Whether you’re a veteran baker or you’re trying your hand at some leavened goodies for the very first time, prepping your baked goods is crucial — especially when it comes to selecting the right kind of yeast. Just because active dry yeast and instant yeast are both used as leavening agents in bread doesn't mean they're the same product. While they may look identical on the shelves of your grocery store, there are subtle differences in the way that they are made and the way that they are intended to be used that's important to know beforehand.
The main difference between popular yeast varieties is their moisture content. What this boils down to is that active dry yeast must be dissolved in liquid before it is incorporated into other ingredients, whereas instant yeast can be mixed directly into dry ingredients. Keep reading to learn more about which yeast variety is right for you.
What is active dry yeast?
This partially dehydrated, granular yeast is the more common variety of yeast that you’ll see at the grocery store. Active dry yeast is sold in packets or small jars and provides an airy, light texture, while adding a punch of wheat-y, nutty flavor to whatever it is used to leaven. This shelf stable product was developed by Fleischman’s Company during World War II so that the U.S. Army could make bread without having to refrigerate fresh yeast (which typically lasts in the refrigerator for no more than two weeks).
As any bread pro would tell you, the dormant yeast cells in active dry yeast need to be proofed. In order to do this, you should always dissolve the yeast in lukewarm liquid such as water, milk, or beer (about 110°F), and wait for it to bloom. Bakers typically add sugar or honey at this point as well to feed the yeast.
A thin layer of fuzzy bubbles should form at the top of the liquid after about 5 to 10 minutes, and this is how you know that the yeast is still alive. If it doesn’t bloom, that’s because the yeast has probably expired — remember, active dry yeast should keep at room temperature for about six months on average. Once the yeast has been rehydrated in your proofing process, you'll continue to follow along on your baking recipe to add the rest of your dry and wet ingredients.
What is instant yeast?
Instant yeast (also frequently referred to as quick-rise yeast or fast-acting yeast) is another dry yeast; however, it is dried in a much quicker fashion than active dry yeast, and milled more finely overall. Fast-acting yeast is a modern variety which was introduced in the 1970s. Moisture content is ultimately what differentiates varieties of yeast, and because instant yeast has a lower moisture content, it does not need to be proofed in the same way that active yeast does.
You can mix instant yeast directly into your batch of dry ingredients without waiting for it to bloom. You may also come across some yeast marketed as “rapid-rise,” which is a variety of instant yeast that is typically enhanced with enzymes that help strengthen the gluten and make the dough rise faster (hence, the name). Most leavened baking projects require two separate rises, but when you’re using instant, you can typically bake after just one rise.
Which kind of yeast should I use?
Ultimately, this comes down to personal preference. Some bakers prefer dissolving the yeast into liquid first to confirm that it’s alive before proceeding with the recipe. For baking newcomers, this might save you from making a grave mistake and putting in a bad loaf into the oven (all that waiting time, wasted!). But if you bake a lot and are confident that your yeast is good, then there’s no reason to doubt yourself.
It's important to note that the final baked product — bread or otherwise — may look slightly different, or have a slight variation throughout prepping the loaf to bake. Any yeast should work if you use it in the amounts prescribed in a recipe, and according to directions; but try out both varieties, and see if you have a preference.
Can I swap out dry yeast for instant yeast?
The short answer: Yes! If a recipe calls for active yeast, but you're only able to find instant (or happen to have it stocked), you can make a one-for-one substitution. Just bear in mind that the dough will probably rise faster (which could be a good thing!). Adjust by shaving off 10-15 minutes of the prescribed rising time. If the situation is reversed, and the recipe calls for instant yeast and you only have active dry yeast on hand, consider adding some additional rising time for your loaf of bread
Despite the differences between active dry yeast and instant yeast, the ingredient is ultimately always a single-celled microorganism that is used to make bread rise — so you can always use them interchangeably.
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