Ask Peter: Yeast
I am always put off baking with yeast because, invariably, the recipe I want to make calls for a type of yeast I am unfamiliar with. Could you please explain to me if there’s a difference between active dried yeast and Surebake? And sometimes a recipe requires fresh yeast. Where do you buy it, can you store it at home and can you substitute fresh for dried? Also, should the water be warm or boiling to activate dried yeast? Recipes seem to differ but I understood boiling water killed yeast.
To be honest I wasn’t sure what Surebake was, but having jumped on the internet I can now tell you that it contains several things including active dried yeast, wheat flour and bread improvers and so, in most respects, it could be seen as a form of dried yeast, slightly diluted.
However, the thing with yeast is that you can add as much as you want, and the more you add the quicker your bread, cake or batter will rise. Be warned though, too much yeast can affect the flavour and make the finished product taste yeasty to a point of unpleasantness, so you’re always better to have time on your side and let things prove with just enough yeast to make it rise, slowly and gradually.
A rushed yeast-raised bread will likely be a disappointment, and unlike using baking powder to get a cake to rise, or baking soda for Irish soda bread, yeast is best left to work at a gentle speed. If you think about it, sourdough — the slowest of all breads with the most chewy (in a pleasant way) of textures, is miles away from the crumbly texture of a pound cake or a loaf of soda bread. So take things slowly and be patient is the motto with yeast.
I happily swap between fresh yeast and active dried yeast and find no real difference between the two, although fresh yeast seems to work a tiny bit quicker. Dried yeast is simply a dehydrated, granulated, version of the fresh “paste” — which itself is slightly damp but also very firm at the same time.
One advantage of dried versus fresh is that it’s easily transported and even more easily stored. I’ve taken a can of dried yeast on camping holidays with me as it survives being lugged around the country, in back-pack or camper van, whereas fresh yeast will need to be stored in a fridge and kept cool. It can also be frozen. What it can’t tolerate is getting warm and moist as this makes it want to “go to work” and you need keep it dormant until you actually want it to start working in a dough or batter.
Another advantage (although perhaps it’s more an ease) of dried yeast is that you can simply add it to your dry ingredients and then add tepid liquid and mix everything together. With fresh yeast you do tend to dissolve it in tepid liquid before adding to everything else.
Having said that I tend to activate either type of yeast by mixing it into a slurry with a few spoonfuls of the flour and half the liquid from the recipe. Never add salt at this stage as it can kill the yeast, as can any liquid hotter than tepid. It is a living organism, so treat it as such.
Once I see the slurry beginning to bubble I know the yeast is happily working away and then I mix that into the dough with all the remaining flour, liquids and everything else.
As to where to buy fresh yeast, I’ve always suggested that people contact a local bakery — if you’re lucky the bakers may be prepared to sell you some.
But please, be aware bakers are some of the hardest-working of all cooks, working terrible night shifts, often in solitude, so you might also be best to get used to using dried yeast, and I promise your recipe won’t be compromised.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes here.