Nothing says home like the aroma of homemade bread straight from the oven. This task that used to be a necessity but lost its significance as commercial bakeries came into being is now making a comeback as folks are realizing the health benefits and pleasures of making their bread from scratch.
Yeast, of course, is the ingredient that makes bread rise and can offer challenges of its own for bakers who do not understand the basics. I have actually heard people say they were scared to try yeast recipes because they thought they just looked too hard. On the contrary, working with yeast offers many unique rewards.
Yeast is just one of many leavening agents that make baked goods rise. Baking powder and soda are two more common ones which do not require kneading and rising time like yeast. Have you ever watched someone kneading dough? The rhythmic movements of “working the dough,” as it is called, take a person back to the days when men and women actually worked with their hands to create baked delights that just say “home.”
What I didn’t know through the years is that yeast is really a microscopic, single-celled fungus that is used to make bread, wine and beer. Bet all those people who say they don’t eat mushrooms because they don’t eat fungus didn’t know this!
Like most things, nothing is as simple as it first appears to be. Yeast isn’t just yeast. There are actually four main categories; compressed fresh yeast, Brewer’s yeast, nutritional yeast and active dry yeast.
Fresh yeast, also known as cake yeast is mostly used by professionals because it is highly perishable and must be used in a short time after opening. When used in making breads and pastries, it greatly improves the grain, texture and flavor of the dough.
Brewer’s yeast is mainly grown on hops and is a by-product of beer making. It contains nutrients such as chromium, B vitamins, selenium, potassium, iron, zinc and magnesium. It is considered a probiotic with many of the same intestinal health benefits as yogurt. In addition to the probiotic benefits, Brewer’s yeast is also touted as a protein supplement and is promoted as an energy and immunity enhancer.
Different from Brewer’s yeast, nutritional yeast has many health benefits. Affectionately called “nooch,” it is an inactive yeast made from sugar cane and beet molasses and has no leavening ability. Many vegans use it to replace cheese in certain recipes. It is found in the supplement section of health food stores and is popular because it is free of gluten and sugar and low in fat and sodium.
Active dry yeast is, by far, the most well-known and most popular of the yeasts. It’s the ingredient responsible for all the breads, cinnamon rolls, soft pretzels and many other mouth-watering baked goods. It can be bought in small envelopes, jars or bulk.
It also comes in regular or quick rising. The rapid rise version is milled into smaller particles and has enzymes and other additives included to make the dough rise in half the amount of time. After kneading, the first rise can be skipped and the dough can be shaped directly into loaves. However, what you save in time you lose in flavor and structure. The final loaf will be bland and commercial tasting.
So, exactly how does yeast make bread rise? As long as I have been baking, this is the part that totally surprised me. The yeast, or fungus, needs a warm environment and food to grow. This is why bread recipes always need a little sugar or honey. The fungus begins to eat, thus digesting part of the sugars in the bread dough. This rapid eating/digesting cycle makes it a little gassy so the dough releases gas bubbles of carbon dioxide and small amounts of ethanol alcohol. These bubbles, trapped in the dough, cause the rising action. OK, I do agree, the next time I reach for a slice of bread I probably would be better off not knowing exactly how it was made!
Dry yeast is produced in large industrial vats. Molasses is often used as the “host” sugar for it to grow. It is then dried out so it forms spores and packaged. Since this fungus is temperamental, It is always recommended to “proof the yeast” before using. This is done by mixing a little sugar and warm water with the yeast before adding it to the entire recipe. If it begins to grow within five minutes it is good. If it does not, the usual culprit is the yeast was too old or the water too hot.
I used to love watching my grandmother knead the dough and all the time she did she would be talking to us grandkids. There was just something magical to watch how her hands worked in the dough and made such delicious comfort food from a few basic ingredients.
All in all, I find it rewarding to bake with yeast. The aroma permeates the whole house and generally draws people to the kitchen. There is nothing better on cold winter nights than to share a bowl of homemade soup and a loaf of comfort with family and friends.