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1.2. Yeast in breads

Baker’s yeast comes in three varieties: instant, active dry, and fresh. All three types are the same strain: Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The instant and active dry versions have been dried so as to form a protective shell of dead yeast cells surrounding some still-living cells. Fresh yeast—also called cake yeast because it is sold in a compressed cake form—is essentially a block of the yeast without any protective shell, giving it a much shorter shelf life (well, fridge life): cake yeast is good for about two weeks in the fridge, whereas instant yeast is good for about a year and active dry yeast is good for about two years in the cupboard.

Instant and active dry yeast are essentially identical, with two differences. First, active dry yeast has a thicker protective shell around it. This gives it a longer shelf life, but it also means it must be soaked in water before use to soften up the protective shell. The second difference is that the quantity of active yeast cells in active dry yeast is lower than in instant yeast, because the thicker protective shell takes up more space: when a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon (2.9g) of active dry yeast, you can substitute in ¾ teaspoon (2.3g) of instant yeast.

Instant yeast is the easiest to work with: add it directly into the dry ingredients and mix. Unless you have reason to work with active dry or cake yeast, use instant yeast. Remember to store it in the fridge!


Note:

If you have active dry yeast instead, you will need to proof it first. Proofing—soaking in lukewarm water—softens the hard shell around the active dry yeast granules. Use lukewarm water (105°F / 40°C). If the water is below 100°F / 38°C, an amino acid called glutathione will leak out from the cell walls and make your dough sticky; if it’s above 120°F / 49°C, the yeast will show very little activity.

Don’t be worried about too-hot tap water killing your yeast. Yeast actually dies somewhere above 131°F / 55°C, so too-hot water from the tap shouldn’t be able to kill the yeast; it just slows down reproduction. You can confirm this by filling a glass with your hottest tap water, dumping in some yeast, waiting a few minutes to give the yeast time to come up to temperature, and then adding some flour and watching the yeast still do its thing.

You can skip all this proofing and temperature stuff by just using instant yeast.


Check Your Yeast!

In baking, proofing can refer to a few different things: checking that your yeast is alive, allowing the dough to rise, or allowing the shaped loaf to rest and rise before baking.

Whatever you call it, you should make sure that your yeast is alive before proceeding to work with it. Measure out 2 teaspoons (10g) of the yeast and 1 teaspoon (5g) of sugar into a glass and add ½ cup (120g) of lukewarm water (105°F / 40°C). Stir and let rest for two to three minutes.

You should see small bubbles forming on the surface. If you don’t, your yeast is dead—time to head to the store.

You probably don’t need to check your yeast every time you use it, especially if you’re using instant yeast and storing it in your fridge. If you notice that your doughs aren’t rising as expected, though, give the yeast a quick check.

Proofed yeast will bubble up and foam (left); dead yeast will separate out and not foam (right).


Bread—Traditional Method

If you’ve never made bread before, a simple loaf is easy enough to make, and perfecting it will keep you busy for many years. This is one of those recipes that’s worth making several days in a row, making one change at a time to understand how your changes impact the final loaf.

In a large bowl, whisk to thoroughly combine:

1 ½ cups (180g) bread flour

1 ½ cups (180g) whole wheat flour

3 tablespoons (30g) gluten flour (optional)

1 ½ teaspoons salt (2 teaspoons if using kosher or flake salt)

1 ½ teaspoons instant yeast (not active dry yeast)

Add:

1 cup (240g) water

1 teaspoon (7g) honey

Stir just to incorporate—maybe 10 strokes with a spoon—and allow to rest for 20 to 30 minutes, during which the flour will absorb the water (called autolysing).

After the dough has undergone autolysis, knead it. You can do this against a cutting board, pressing down on the dough with the palm of your hand, pushing it away from yourself, and then folding it back up on top of itself, rotating the ball every few times. I sometimes just hold the dough in my hands and work it, stretching it and folding it, but this is probably unorthodox. Continue kneading the dough until it passes the “stretch test”: tear off a small piece of the dough and stretch it. It shouldn’t tear; if it does, continue kneading.

Form the dough into a ball and let it rest in the large bowl, covered with plastic wrap (spray it with nonstick spray to avoid it sticking), until it doubles in size, normally about 4 to 6 hours. Try to store the dough someplace where the temperature is between 72°F / 22°C and 80°F / 26.5°C. If the dough is kept too warm—say, if you’re in a hot climate, or it’s too close to a heating vent—it will double in size more quickly, so keep an eye on it and use common sense. Warmer—and thus faster—isn’t necessarily better, though: longer rest times will allow for better flavor development.

After the dough has risen, give it a quick second kneading—more of a quick massage to work out any large gas bubbles—and form it into a tight ball. Coat it with a light dusting of flour, place it on a pizza peel (or piece of cardboard), cover it with plastic wrap again, and allow it to rest for another hour or two.


Note:

Yeast produces both acetic and lactic acid at different rates depending upon temperature. Ideal rising temperature is between 72°F / 22°C and 80°F / 26.5°C.

If kept too cold, dough will be tough and flat due to insufficient gas production, and the final loaf will have uneven crumb, irregular holes, and a too-dark, hard crust.

On the other hand, dough risen in an environment too warm will be dry, lack elasticity, and break when stretched, and the final loaf will have sour-tasting crumbs, large cells with thick walls, and a pale/whitish crust.


While waiting for the dough to proof, place either a pizza stone or a baking stone in your oven and set it to 425°F / 220°C. (No pizza stone? Use a cast iron griddle or cast iron pan, flipped upside down.) Make sure that the oven is fully heated before baking—a full hour of preheating is not unreasonable.

Just before transferring the dough to the oven, pour a cup or two of boiling water into a baking pan or cookie sheet and set it on a shelf below the baking stone. (Use an old cookie sheet; the water may leave a hard-to-clean residue on it.) Alternatively, you can use a spray bottle to squirt the inside of the oven a dozen or so times to increase the humidity. (Be careful not to hit the light bulb inside: it can shatter.) Upping the humidity will help impart heat into the bread faster and will also prevent the outside of the loaf from setting prematurely, giving the bread better oven spring—the rise that occurs as the loaf heats up in the oven before the outside of the loaf sets and becomes, essentially, an exoskeleton.

With a serrated knife, lightly slash the top of the loaf with an “X” and then place it into the oven. Bake until the crust is golden brown and the loaf gives a hollow sound when rapped on the bottom with your knuckles, about 30 minutes. You can also check for doneness using an instant-read thermometer; the internal temperature should be above 205°F / 96°C and ideally around 210°F / 98.5°C, which is the temperature at which starches in flour break down.

Allow the bread to cool for at least 30 minutes or so before slicing; it needs to cool sufficiently for the starches to gelatinize and set.

Notes

  • If even at the ideal rising and baking temperatures your bread is still coming out too dense, try reducing the amount of whole wheat flour to 1 cup (120g) and increasing the bread flour to 2 cups (240g).

  • For a slightly more complicated method, try starting with a sponge: a prefermentation of flour, water, and yeast that allows for better flavor development. Instead of adding all the flour and water together at the beginning, mix half of the flour (180g) with 4/7 (140g) of the water (ideally, at 75°F / 24°C—if it’s any warmer, oxidation will impact the flavor) and all of the yeast (7g), and allow that to rise until bubbles start to form on the surface and the sponge starts to fall. Once this stage is reached, mix the sponge up with the rest of the water (100g), add the rest of the flour (180g) and salt (7g), and allow the mixture to rise per the earlier instructions. 

  • While the exact science of what causes bread to go stale is still unknown, a couple of different mechanisms are reasonable suspects. One thought is that, upon baking, starches in flour convert to a form that can bind with water, but that they slowly recrystallize after baking and in doing so release the water, which then gets absorbed by the gluten, changing the texture of the crumb. Then there’s the crust, which draws away some moisture from the middle of the bread, causing the texture of the crust to change. Regardless of the exact mechanism, storing bread in the fridge speeds up these changes in texture while freezing does not, so keep your bread at room temperature or freeze it. (The only benefit to storing bread in the fridge is that it slows the growth of some types of mold.) Toasting the bread above the temperature at which starches gelatinize reverses some of these changes.

  • Try adding rosemary, olives, or diced and sautéed onion during the second kneading. Or, use only bread flour and add some large chunks of bittersweet chocolate.


Yeast Waffles

Baker’s yeast contains a number of enzymes, one of which, zymase, converts simple sugars (dextrose and fructose) into carbon dioxide and alcohol. It’s this enzyme that gives yeast its rising capabilities. Zymase doesn’t break down lactose sugars, though, so doughs and batters made with milk will end up tasting sweeter. This is why some bread recipes call for milk and why foods like yeast waffles come out with a rich, sweet flavor.

At least two hours in advance, but preferably the night before, measure out and whisk together:

1¾ cups (450g) milk (whole, preferably)

½ cup (115g) melted butter

2 teaspoons (10g) sugar or honey

1 teaspoon (6g) salt (table salt—not the kosher or flaky type)

2 ½ cups (300g) flour (all-purpose)

1 tablespoon (15g) instant yeast (not active dry yeast)

2 large (120g) eggs

Cover and store at room temperature. Make sure to use a large bowl or container with enough headspace to allow the batter to rise.

Briefly stir the batter and then bake in your waffle iron per instructions of your waffle iron manufacturer.

Notes

  • In baking, use table salt, not kosher or flake salt, because the finer-grained salt will mix more uniformly into the batter.

  • Try using honey, maple syrup, or agave nectar instead of sugar, and try substituting whole wheat flour or oat flour for half of the all-purpose flour.

  • If your waffles come out not as crispy as you like, toss them in an oven preheated to 250°F / 120°C—hot enough to quickly evaporate out water, cold enough to avoid caramelization and Maillard reactions.

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