makes each of these yeasts different and why those differences can matter when you’re mixing up homemade bread, rolls and more.
Active Dry Yeast
When it comes to baking bread at home, most recipes call for active dry yeast. This type of yeast comes out of the package looking like small, tan granules roughly the size of poppy seeds. In this state, the yeast has a long shelf life so long as it’s kept in a cool, dry place.
In this dormant state, active dry yeast requires warm water to activate the little organisms that give your bread its lift. After the yeast starts to come alive and bubble up (you can learn more about that process here), the mixture is added to the rest of your bread recipe.
Instant yeast is also a popular option for everyday bread baking. Also known as rapid-rise, quick-rise or even bread machine yeast, instant yeast is sold in small packets and is appropriate for everyday bread baking (you can easily substitute instant for active dry yeast in most recipes). The major difference between instant yeast and its active dry cousin is that instant yeast does not need to be proofed in water. The granules (smaller than active dry yeast) can be incorporated right along with your dry ingredients. like with this babka recipe.
Rapid-rise yeasts also cut your prep time down. Most breads that call for instant yeasts only require one round of proofing instead of the standard two (but check your recipe to be sure).
Less common is fresh yeast. You can find this option in some grocer’s dairy sections, though it is sometimes difficult to come by. Sold in small cakes or bars, fresh yeast has the texture of a crumbly eraser. It also has a much shorter shelf life than its packet-ready cousins (though they are actually the same organism). Since the product is so perishable, it must be refrigerated and used within two weeks.
To use fresh yeast, it must be crumbled into small pieces and proofed (just like active dry yeast).
If you plan on baking an exceptionally sweet dough (think cinnamon rolls, danishes or brioche), you should consider using an osmotolerant yeast. Sugary doughs often take a long time to rise—or just plain don’t rise much at all—so sometimes a special form of yeast is necessary to get light and airy breads.
This specialty yeast isn’t always readily available at your local grocer, and when it is, it’s likely not labeled as osmotolerant (what a mouthful!). Instead, look for SAF Gold Instant Yeast when you’re shopping in-store or online. Also worth noting: this yeast is more expensive than your standard packets. If you’re not interested in the investment of a large container like the one here, you can always use more common instant or active dry yeasts—just increase the amount by about 30%.
When shopping, you may also come across nutritional yeast. This type of yeast is not for baking. Nutritional yeast is deactivated yeast that’s commonly used as a health supplement (it’s high in B vitamins). Occasionally this yeast product is also used to season foods with its nutty flavor.
Just like you can’t use nutritional yeast in baking, you cannot use baking yeast as a nutritional supplement (ingesting that much active yeast can be dangerous).
Now that you know one yeast from the next, you’re ready to tick off a few items from your baking bucket list.