Tutorial: Working With Yeast

While I am not an expert at yeast by any means, I do make my fair share of yeast breads and rolls – at least several times a week. I’ve received a lot of questions lately about yeast and so I want to share with you my method of doing things. It is a wonderful feeling to whip up a batch of rolls for dinner and know that you’ve done it for at least 1/10th of the cost than at the store (and done it with fantastically delicious results!).

Here we go.

First a quick note about the difference between active dry yeast and instant yeast. These are the two main forms of yeast called for in all of my bread/roll recipes.

Active dry yeast is a dormant form of yeast and needs to be rehydrated or proofed prior to using it in a recipe. This means that the yeast needs to be dissolved in warm water (a bit of sugar helps the yeast to activate more quickly since sugar acts as a food for the yeast) and left for a few minutes to activate before using in the recipe.

Instant yeast is different than active dry yeast in that it does not need to be rehydrated or proofed prior to using in a recipe. The granules of instant yeast are smaller than active dry yeast and you can add the yeast directly in with all the other dough ingredients without letting it activate in warm water first.

Here is a visual of what yeast should look like before and after proofing.

This yeast has just been added to the water and you can still see some of the granules sitting at the top.

After about 10 minutes, the yeast/water/sugar mixture now looks like this. See how the yeast has bubbled and foamed? This is the main indicator that the yeast has properly proofed and will work in the yeast dough you are making.

Some of the yeast bread and roll recipes I have on my site call for active dry yeast, others call for instant yeast. I used to only ever buy active dry yeast but about two years ago I converted over to solely using instant yeast. For me, it is a little more foolproof because I don’t have to worry about making sure it proofs first. I use it interchangeably in recipes that call for active dry yeast. Use whatever is your preference as long as you know whether or not it needs to proof before using it.

I buy my yeast in bulk (usually at Sam’s Club or I stock up if I find it at a grocery store on sale) and when I get it home, I open a package and pour the yeast into a quart-sized jar and store it covered in the freezer. The unopened packages can be stored in a cool, dry place up until the expiration date. I pull my yeast directly out of the freezer and use it in my recipes – no need to let it come to room temperature.

When making a yeast dough, the key is probably an obvious one – the softer the dough, the more tender the resulting baked bread. This doesn’t mean your dough should be the consistency of banana bread batter. After all, flour is an important part of a yeasted dough. Instead, the dough should have a slight tackiness to it but still be pliable and smooth.

Let me show you some pictures of the process. First, I should say that my main tool in making breads and rolls is my trusty Bosch mixer. I can honestly admit I wouldn’t make yeasted goods nearly as often if I didn’t have it, BUT, I used to do it by hand all the time and I know it can be done. I just wanted to warn you that in the following pictures, you will see my beloved Bosch in action. Electric mixers are a wonderful thing, but they haven’t been around forever and I know many of you make your dough by hand.

Let’s proceed.

Here is my dough RIGHT at the point after I have added all of the flour that I think I need to make a soft dough. Do you see how it still looks slightly shaggy and sticky?

I only use the flour called for in a recipe as a guideline since so much depends on humidity, how you measure flour, etc. – so I judge my dough based on the feel and look more than on how much flour I’ve actually added. I add as much flour as I need to let the dough start pulling away from the sides of the bowl and I let it knead for a few minutes to judge whether or not I need to add more flour (I’ll also stop the mixer and pull a piece off with my fingers to judge the feel – pictures to show this are below.)

If you are making the dough by hand, add enough flour so that your dough forms a ball, even though it may be stickier than the finished product, since kneading helps to smooth things out. Also, during the kneading process the flour absorbs more of the liquid and the dough can become less sticky through kneading, which is why it is important not to overflour the dough at the beginning. You can always add more flour as you go! My dough always sticks a bit to my fingers, even once all the flour has been added.

The dough continues to knead and you can see how it is starting to look a little less shaggy. This dough has been kneading for 2-3 minutes (the equivalent of about 5-7 minutes by hand).

Finally, the dough has kneaded for about 8 minutes in the electric mixer and is smooth and ready for the first rise. Remember that it is nearly impossible to ruin a dough by over-kneading but if it hasn’t been kneaded long enough, the gluten in the dough may not develop fully and the bread may not rise and bake properly.

You’ll notice from the picture above that even though my dough has the proper amount of flour and has kneaded long enough, it is still slightly sticky – you can see it pulling on the dough hook. That is ok! I promise. The dough should still be soft and slightly tacky.

Here, I’ve pinched off a piece of the dough (this is about midway through kneading). The dough is sticking to my fingers…

But after quickly rolling it into a ball in the palm of my hand, it looks like this:

It may seem like in the first picture that the dough is way too sticky and needs more flour since it is leaving a residue on my fingers, but really, it is perfectly floured, as evidenced by the dough ball holding its shape in my hand.

After the dough has finished kneading, I scoop it into a large, greased bowl.

I cover it with greased plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm place until doubled. I never heed times on a recipe – like when a recipe says, “let dough rise for 45 minutes or until doubled.” I always judge the dough based on size not time, since every kitchen can be a different temperature.

Which brings me to another point, a warm rising spot is important. The ideal temperature for dough to rise properly is about 70 degrees or warmer. If my kitchen is a few degrees cooler than this (based on the thermostat in my house), I don’t fret too much and just assume it may take longer for the dough to rise. However, if my house is unusually cool – 66 degrees or lower, I will usually turn on my oven to about 350 degrees and let the dough rise on top of the warmed oven (I have a ceramic top stove that warms up when the oven is on).

Here is my dough at the beginning of the first rise.

After about 30 minutes, (thanks to a fast rising roll recipe due to the amount of yeast), it has definitely doubled and is ready to be shaped into rolls (or bread if that is the type of recipe you are using).

And there you have it…that is a pretty basic overview of a yeasted dough in it’s first phase. Next week, I’ll be sharing with you a tutorial on shaping this big lump of dough into rolls, including my nifty technique to get a perfectly round dinner roll.

Please let me know if you have any questions about the above tutorial. Leave your question in the comments or email me at mykitchencafe at gmail dot com.

Now go make some bread!