Yeast, tiny microorganisms which play such an important role in baking, aren’t as much of an obstacle to delicious homemade bread as you might think! You don’t have to go out and buy a bread machine, either. Here are some tips that will open a whole new part of the kitchen experience for you.
Everything in the kitchen really depends on freshness, and that’s also true in yeast baking. Yeast has an expiration date, and works best with fresh flour and other ingredients. Refrigerating yeast is a good idea, also. Sealed packets make life easy, and allow you to buy a few and try different varieties and brands of yeast. You will find several kinds in the grocery store, including one specifically labeled for bread machines, and one called “active dry” which is a good general purpose yeast. That’s a good place to start, you can explore cakes of yeast, and rapid rising yeast later.
If you do refrigerate your yeast, leave it out to come to room temperature before using. There are several key components to the reaction which makes yeast bread what it is, and temperature is an important one. Water of the proper temperature (usually 120-130 degrees Fahrenheit) is key, as is the combination of salt, which moderates the yeast reaction, and sugar, which feeds it. If this sounds like a chemistry lab, it somewhat is!
The yeast will provide the “rise” in the dough, as well as the transformation of the flour into the sticky, “glutinous” dough which you have seen at pizza parlors and bakeries. Each recipe will have a variation on the procedures for producing that dough, and it is important to follow it precisely. This is not a place for the teacup estimators among us! Even substituting whole wheat flour for regular will have a significant effect (whole wheat has less of the gluten required to hold things together). Perhaps later you will have a feel for things, but if you want good results, measure accurately, and follow the recipe.
Those of us who estimate might also cut another corner – in the kneading and rising. Yes, it really does take some time to knead the dough. It’s not just a matter of mixing the ingredients, you are actually helping the transformation which the yeast is busy making. If you do the right amount of kneading, you will produce the kind of texture and stringiness of the dough for the kind of food you are making. Pizza dough in particular relies on this, to make a thin crust without kneading the dough sufficiently is nearly impossible.
Waiting for rising and “punching down” is also important, once again to allow the yeast to do their work, as they produce gas as they do what they do best. Following directions for this process is very important, and don’t forget to consider the environment in which the rising is taking place, which should be room temperature, with no drafts. Some people find that a cold oven is perfect for this!
The rewards for your patience will be immediately obvious when your dough is ready to cook. Yes, your bread machine can make very nice bread, but without an understanding of what it is doing, you can only dump prepared mixes into the chamber and press “go.” As you learn more about the yeast process and what ingredients might affect the transformation due to acidity or otherwise, you can improvise, and if you do the work yourself – what satisfaction! The delicious aroma, so warm and inviting, is so satisfying when you know that you “birthed” the bread yourself through careful attention to the process of working with yeast, and have participated in what bakers have been doing for centuries, making a staple of civilized life. Enjoy!