As in most things in life, the culinary world too has its own unique selection of highly intimidating terms and phrases. “Fricassee” a fowl, for instance, or “julienne” a cucumber or even “fold” in an egg.
Add to that an infinite list of tongue-twisting ingredients and it provides the perfect melting pot for sadistic cookbook chefs who just love to pepper their recipes with said terms and then sit back and watch the havoc it causes among wanabe chefs.
‘Yeast’ is a classic example.
I made my dubious debut with yeast a couple of weeks ago when I tried my hand at baking cinnamon rolls. I was so thrilled that we had all the ingredients despite the lockdown that I willingly overlooked one tiny little matter. The yeast was well over a year past the printed expiry date.
I can only think of one possible use for what finally emerged from the oven on that fateful day. As a flavoured replacement for the lead sinkers in my fishing kit bag.
It was time to pay Mr. Google a visit. There were in fact several visits – (he never seems to mind, God bless him) – and the bits and pieces gleaned from them helped enormously in my next attempt at cinnamon rolls.
I even mustered the courage to use that new found knowledge to tweak a tried and tested bread recipe… and still come up with a perfectly acceptable end result! Fearing that it might have been a fluke, I went on to try a number of other dishes using yeast and, even if I say so myself, it was with more than a fair amount of success.
Looking back I honestly think that, once we gets a few basic concepts out of the way, baking with yeast is far easier than one would imagine.
What follows are a collection of those titbits as well as a few of my own observations (that predominantly originated from the mistakes I made.)
A Few Facts…
Yeast is a fungus.
It is composed of single-celled microorganisms that are so small that each packet of yeast will contain a few billion of them.
There are over a thousand known species of yeast. (It is estimated that even these account for less that 10% of the actual numbers in existence.)
The one that is most commonly used for cooking is Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It acts on carbohydrates converting them to carbon dioxide and alcohol. The alcohol (sadly 🙂 ) evaporates but the carbon dioxide, together with gluten fibers in the dough are what give the eventual product its structure and texture.
Okay, enough of theory. Time for the bare essentials we knead – (sorry couldn’t resist the pun) – to ensure that our recipes don’t go South… (North, South, Yeast, West… get it? (Sick, huh?!… apologies again!)
Types of Yeast
The fact that commercially packaged yeast is available in a variety of forms contributes significantly to the overall confusion. The ones are most commonly used for cooking or baking are Fresh Yeast, Quick Rise Yeast, Instant Yeast and Active Dry Yeast.
Fresh yeast is sold as cakes and is the only form of active yeast of the four. Of all the various types, fresh yeast is supposedly the one that imparts the best flavour to bread. Unfortunately it has a very short shelf life and is extremely perishable. Definitely not practical for those of us who will use it only occasionally.
The other three types are packaged as granules of dormant yeast and need to be rehydrated to be activated.
Quick Rise Yeast differs slightly from the other two dormant varieties. The granules are very fine and it includes additives like ascorbic acid, dough conditioners and/or enzymes to facilitate the rising process. This is typically used in bread-making machines.
That leaves us with Instant Yeast and Active Dry Yeast.
As a ‘home baker’ chance are you will be using one of these. Both are essentially the same. The only different is the size of the granules is finer in Instant Yeast and larger in Active Dry Yeast.
Bottom Line: Most home bakers will use either Active Dry Yeast or Instant Yeast. These are essentially the same and can be used interchangeably in recipes.
All mention of yeast henceforth will be referring to any one of these two.
These yeasts are supplied in the dormant form. The need moisture, sugar and warm conditions (typically 90o-100oF) to be activated and begin to perform their magic.
It is worth reiterating here here that yeast is highly perishable. The expiry date mentioned on the packaging is only a guide. Actual shelf-live will vary dramatically depending on how it is used and stored. A sealed pack kept in the freezer will last much longer that one that is kept loosely in a warm area of the kitchen.
It is mainly for this reason that yeast needs to be tested or ‘proofed’ before it is added to the rest of the ingredients. Typically it is mixed with a bit of warm water or milk (not too hot or the yeast cells will die) and some sugar and left to stand for 5-10 minutes. If it turns thick and foamy it means that the yeast is active and can be used in the recipe. Equally importantly, if it doesn’t then the yeast is useless.
In the old days instant dry yeast was prepared by a technique that needed it to be heated to very high temperatures. This resulted in a large number of dead yeast cells that clumped around the dormant viable ones. Proofing in those days was done to wash away the dead cells so that only viable yeast was added to the dough. Modern techniques employ gentler production methods and most of the resultant granules are viable. A fact that renders proofing for this reason redundant.
What is gluten?
Wheat and similar grains contain two proteins. Gliadin and Glutenin. When flours are mixed with water the two combine to form gluten. Although the protein content of flour is not large (about 10%) it is an important cog in the baking process.
Kneading strengthens and organizes the gluten fibres and, in turn, the elasticity of the dough. In doing so it provides a more robust network to hold in the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast that is so vital to the rising process and the ability of the final product in maintaining optimal texture, consistency and shape.
This is the process whereby the active yeast cells feed on the sugars and carbohydrates and release carbon dioxide and alcohol.
The gluten/ yeast relationship
Carbon dioxide that is released during fermentation is trapped within the gluten fibres. This causes the dough to ‘rise’ and increase in size. If the fibres are too weak the gas leaks and the dough collapses.
‘Rises’ and the need for multiple rises
Typically twice during the entire process the dough will be rested for prolonged periods of time (usually 1-2 hours) for fermentation to take place. The bubbles of carbon dioxide released get trapped between the strands of the gluten network causing the dough to ‘rise’. During the first rise the dough is allowed to double in size. This will stretch the gluten fibres to the maximum.
Following this first rise the dough is compressed, forcibly pushing the released gas out (also referred to as ‘punching the dough’), and briefly kneaded once more.
This allows the gluten fibres to relax and strengthen so that they will be at their optimal best during the second rise that is just prior to putting the dough in the oven. Rising of the dough is also often referred to as ‘proofing’ and should not be confused with the completely different process of initially proofing (or testing) the yeast.
That I think should take care of terminology. Let’s get down to the practical stuff…
Choosing a recipe
The entire process of developing the desired consistency and texture of a yeast-based dough is very different from that of other more commonly used doughs (eg shortcrust pastry, chapatti etc).
I would advise anyone venturing into this form of baking to blindly follow some of the wonderful recipes available on the Internet. If nothing else, it will at the very least give you get a feel of how to develop a yeast-based dough.
Some online recipes will assume that you have an inking of what the consistency of the dough should be and hence will tell you to ‘addjust ingredients as required’. Others are very specific on the exactly amounts. I found that in the beginning the latter was much safer. Later once you are comfortable with how a bread dough should be you will surprised to find that it is far more forgiving than pastry.
If you have an option between volume measure (cups, ml, liters,) and weight (gms, lbs) opt for the weights. (For example: if the recipe requires ‘3 ½ cups (500 gms) of all purpose flour’ then weigh out 500gms.)
As an extension of the above get yourself a digital kitchen scale. It is far more precise than a spring balance and makes weighing ingredients accurately a breeze.
Preparing the Dough
1. How much yeast to use? This will be clearly indicated in most recipes. If not then a rule of thumb is 2 ¼ spoons of yeast will raise upto 4 cups of flour. (This is taking into consideration addition of other ingredients that affect the process like butter eggs, salt, sugar etc.)
2. Proof the yeast. As discussed earlier with the modern day instant dry yeast ‘proofing’ is not absolutely necessary i.e. it can be added directly to the flour. Having said that, for us occasional bakers it is a good practice to do this as it confirms viability of the yeast.
Most recipes will incorporate this step in the instructions. If not the manufacturers label will often have a proofing method printed on the packet.
On the rare occasions that neither of the above is available, then take ½ cup of warm water in a bowl. (Heating the water for 30secs in a microwave should give the desired temperature but make sure you check that it is not too hot by dipping a finger in it.) Add a little sugar and mix. Now sprinkle the yeast on the water and let stand for 5-10 minutes. The surface should become thick and foamy. If it doesn’t, this yeast is useless. (I learnt this the hard way… remember the cinnamon rolls?!) Don’t forget to adjust the quantity of water to the amount of liquid required to make the dough in the recipe.
2. Other ingredients. Again, most recipes will be implicit in their instructions on how to put them together. As a general rule most wet ingredients (eg milk, egg) are added to the yeast mixture.
A number of references on the Net that suggest that adding salt directly to the yeast deactivates the yeast. Confusingly, many recipes do just that to the extent that there are even a few experts who will intentionally add salt to the yeast to control the fermentation process.
As a newbie I feel wherever possible, do not add salt directly to the yeast. Instead, add the salt to the dry flour, mix well and then add the mix with the yeast.
Whichever way the recipe advises eventually the dry and wet ingredients are brought together to form the dough.
One final but important consideration before moving on…
Yeast is a living organism. It is sensitive to extremes in physical conditions, including heat. We need to be mindful of this fact when adding ingredients like warm water/milk or melted butter.
3. Mixing. kneading. rising. Preparing the dough for the oven comprises of essentially three steps. a) bringing the ingredients together, b) kneading and c) allowing it to rise
a) Bringing the ingredients together. This can be done by hand, with a whisk or spatula or in a stand mixer. If you are using a stand mixer you may need to use a spatula to scrape the dry ingredients that tend to stick to the side and bottom.
It is good practice to sift the dry ingredients as it helps in removing lumps. I usually powder my sugar in a dry grinder (although I’m not sure if that is really necessary).
Stand Mixers KitchenAid and Kenwood appear to be the brand leaders in this department. If this new-found love for baking turns out to be more than a passing fancy then I may just invest in one. (With my wife’s permission, of course.)
As of now, we have an ‘economical’ (read that as ‘cheap’) stand mixer that is used mainly for beating eggs, whipping cream and cake mixes. It is not the most efficient mixer but definitely helps to at least get the ingredients together. On a couple of occasions I’ve even got it to initiate the kneading process.
Is a stand mixer essential? Most definitely not! All the ingredients can very easily be brought together in a large bowl using either one’s hands or a whisk/spatula.
Once the ingredients are brought together the end result is a tacky, irritatingly sticky mass of dough that just loves to cling to your fingers and the counter top.
The temptation to add dry flour is overpowering and needs to be resisted at all costs. As the dough is kneaded the stickiness reduces considerably.
b) Kneading. This is, arguably the most important step in preparing the dough and has a huge bearing on the final product. A dough that is kneaded well will have developed a robust gluten network capable of handling any amount of carbon dioxide that the fermenting yeast throws at it.
A good stand mixer can certainly make life very simple. Having said that there are large number of both experts and enthusiasts who much prefer to do the entire process manually.
There is an art and a science to the process of kneading. To many this may appear embarrassingly too basic to question. However I did find that I benefitted significantly by watching online videos on how to knead and if you are as new to this form of cooking as I am, I would urge you to do the same.
A dough scraper is very helpful in scraping the sticky dough from off the counter top and even the palms of you hands. These are easily available online. This one in the image was made by cutting a 6″x5″ rectangle piece of thick plastic from an office file. It worked just fine!
Typically, kneading dough for 8-10 minutes is sufficient. There are a few indicators to confirm that the dough is adequately kneaded. 1. It will be smooth, soft and slightly sticky. 2. Gently poking the ball with your finger will easily indent it and it will tend to spring back when the finger is removed. 3. A well-kneaded dough will resist tearing when stretched. Instead it will form an elastic translucent window called the gluten window.
3. Rising of the dough. This is also called proofing and should not be confused with the initial testing of the yeast. During this process the dough is allowed to rest for a prolonged period of time (usually 1-2 hours) but can also be overnight is some cases.
The fermenting yeast releases carbon dioxide that gets trapped between the fibers of the gluten network causing it to swell. I kid you not… the experience of seeing the massively inflated dough for the very first time is akin to witnessing the revelation Mary at Lourdes or the conversion of water into wine at
Cannes Cana! (Thank you Dr. Derick D’Lima for steering me away from implied hell and damnation to the righteous path. 🙂 )
Second Rise. The dough is usually put through multiple rises. (Typically two of them.) During the first rise the gluten fibres are stretched to the maximum.
‘Punching Down’ the dough after the first rise. This is done to deflate all the air and relax the gluten fibres. It is then briefly kneaded again to further strengthen the gluten. This ensures that the carbon dioxide – gluten network is at its optimal best in preparation for the final baking.
If the recipe requires the dough to be divided into several portions then this is the time it is done and then rested for the second rise before putting it into the oven.
Prior to each rise the exposed areas of the dough need to be smooth and crack-free. There are several methods of achieving this. Stretching and tucking the ends underneath is one. For smaller sized balls, rolling them in a cupped palm of your hands against the counter top is another. Here too watching an online demo video is very helpful.
Once in the oven the bread does rise initially for one last time, till the temperature gets too hot and the yeast becomes inactive. The carbon dioxide also evaporates but the texture and shape is maintained thanks to the fact that the proteins by now have coagulated with the heat.
All that remains to be done is to give a few finishing touches – in this case a generous brushing of butter – wait for the bread to cool and then tuck in!
That’s it from me for now.
Is this a comprehensive list of instructions on baking with yeast? No way! But it is a beginning and hopefully will have cleared at least a few of your doubts.
I am as new to this as many of you reading this are. So, trust me when I say, If I can…SO CAN YOU!