Unfamiliarity with yeast can often be the biggest barrier to learning to make bread but it knead (HA) not be. Yeast is happy to do your bread rising bidding and can be far less tempermental than a sourdough starter.
What is yeast?
Yeasts are microorganisms that feed on the sugars in your flour or those that you add directly to the dough.
How do they work?
As the yeasts consume sugars in the flour they burp out carbon dioxide which gets trapped in the dough and causes it to rise. When you bake your dough the yeasts provide one last burst of gas (resulting in what is called oven spring) and then die off, leaving the baked dough to support the structure built by the rising gas.
What do I buy, and how do I use it?
In the baking aisle of your local store you will encounter several options but will have two main choices: active dry and rapid rise yeast.
Active dry yeast gets it name because it has to be ‘activated’ separately before you can incorporate it with the rest of your ingredients. Otherwise, the yeast will do nothing. Activation is accomplished by mixing your yeast with a small amount of warm (100-110 F) water and sugar. Cold water won’t do much, so do check to make sure your water is warm enough. This helps break down larger yeast particles and get them started on their sugar eating adventures. Once activated you can add the remainder of your dough ingredients and proceed like normal. Be careful that it doesn’t get too hot though, otherwise you’ll kill your yeast. Sadly it took me a several attempts at making pizza dough three years ago to grasp this concept, and I learned my lesson by eating unintentional matzah pizzas.
Rapid rise yeast seems to have as many different names as a schedule 1 drug. In addition to rapid rise I’ve seen it go by instant, fast rise, quick rise, and bread machine yeast. Rapid rise yeast was engineered for bread machines and as such has smaller particles and does not need to be activated. Treat rapid rise yeast like any other dry ingredient in your dough. Mix things up, add in your liquid, and go from there. Using warm water (around 120 F) will help speed things up but it is not necessary with rapid rise yeast. As long as you don’t use water that is too hot (130 F or above), the yeast will get going, albeit perhaps a bit slowly. Rapid rise yeast is particularly great if you’d like to do a slow cold rise (helps create a better flavor) because you can actually mix your dough with ice water if you wanted.