When I was a kid, my mom had a breadmaker that made perfect bread. I don't even think she had to fuss with the yeast or anything – she just threw a ton of ingredients into this magical machine and voila! out came cinnamon apple, sourdough, gingerbread, cheddar loaves, etc.
The first time I attempted to recreate one of these wonderful childhood memories on my own – using a traditional stove oven – I experienced quite the rude awakening. First, the recipe called for me to do something called “proofing” to the yeast. The last time I was asked to “proof” something was in 10th grade algebra and frankly, it didn't work out so well. NEXT, the recipe wanted me to let the bread “rise” until it doubled and at some point I was supposed to “divide” the ingredients. Too many mathematical terms for this writer to handle! Worst of all, the recipe directed me to PUNCH the dough! As in, fist-fighting…? Yet another high school experience I'd rather not revisit. I ultimately enlisted the help of someone slightly older and a whole lot wiser. Here's what I learned.
Types of Yeast
There are basically two types of baking yeast : active dry yeast and rapid-rising/instant yeast (which is also known as bread machine yeast). Yeast is available in packets or jars as granules, or occasionally comes in block form. All yeast can be used exactly the same way. The rapid-rising yeast simply requires a little less patience as it makes the bread rise up faster so you can stick it in the oven sooner.
Note: For those anal-perfectionist types who really care, PROFESSIONAL bakers will tell you that technically rapid rise yeast only needs to rise once (instead of twice, as most bread recipes call for) and that technically rapid rise yeast makes a slightly denser bread and technically most rapid rise yeast doesn't actually need to be “proofed.” There's also an ongoing debate about whether or not the two are really interchangeable in equal amounts. I use them all interchangeably and haven't noticed any significant difference. I usually buy Fleischmann's Active Dry Yeast simply because that's what I'm used to and I'm old-fashioned like that. If you're really concerned, consult the recipe and use whatever kind of yeast it says to use. If it doesn't specify, use regular active dry yeast.
Just like bread, yeast jars, packets and blocks can be stored in the cabinet, refrigerator, or freezer. And just like bread, they last longest in the freezer (up to a year), and less in the refrigerator or cabinet.
Before baking with yeast, it is necessary to proof it. This step proves that the yeast works and has not gone bad. To do this, mix one packet (two and a quarter teaspoons) yeast with one-quarter cup of 100-degree water. I gauge the temperature with my finger – if I can't really feel a temperature difference between the room and the water (in other words, if it feels like nothing when I put my finger in the water), that is a good temperature. It's better for the water to be too cold than too hot, as hot water will kill the yeast and cold water will simply take longer to proof. Mix the yeast and water and let it sit, undisturbed, for ten minutes. If the mixture has turned somewhat foamy, then the yeast is good and you can go ahead and bake with this proofed yeast. Otherwise, your yeast is “dead” and cannot be used.
After you mix your ingredients together, the recipe may call for you to knead the bread. Flour your hands and on a clean, floured surface, stretch the dough away from you with the heel of your hands (this reminds me of how my cat paws my stomach when she wants attention). Fold the furthest-away part back towards you and continue to stretch the dough in this manner, repeating for 10-20 minutes until the dough is smooth, stretchy, and can be stretched thinly without breaking.
The recipe will specify how long (or to what size) you should allow dough to rise before baking the bread. I've seen dough take an hour or more to rise, and I've seen it rise to over double its original size. Generally, it is best to allow dough to rise in a warm place. I usually do it on the stove with the oven turned on and a towel or saran wrap loosely draped over the dough to trap in heat. On cold days, dough may take a really long time to rise to a desirable size – this is fine. The time it takes to rise will not affect the quality of the bread, as long as you let it rise to the correct size before baking.
Bread recipes may call for you to punch the dough after it has risen, and then knead it before baking or allow it to rise up again. To do this, simply make a fist and punch the center of the dough. This will cause the air that has formed in the dough to deflate.
The whole thing really sounds a lot more intimidating than it actually is. Trust me – if you survived 10th grade algebra, this yeast thing will be a piece of cake. Or rather, a piece of bread…