Is it the yeast or is it me?
March 14, 2010 9:26 AM   Subscribe

How should I be handling my yeast?

I've never had a good touch with yeast baking. And I seem to be cursed when it comes to yeast. Last night I was trying to make pita, and I proofed three different brands of yeast (1st: Fleischmann's from a small bulk jar, 2nd: an individual packet of Red Star, then 3rd: some bulk product I ran out and got from the health food store) and none of them "foamed" when mixed with water and sugar and left to stand for five minutes. I used "wrist temperature" water - ie: felt like a neutral temp when I dipped my wrist in it.

I finally made the pita anyway, thinking that maybe it would work eventually, but of course they turned out flat and hard ):

Any idea what I may be doing wrong? Suggestions for where to go for more advice on yeast baking? (I suck at kneading too, so advice welcome on that as well.)
posted by serazin to Food & Drink (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Try measuring your water temperature with a thermometer. My guess is that it may be hotter than you think. Otherwise, I can't see any reason that none of your three yeasts worked at all. What happens when you proof them for longer? Any action?
posted by oneirodynia at 9:37 AM on March 14, 2010

(I'm assuming your yeast is fresh.)
posted by oneirodynia at 9:39 AM on March 14, 2010

Something wrong with your water? Try bottled.
posted by themel at 9:41 AM on March 14, 2010

If my memory of Joy of Cooking, is correct, normally you should proof your yeast for around 10 minutes OR until it starts to foam - you're literally waiting for "proof" that your yeast is still good. The good thing about most modern bread formulas is that there are a preference for using "quick rise" or "instant" yeast, which you can simply mix into the flour along with the rest of your ingredients (it can do this because it is a smaller "grind" of yeast and will rapidly incorporate with everything else). For a website with lots of good bread recipes, I would highly recommend King Arthur Flour, who also run a blog with fairly regular updates and are good about answering questions you may have in the comments. If you want to go the cookbook route, the two books I would refer you to are Rose's (you will be on a first name basis with her to once you've had a few of her books on your shelf for a while) The Bread Bible, written mostly for the home baker, or, for the perspective of a commercial baker, The Bread Baker's Apprentice. As far as kneading goes, it comes with practice - a silcone mat can be useful - but I generally employ the help of a 6qt Kitchen-Aid for that part.
posted by caminovereda at 9:41 AM on March 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Where are you keeping your yeast? It doesn't care for too much heat, so if you're not keeping it in the fridge, it might be dying before you ever get around to using it.

How old is your yeast? The older it gets, the less likely it is to be viable.

Try cooler water- cold water may slow how long it takes to proof, but it won't kill it like slightly too-hot water.

And be careful to make sure your proofing cup and spoons etc., are clean. Salt will kill your yeast before it can proof, as well.

I also suck at kneading. If you have a stand mixer, try using the dough hook on a setting between 2 and 3. Fantastic kneading, no effort on your part!
posted by headspace at 9:53 AM on March 14, 2010

My guess is not that it's too hot. My guess is that it's too cold. It should feel actively warm, but not hot, to the touch. If it feels neutral, it's too cold. You're probably not getting it really activated. Unlike the rapid rise, active dry yeast has a pretty healthy layer of dead yeasties that have to come off before it will work. I always use water that feels...well, like a warm bath for a newborn; never had one fail.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 10:03 AM on March 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

First: are you using traditional yeast? If your package says "rapid rise" or "instant," it's not intended to be proofed, but to be mixed in with the dry ingredients. It's only the standard old-fashioned yeast that needs to be proofed.

Yeast will proof between 100F and 110F, so I use water that is slightly warmer than wrist-neutral. (When I first started baking bread, I used a thermometer just to be sure.) Stir everything together so the yeast gets mixed with the water rather than sitting in a clump at the bottom of the bowl. And, as caminaovereda says, 10 minutes is plenty of time.

Each package should have the expiration date stamped on it somewhere. If the yeast has been sitting around too long, there's your answer. (This does not mean that you can't keep yeast around if you treat if right. I buy traditional yeast in 2-pound cans and keep it air-tight containers in the freezer; it keeps for a year or more. Apparently, it will keep in these conditions for up to ten years, though I always run out first.)

It's certainly possible that chlorinated water is interfering with the yeast's proofing. You can test this by using bottled water, using tap water run through a filter, or using tap water that's sat around for a few hours.
posted by Elsa at 10:07 AM on March 14, 2010

1) "dry yeast" is not just yeast; it is yeast plus a bunch of nutrients (so it is viable in water alone!)

2) yeast metabolizes sucrose (table sugar) only very slowly. the whole idea of "proofing" w/ sugar is a superstition.

3) real "proofing" takes hours. what you're doing (and what most recipes are really doing) is re-hydrating the yeast, guaranteeing their re-activation and a good distribution in the resulting dough.

4) 5 min is too soon to see the re-activation of the yeast by the water.

what i do is this:

a) yeast (i use "instant yeast") plus water plus enough flour to make a thin slurry; i like to believe (though i might be making this up!) that the suspended starches in the slurry give the yeast an extra surface to cling to and help keep them in suspension.

b) wait until this is good and foamy, usually 10-20 minutes; the proteins in the flour slurry will really help highlight the yeast's activity b/c they will form really big/strong bubbles)

c) make dough, etc...

have fun :)
posted by DavidandConquer at 10:28 AM on March 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've "proofed" both Fleischman's and Red Star yeast in exactly the manner you describe, using regular tapwater, and they foamed without difficulty in ~5 minutes. My guess would be, as others above have mentioned, that your temperature is too cool-- yeast is very temperature-sensitive, and I'm not sure I'd trust a subjective measure like wrist sensation to verify that I'd gotten my temp right. Kitchen thermometers are super-cheap and available at your local grocery-- that'd be my recommendation.
posted by Bardolph at 11:03 AM on March 14, 2010

Yes, as DavidandConquer says here above: mix with flour and water - not sugar and water. Sometimes 10-20 minutes aren't even enough for the foamy stage; it so depends on the water, surrounding temperature, whatnot. I actually don't even bother about that pre-foaming, unless there's fat in my dough.

The mental switch one has to make is to wait until the yeast does it's thing, as opposed to wondering whether it will do anything at all. Most of the time your yeast will be just fine. The amounts quoted in recipes are actually often even on the large side.

As a practical elaboration: since I'm not having access to my usual Swedish baker's yeast here, I bought some Allinson Easy Bake Yeast (UK). Their recipe on the package asks you to mix 650g/1lb7oz flour, salt, sugar and mix in one 7g sachet of yeast, later some butter (I would also add the salt later). No 'proofing' or other hocus-pocus. Kneading time 10 minutes, a single rising of 30 minutes.
30 minutes is too fast; it may sound attractive, but I doubt that the bread will be anything special that way.
I have been using that single first sachet for the third 600 g wholemeal spelt bread yet, and there's still a teaspoon full left. Even opened, it keeps - clearly - for months. Using less yeast takes some more time but greatly reduces the funny yeasty taste otherwise known from home baking. I start in the early afternoon; I mix, I knead, I wait. Two risings at least, baking c. an hour before bedtime. I even tested once making a smug little pre-fermented batch of pre-dough, yeast and water mixed, to be kept a few days in the fridge for more taste. Combined this with the rest of the flour and more water, kneaded for 15 minutes, put a towel over the dough, left it someplace warm and let it do its thing. Beautiful bread.
Yeast baking's enemy no. 1 is fear.
posted by Namlit at 11:10 AM on March 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

OK, so I should check my storage situation, measure the water temp with a thermometer, and give the whole thing more time. I think I can handle that!

I'll give it a shot and report back.
posted by serazin at 1:41 PM on March 14, 2010

Everyone else has given you all the advice I have to give. But I still want to pass along some encouragement, from someone who's been there! Yeast recipes are tricky, and the maddening thing is that they depend on things "looking right" or "feeling right."

Unlike cookie baking, which is just a chemistry exercise (follow the instructions and you'll be fine) there's a lot more gut instinct involved with yeast baking. It sounds so cliched, but every failure is a valuable learning experience in disguise.

Trust me, I have ruined many a loaf! But persist, and you'll soon find you've "got the knack." It's not magic, it's just a matter of experience. Sounds like you're halfway there already!
posted by ErikaB at 6:10 PM on March 14, 2010

Are you adding salt last? Salt needs to go in last so the other ingredients can dilute it; otherwise, it kills yeast cells.
posted by markcmyers at 7:57 AM on March 15, 2010

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