Sunday, July 24, 2011

A little yeast inspection

I wrote not too long ago about cooking with yeast.  In talking with people I had found out that many are intimidated by yeast. 

The fact is, if you screw it it, you can throw it away and start over.  Flour and yeast are relatively cheap.

Here are some photos of an in-progress bread to help you understand what's happening and why.
In the USA yeast is most commonly available in granules.  Each granule contains a tiny cluster of living bacteria.  I buy jars of yeast because I use it often enough to justify the quantity.  If you're just starting out with yeast, I suggest you try the packets before committing to a whole jar.

When hydrated with milk or water (see above photo at right), the granules will dissolve and expose the living bacteria, allowing them to start digesting the sugars in the mix and doing their yeast thing: creating gas.

Frankly, it's the nicest and most pleasant burping you'll ever encounter!

Most recipes will begin with having you "proof" your yeast.  This is when you put the yeast and sugar into the liquid to rehydrate it.  The mixture should get foamy after about 10 minutes.  I only proof my yeast when using a new jar.  It's not a necessary step if you are certain that your yeast is good.  Be sure to store your yeast in the fridge.

Yeast needs sugar in some form in order to do its thing.  I use honey in my breads because, well, I have a half gallon of it.  Note that when you cook with honey, you use half the amount of sugar called for in a recipe.  This is because honey is twice as dense and sweet as granulated sugar.

When you're ready to start mixing the dough, let your mixer do all the work for you.  I just dump the rest of my ingredients into the bowl, attach the dough hook, and let it crank away.  It won't look like it's going to come together, but I promise that it will.  Keep an eye on it to make sure that the dough isn't sticking to the side of the bowl.  It should be wound up around the hook like in the last pic.

After you've kneaded the dough (using the mixer), you need to let it rise.  If you want to freeze some or all of it, don't allow it to rise yet.  I often make several batches of pizza dough and this is the step where I freeze it in baggies.  The morning I want to make a pizza, I pull out a baggie and leave it on the counter.  When I come home from work, the dough has thawed and risen on its own.

Before you put the dough somewhere to rise, be sure to lube up the bowl.  Pull out the dough and either spray it with cooking oil or pour a little puddle of oil into the bowl.  Turn the dough over a few times to make sure that it's well coated.  If you don't do this, the dough will stick to the bowl and make removal an impossibility.

This is my secret weapon to a reliable rise every time, even during the winter.  It's a baking dish filled with boiling water.  The heat from the water warms up the oven to a perfect temp for the yeast to work quickly, and the humidity prevents a crust from forming on the bread.  You can even leave the water in the oven when you go to cook the bread.

That said, yeast will make a dough rise even in the fridge, albeit quite slowly.  The Mother Earth News no-knead bread that I linked from my last yeast post works on this very principle, as does the Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.  My beef with the latter is that you have a ton of batter hanging out in the fridge.  Gene and I couldn't get through it all.

Check your dough after about an hour to see if it has doubled in size.  My risen dough looks rather smug, doesn't it?

I've been on a grilled flat bread kick lately.  It's a great summer recipe and is easy to transport.  Try it and you'll never look at your grill quite the same way again!  In fact, I need to go make some right now.


  1. Not an erudite comment, just.... YUMMY!!

  2. I love my yeast! I moved from quick rise to traditional style over the last couple of years, and the texture of my breads seems much better. Maybe a slower rise equals more even air pockets? I think people get intimidated by the number of steps involved in making, rising, and proofing breads, not necessarily by the yeast itself.

    I'm going to try that dish of water trick. It seems to me I might get a better rise out of the denser, whole grain breads I've been making lately.