What’s the difference between fresh, active, and instant yeast?
When to use which yeast and how to substitute them
Personally, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like the smell of freshly baked bread, especially when the warm, yeasty fragrance greets them in their own home. But as much as most people would like to pull a loaf of hot, homemade bread out of their own oven week after week (and don’t even get us started on our unfulfilled dreams of homemade cinnamon rolls every Sunday), many people are nervous—if not completely fearful—about baking with yeast.
Which type and how much yeast you use can make a big difference in all sorts of baked goods. From dense brioche that ruins your weekend to rock-hard braided breads you let wither away in the corner of your kitchen, it’s so important to know both how yeast works and how to use it to overcome your fears. It’s not as difficult as it may seem!
Stuck deciding between fresh yeast and instant? What about active dry or nutritional yeast? Is there actually a difference between these or can they simply be replaced with and for each other? Time to face your fears—fluffy cinnamon rolls and homemade breads, here we come!
What is yeast?
Yeast is a single-celled microorganism in the fungus kingdom, the same family as mushrooms and molds. While there are thousands of varieties of yeast, we only use one type when we bake, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, also called baker’s yeast or “sugar eating” yeast. The name is fitting, as it actually refers to how this yeast performs its job—eating the sugars and starches inside the bread dough, converting them into carbon dioxide gases which in turn cause the bread to rise, and thereby create a light and airy texture. The rising process is then halted and completed when the dough is baked.
So why does the same variety of yeast come in so many different forms? Well, yeast used to come in one single form—fresh—but thanks to technological advancements, food companies were able to dehydrate yeast around 1941, creating a shelf stable product for the masses.
How is yeast made?
Yeasts occur naturally, but the commercial baker’s yeast used today is a highly-selected yeast that is bred, grown, and processed specifically for baking. From a small growth tube to culture tanks to fermenters, the yeast undergoes multiple stages of a culturing process with the help of a liquid that contains i.e. molasses, nutrient salts, and B vitamins. In the end, it ends up in large storage tanks and from there the fresh yeast then gets filtered, pressed, and packed very tightly into the small squares you can buy in the super market. Active dry and instant yeasts are what you get the fresh yeast is dried—active dry having a smaller ratio of live to dead yeast cells than that of instant yeast.
Can you freeze yeast?
Yes! You can easily store fresh yeast to keep it for months (sometimes even years) in the freezer. Before using it, give it enough time to defrost and warm to room temperature, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, then transfer it to an airtight container and store in the freezer for up to 3 months. Make sure to let the yeast fully thaw overnight in the fridge before using. If it looks dry, throw it out to save yourself the trouble and make sure to wrap your cubes tighter in the future. Dry yeasts can also be kept longer, up to a year, in the freezer.
Fresh yeast is a slurry of yeast and water formed into a crumbly, solid block. Fresh yeast is favored by seasoned bakers as it is considered to provide a richer, slightly sweeter flavor with a better “rising” quality than its dried counterparts.
While it might look intimidating, fresh yeast is easy to use once you get the hang of it. Start by crumbling fresh yeast into the warm liquid portion of your bread recipe and allow it to “bloom.” Once the fresh yeast begins to bubble and foam (the “bloom” you’re looking for), stir the yeasty liquid into the dry component of your bread recipe.
Look for fresh yeast in the dairy or refrigerated section of your supermarket. It is a highly perishable product, so only buy as much as you can use and use it in 2 weeks (stored in the fridge) or freeze it, as previously mentioned.
When to use fresh yeast
Fresh yeast is ideal for use in breads that require a long, slow fermentation and rise, as their active reaction lasts longer than that of dried yeast. It always works out very well when a recipe calls for multiple proofs, like this braided bread with herbs or this homemade flatbread. The same basically goes for sweet recipes that you want to be super fluffy and soft, like jelly doughnuts or a batch of the infamous cinnamon rolls—trust us, we know exactly how tough it can be to spend so much time waiting on your dough to rise, but it’s totally worth it in the end.
Active dry yeast
Active dry is a dehydrated, ground yeast. It is the most popular form of yeast for home bakers and the one most commonly found in grocery stores. Active dry yeast was developed during World War II to solve the problem of limited refrigeration. It contains a “dormant” yeast that can be kept at room temperature for several months before use. You can also store active dry yeast in the refrigerator or freezer in a dark container for between 4–6 months or up to a year.
Contrary to popular belief, active dry yeast doesn’t need to be proofed before being added to bread dough. This yeast can be added directly to the dry—not wet—ingredients while making bread. Still, some home bakers feel better by first mixing it with a small amount of warm water needed for the recipe and adding it to the remaining ingredients afterwards. To be on the safe side, doublecheck the package instructions before using this yeast.
If you’re uncertain whether your dried yeast is still active (aka still alive and able to work properly), add a half teaspoon to warm water and a sprinkle of sugar. Yeast that is still functioning will bloom (bubble and foam) within ten minutes.
When to use active dry yeast
Even though active dry yeast is the favorite yeast for most home bakers, there are still some people that refuse to use it. Maybe it’s because the word fresh just makes fresh yeast more appealing? Either way, when used properly the results between these two yeasts are indiscernible. Even if you do prefer fresh yeast, it’s always good to have backup of active dry yeast at home in case your urge to #procrastibake should strike.
Since you don’t need to proof it, it’s the perfect yeast when you want to save some time. Why not convince your skeptic, fresh-yeast-only friends with these homemade breakfast cherry rolls, cute Marzipan challah hedgehogs, or this hearty fig-walnut bread?
Instant yeast is more finely ground than active dry yeast. Marketed as dissolving and activating more quickly (thus the instant part), it is nearly identical to active dry. It is sometimes also listed as “bread machine yeast”, “rapid-rise yeast” or “quick-rise yeast”.
Sometimes you’ll also find them with additional enzymes to make the dough rise even faster than fast—meaning that when used in recipes dictates two rising times, you can skip the first one and directly form a loaf after kneading. Like active dry, you should always add instant yeast directly to dry ingredients, with no blooming required.
Can you substitute different types of yeast with each other?
As you probably already assumed, it’s no problem to substitute different types of yeast for each other, since they all work in similar ways, and are actually the same thing in different packages. There are just a few things to adjust and keep your eye on for successful swaps.
Instant yeast and active dry yeast: Instant and active dry yeast can be used interchangeably with each other. If a recipe calls for instant yeast and you want to use active dry yeast instead, just make sure to give it a bit more rising time than written in the recipe.
Fresh yeast and active dry yeast: When substituting fresh yeast for dry yeast in a recipe, use double the amount than given in the recipe, and the other way around. Just don’t forget, that fresh yeast needs to be proofed first before adding it to the remaining ingredients. If you switch out dry yeast for fresh yeast, you can skip the proofing and add the active dry yeast directly to the flour.
This infographic will make sure that you won’t forget the conversion:
Even more types of yeast
In addition to these common types of yeast, there are several other kinds that serve many different purposes.
Liquid yeast is, as you probably guessed, yeast in liquid form. Some bakeries actually use them for baking but they are most commonly used for brewing beer. Sold in bags separated with a nutrient solution, you simply mix them together to activate the yeast.
When taking a look at the prodcution of yeast, we already learned that brewer’s yeast is where it all starts. It’s not used for baking but is in fact famous for its health benefits. You can get it as a powder, capsules, tablets, or pre-mixed into various products. Brewer’s yeast is said to be good for your skin, hair, nervous and immune systems, and contains B vitamins and other minerals.
Nutritional yeast is a deactivated form of yeast, so it won’t be helping any dough rise. Sold in flakes or as a powder, it’s often used as a condiment or for seasoning dishes. It’s especially popular with vegans as it’s said to have a cheesy, nutty taste and contains a lot of B vitamins and minerals—just like brewer’s yeast. Interested? Then check out our recipe for vegan spinach and mushroom lasagna featuring nutritional yeast.
Published on September 1, 2018