Friday, October 12, 2007

Ask Breadchick: Thou Shalt Not Be Afraid of Yeast

During last month's Daring Baker Challenge of Cinnamon Rolls, several of my Daring Baker brothers and sisters expressed a fear of working with yeast. Comments like "my bread never turns out" or "I can't bake with yeast, it always fails" were common heard laments. Ironically during the same time frame, I received a few emails from folks, some Daring Bakers and some not, who had questions about yeast and wanted my advice about why their yeast breads didn't seem to ever work. All this anxiety got me to thinking, why is everyone so afraid of yeast? I came to a few conclusions and would like to share them with you.

One reason baking with yeast is scary to many people and fills them with apprehension is the myth of the difficulty associated with baking with yeast; something us "yeast heads" can share the blame for because we haven't been very good about talking about how good and reliable today's yeast is versus the yeast our grandmothers used. Maybe this is due in part to the awe that making a good loaf of bread inspires in the people we share the results with or the desire to have a bit of "black magic" associated with our passion of bread baking. But, whatever the reason, there are a lot of myths and misinformation floating around out there about how difficult it is to work with yeast. I'll probably be thrown out of the yeast witch coven for the myths I'm about to dispel but here goes...

Prior to fast acting, rapid rise, yeast becoming readily available to the general public, thanks to the bread machine revolution of the early 1980s, working with yeast was fussy and working with it required the use of an almost science experiment type method to activate it. While commercial bakeries had ready access to fast rise yeast, unless you knew someone who could get you some bakers yeast, as it was known then, what the home baker had to work with is what we now call active yeast.

All forms of active yeast need to be activated through a method called "proofing" where a warm liquid, typically either milk or water, between 80 and 105 degrees is added to the yeast and then the yeast sits for up to fifteen minutes until it is foamy and active. Thirty years ago, active yeast was available primarily in the moist cake form, also called compressed yeast and occasionally the dry powdered form. The cake yeast was extremely perishable and only lasted for a couple weeks before it would lose its potency. So, if you didn't bake a lot of bread and used an old cake of yeast, it wouldn't proof or if it did, the resulting dough wouldn't rise very high quickly leading to lots of failed loaves of bread.

It was this proofing of the cake yeast that also led to failures because to proof the cake yeast meant the liquid had to be exactly the right temperature; too hot would kill the yeast and too cold the yeast wouldn't activate. You also had to pour the liquid in with the yeast at the right speed. If you mixed the water in too slowly it wouldn't activate because the water would cool too much during the pouring and yeast needs warmth to work. If you poured it in too fast, you would risk killing the yeast because the liquid was still too hot. I remember how long it took (and how many failed loaves of bread I had) while trying to figure out that when I poured my liquid into the measuring cup it needed to be about 5 degrees hotter than I wanted it to be when it was mixed with the cake yeast because by the time I actually poured it into the yeast, it would have cooled that five degrees! Talk about fussy...

Once you got the liquid issue figured out there was the "to add sugar or not to add sugar" issue and old Father Time to deal with before you would know if your yeast was alive. Some people, my grandmother included, said you also had to put a pinch of sugar in the warm liquid to activate the yeast. Others, like my father, said this would ruin the yeast because it would get too active in the proofing and not have any strength left for the rise. After adding the warm liquid and what ever else you were told to add to the yeast, you had to wait ten to fifteen minutes to see if the yeast activated. Sometimes, even after waiting the time, you would have partly activated yeast (think drowsy yeast) instead of dead yeast. Partly activated yeast isn't foamy but has little bubbles and smells "yeasty".

Another myth many people encountered (and still do) was that by adding your ingredients in the wrong order you would kill your proofed yeast. I remember my grandmother admonishing me for adding salt into the sugar that I then dumped into my proofed yeast without adding the proofed yeast to the flour mixture first. "You just killed your yeast", she said. In over 30 years of bread making, I have never committed yeastacide by adding my ingredients in some wrong order. In fact, if you work with a bread machine, either for the entire process or just to knead the dough, the order for ingredients is all liquids including fats first followed by dry ingredients finishing with the yeast.

So, what is the truth as Breadchick sees it in regards to working with yeast and why should you not be afraid?

Today most of us home bakers use the instant yeast instead of the active yeast. Instant yeast is also known as rapid rise or bread machine yeast. This yeast doesn't require proofing. You can add it directly to the ingredients, either the dry ones or the wet ones and it just does its yeast thing, it rises. Even the active yeasts of today are much more stable and provide almost fool proof results because they are most often found in the powdered form with has a much longer shelf life than the cake yeast and aren't as susceptible to failure. All they take is a little more time because they do need to be proofed and they result in a dough that rises a bit slower than rapid rise yeast but I can't think of a time in the last 15 years that I've had a failure due to either the instant yeast or the active yeast in its dry form. Heck, I've even decided to skip the whole proofing of the active yeast, tossed it in with the ingredients and gotten a great loaf of bread! It just took almost twice the amount of time for the dough to double. Which leads us to another reason I think many people are afraid of working with yeast or more correctly fail with yeast and that is patience and the unwillingness to take the time to let the yeast work.

Depending on the type of yeast you use and a few other conditions like kitchen temperature and humidity, there can be long rise times associated with working with yeast.Here is the rise times I use in the kitchen when I'm working with yeast:

  • Rapid Rise Yeast: One to one and a half hours for dough to double

  • Active Yeast: two to two and a half hours for dough to double

  • Add 1/2 an hour for every 5 degrees below 75F that the temperature is in the place where your dough is rising. For example, if your kitchen is 65 degrees and you are using rapid rise yeast, it will take two to two and a half hours for the dough to double.

  • Add 1/2 an hour to an hour to the expected rise time for humidity over 60%

If you are baking with only partly activated yeast, dough rise times can be triple. Some people will mistake this for "it didn't work" and give up but even with partially activated yeast the dough will still rise. The only time I give up on a rise when I'm using either instant or active yeast is if after four hour the dough is still exactly the same size as when I put it in for it's first rise (I have an exception to this rule I will explain below). As a side note, using natural leavenings like a sourdough starter have entire different rules. Rise times for these types of breads often is counted in 8 to 12 hour increments. Which leads to the next little "dirty secret" about working with today's yeast!

I haven't had a dough using a dry form of yeast fail to rise in over 10 years and it isn't just because of my bread making prowess. It is because today's yeast is that stable and that good. Even the loaves I've made where I know I rushed the active yeast during its proof (i.e. only let it proof for about 5 minutes or less). Not one single failure. There is a bonus to a really slow rise too! A slow rise has the added benefit of better flavour development. So, if your dough is slow to rise, give it some more time and you will not only have success but you will have the most flavourful loaf of bread you've ever made!

One more thing about the patience and time thing to keep in mind, just because working with yeast does take time doesn't mean you can't be doing other things around the house or even outside of the house while your dough is rising. When I'm not traveling for work or pleasure, I make about four loaves a bread a week. Yup, you read that right, four loaves of bread a week. I have a full time job outside of the house not to mention a fairly active social life. You want to know how I manage to make that much bread and still have a life? (here come my exception to the four hour rule)

When I know I want to make a loaf of bread when I get home from work or back from whatever I'm doing, I make the dough before leaving the house using somewhere between an 1/8 and a 1/4 of the amount of yeast called for in the recipe. Dough will rise with any amount of yeast. It is the amount of yeast you use that has a direct affect on rise times.

A good rule of thumb is 1 tsp of yeast equals one hour of rise time. So if you know want to make bread when you get home from work and your recipe calls for 1 tsp of yeast and you use 1/8 of a tsp of yeast, and when you come home in 8 hours, your dough will be ready to be formed, have its final rise (2nd rises are always fast) and baked. I use this trick all the time, especially for pizza dough and flat breads like focaccia that don't need a high rise for the second rise.

Now that you know the "truth" about today's yeast and how easy it is to work with what are you waiting for?? Get out there and bake a loaf of bread!!

Note: I posted about this recipe back in February 2005 but I've received some requests from readers for an easy, no fail bread recipe. This one couldn't be simpler and it results in a great loaf of bread. The secret is the sponge.

No Fail Farmer's White Bread

9 oz water
2 tsp yeast
3 1/2 cups of all purpose flour (11 - 13% gluten)
1/4 cup bread flour (13% or higher gluten)
1/4 cup dry milk
1/4 cup butter (melted)
1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
3 tablespoons of sugar

Step 1: Sponge
Mix 1 tsp yeast, 1 1/2 cup of the all purpose flour and the 9 oz of water in a 2 quart glass bowl or Tupperware container. Cover with plastic wrap or lid and let it sit for 2-3 hours in 70 degree room. (This time will be longer in cool room or shorter in warmer room). Tip: If your oven has a light, turn the light on and put the sponge in the oven to rise.

Step2: Make the dough
Combine the rest of the ingredients except for the remaining all purpose flour. Add the remaining flour 1/2 a cup at a time until the dough is firm but still a little shaggy. Sprinkle a little flour on a good clean surface and flour your hands to finish kneading the dough; only about 5 minutes or so or until you see the development of gluten. Dough will be smooth and elastic feeling when it is ready. Put in oiled bowl or proofing container and let rise until double, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Step 3: Form loaf
Punch dough down and press into rectangle about 12" x 5" Fold rectangle into 3rds and place seam side down in large greased glass loaf pan. brush a little melted butter on top of loaf, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until top of loaf touches plastic wrap. Remove plastic wrap and let loaf rise until about 2 inches above rim of loaf pan. About 30 minutes.

Step 4: Bake
In 350 degree preheated oven, bake bread for 30 - 35 minute or until internal temperature is 190 degrees. If crust begins to get too brown, cover with foil until last 5 minutes of baking. Remove from oven and pan when done and let cool about 2 hours before slicing...if you can ;-)