03/26/2013 09:05 am ET

Don't Be Scared, It's Just Yeast: The Fool-Proof Guide To Rising Success

Flickr: quinn.anya

We realized with horror recently that some of you are missing out on some of earth's most delicious stuff because certain foods and techniques seem kind of scary. "Don't Be Scared, It's Just _____!" is our new series tackling the foods you will be glad you gave a shot. Quit hiding and let's get cooking!

People are always intimidated by bread baking, as though it requires more science and precision than it does to bake a cake or make brownies (which it doesn't). We get it though, the difference is obvious. Most bread baking calls for yeast, and yeast scares people. While baking powder (so long as fresh) can always be counted on to get the rising job done, yeast isn't quite as cooperative.

Yeast requires a little thought, a little finesse. Since it is a living organism, it demands some consideration. But don't worry, you don't have to put much more than 35 seconds worth of thought into yeast. Once you understand the dos and don'ts of working with yeast, the rest just falls into place. And it will rise into beautiful loaves of homemade dough.

Here's what you need to know:

  • There are two types of yeast that most beginning home bakers deal with. Instant yeast and dry active yeast. Dry active yeast is more common (it's the kind that comes in those little packets) but instant yeast is easier to work with. They are essentially the same thing, but instant yeast comes in smaller grains and doesn't require proofing.
  • You have to proof dry active yeast. This is where people get scared, and for no reason. Proofing yeast is easy. To proof yeast, place the amount of yeast needed in a bowl of warm water or milk (a small amount of the liquid called for in the recipe you are following). Let it sit for one to two minutes until it has completely dissolved. Once it's silky and smooth the yeast is ready to use. If this doesn't happen, try again.
  • Do not use hot liquid or boiling liquid to proof yeast. This is where most people go wrong. Hot liquid will kill the yeast which guarantees that your bread will never rise. (And will most likely result in you swearing off bread baking for life.) Stick with room temperature to warm liquid for proofing.
  • Yeast is sensitive to temperature. It goes dormant at 50 degrees and feeds best at 70-80 degrees. Be sure that you're working in an environment that's pleasing to your yeast. If your house is a little cold, allow it to rise the dough while sitting on a warm surface (like on top of a heated oven). If it's too hot, try storing the rising dough in a cooler area (sometimes an unlit oven will also do the trick).
  • Store yeast in the freezer for best results. And never use yeast past its expiration date. It's just not unreliable.

That's it. Those five points are all you need to know to work with yeast successfully every time. You're now ready to bake (and eat!) loaves upon loaves of homemade bread. Don't forget the butter.

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