How To Bake With Yeast When You're A Total Beginner

Your handy guide to at-home bread baking.

Baking relies on a series of chemical reactions—from gluten development to leavening, baking is a science. Understanding the science behind baking will help you hone your skills and ultimately become a better baker. Today, we're diving into one of the trickiest factors to master—Fermentation.

According to Oxford Languages, fermentation is "The chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms, typically involving effervescence and the giving off of heat." Fermentation occurs in various settings, from brewing beer or kombucha to baking bread. But we're here to focus specifically on baking with yeast. If you're new to bread baking, don't worry. This guide is for complete beginners. We're here to answer a few commonly-asked questions and help you understand some of the science behind your favorite baked goods.

No-Knead Buttermilk Bread
Greg Dupree; Prop Styling: Cindy Barr; Food Styling: Chelsea Zimmer

What Is Yeast?

Here's your fun fact of the day: Yeast is technically a fungus. That's right. It's related to mushrooms, blue cheese, and all different types of mold. Yeast is a "microscopic fungus consisting of single oval cells that reproduce by budding and are capable of converting sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide." Specifically, baker's yeast encompasses the varieties of yeast used for home and commercial baking.

What Are The Different Types Of Yeast?

Over 1,500 different types of yeast exist in our environment, but baking typically requires some common varieties. Instant and active dry yeast comes as dehydrated granules, making them the most common shelf-stable yeast used in home baking.

Active Dry Yeast

One of the most common types of baking yeast (and the one we recommend), active dry yeast, must be dissolved in warm water to activate.

Instant Yeast

The name says it all. This yeast works instantly and can even result in faster fermentation. It does not need to be activated or bloomed in warm water to ferment—This means you can add instant yeast directly to your dry ingredients.

There are pros and cons to using both Active Dry Yeast and Instant Yeast. The activation step of active dry yeast helps ensure the yeast is still alive. With instant yeast, you can only be sure it's still alive once you combine all the ingredients.

How To Activate Yeast

When combined with warm water and a little sugar, active dry yeast ferments and converts its "food" (sugar and starch) into carbon dioxide, causing the dough to rise. Most recipes will call for you to whisk 2¼ teaspoons of active dry yeast into a small amount of warm water and a touch of sugar or honey. You'll let it sit for five to 10 minutes, and the mixture will begin to bubble, a sign that it has activated. Here are a few things to remember when activating your yeast:

  • Use warm water, but not hot water. When activating the yeast, your water should be between 100°F and 110°F—Warm water aids in the fermentation, but if it is too hot, it will kill the yeast.
  • Pairing yeast with sugar encourages fermentation. "Yeast cells digest food to obtain energy for growth," writes Red Star Yeast. "Their favorite food is sugar in its various forms: sucrose (beet or cane sugar), fructose and glucose (found in honey, molasses, maple syrup, and fruit), and maltose (derived from starch in flour)."
  • Yeast expires, so be sure to use your packets before expiration. Prolong yeast's lifespan by storing it in an airtight jar in the fridge.

How To Know If Yeast Is Dead

The telltale sign of fermentation is bubbles appearing. That means that the yeast converts the sugar into carbon dioxide, producing gas and resulting in the bread's expansion (or "rise"). If your yeast does not visibly bubble after 15 minutes, discard it and try a new batch.

How To Use Yeast

Once you've learned the basics of how to use yeast, it's time to get baking. You'll be churning out beautiful loaves of bread in no time. Follow our No-Knead Buttermilk Bread Recipe for our favorite tried-and-true beginners' loaf.

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