The FAQ Series: Yeast

This post likely would have been much more helpful about fourteen months ago, when the baking craze started in full force, but better late than never. Hopefully people still bake on occasion? Today we’re going to talk about yeast, a reasonably simple subject that gets complicated surprisingly quickly.

Before we get into the precise details of the baking yeast we use today, it’s important to understand just a bit about the history of bread and leaveners in general. A leavener – basically anything that makes dough rise – can be physical, chemical or biological in nature. Physical leavening agents are air and steam, which might be incorporated either through mixing or through the oven’s heat. Chemical leaveners, most often baking soda and baking powder, create a chemical reaction that causes doughs to rise. And finally, yeast acts as a biological leavener; yeast is a microscopic organism that consumes simple sugars and creates carbon dioxide gas as a byproduct of fermentation, which in turn causes dough to expand. Yeast cells used in baking are found either in commercial packaged form or wild in a starter.

Yeast-risen doughs really are simpler than this picture makes them seem.

Prior to the introduction of standardized commercial yeast, breads were always made with wild yeasts – that is, random colonies of microorganisms floating around peacefully in the air. This is the basis of “sourdough starter,” a mixture of flour (typically wheat) and water left to ferment on its own timetable. Sourdough is a bit of an American misnomer since not all wild yeasted breads need necessarily be sour; “naturally leavened” is a better term, and one that clearly states that no commercial yeasts were incorporated. Because yeast strains are so hyperlocal, naturally leavened bread will always possess unique characteristics depending on where it’s made. San Francisco might be famous for its sourdough due to its humid maritime climate, but a starter transported from the Bay Area to Colorado will eventually shift entirely to local strains of available yeast, thus changing the bread’s flavor. Many professional bakers prefer the challenge and variability of working with starters and wild yeasts, but commercial packaged yeast yields much more consistent results for home bakers.

The commercial yeast we know today has only existed since the nineteenth century; it was originally a byproduct of the brewing industry. Commercial yeast is a standardized product, now always a carefully-cultured strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae made (at least in the U.S.) with molasses wort. Although supermarket yeast is readily available (except during a global pandemic) and produces remarkably consistent results, the names and packaging can be confusing. Hopefully we can clear that up, and help you produce amazing homemade breads and other baked goods!

Proofing active dry yeast in warm liquid is essential before mixing your dough.

Active dry yeast is probably the most common yeast available to home bakers. Sold in individual packets, small jars or bulk packages, active dry yeast must be “activated” before use by proofing it in a warm liquid (often water or milk, depending on the recipe). Because active dry yeast is dormant when it’s sold, the proofing step “awakens” the yeast, and since a small amount of honey or sugar is typically used, the now-awake yeast cells also have something to feed on after their long nap. Active dry yeast is great for home bakers because the proofing step guarantees that the yeast is still fresh and suitable for use, but it’s always essential to note that the proofing liquid needs to be just lukewarm – about 100 to 110 degrees F. Yeast won’t activate in temperatures that are too cold, and liquids that are too hot (over 135 F) will kill the yeast immediately.

So many names! So much unnecessary confusion!

Next to active dry yeast on the shelf, you’ll likely also see instant yeast. Instant yeast might also be labeled as “quick-rise” or “rapid-rise” or even “pizza yeast,” all of which confuses the situation even further. Instant yeast has been milled to a much finer consistency, meaning that the granules dissolve quicker and can be added directly with other dry ingredients in a recipe, rather than proofed as mentioned above. The downside to this, of course, is that if your yeast is dead, you won’t know about it until whatever you’re baking comes out of the oven without any rise whatsoever. Instant yeast also often includes enzymes and other secret ingredients that help doughs rise faster, cutting down or even eliminating much of the advance work of baking. Instant yeast can also take higher temperatures than active dry can. Many guides indicate that active dry and instant yeast can be used interchangeably, but I think it’s important to understand the science behind both and figure out which is the best choice for the recipe you’re making.

Starter, as mentioned above, is simply an unpredictable mixture of wild yeasts captured in a roughly equal mixture of flour and water. Starters need to be kept active by discarding and then feeding, and thus are a bit more complicated than simply opening a packet of yeast. Naturally leavened breads need much more rising time than those made with strong commercial yeast; I use my starter for overnight loaves with a long, cool fermentation. If you’re maintaining a starter, take care never to introduce packaged yeast into your original container; the commercial S. cerevisiae is so strong that it will quickly multiply and take over your entire starter, pushing out your carefully collected wild yeasts. One wonderful aspect of keeping a starter alive is that you always have some to share if others are looking to experiment with naturally leavened breads.

Fresh yeast, also called cake yeast or compressed yeast, is virtually never seen in America. It is highly perishable, always kept refrigerated, and typically only used in professional bakeries, and only rarely even then. I attended culinary school in France and did learn to bake with it there, but I never use it here. Many of my vintage baking books reference fresh or cake yeast; if you want to try an old recipe that calls for fresh yeast, look up a conversion chart so you can use standard dry yeast. Should you find unexpectedly yourself with a block of fresh yeast, use it as quickly as possible.

Delicious! Nutritious! Great for vegans! Not great for bread baking!

And just to keep you on your toes, there’s also nutritional yeast! If you adhere to a vegan diet you’re likely already familiar with these bright yellow flakes. Nutritional yeast offers a savory, cheesy flavor not often found in plants, as well as a rare non-animal source of vitamin B12, and as such is indispensable in most vegan diets. While nutritional yeast is actually the same S. cerevisiae strain used for baker’s yeast, it is entirely deactivated and so cannot – I repeat, cannot – ever be used in bread baking, as it simply won’t work at all. Nutritional yeast is useful for a variety of reasons, and thankfully is far more widely available now, but please do not attempt to substitute nutritional yeast for any other format of baker’s yeast.

A few other tips for working with yeast: remember to get a good thermometer and keep it handy if you’re not confident about what “lukewarm” actually means; temperature really matters when it comes to yeast. If you only have instant yeast but want to make a recipe calling for active dry – or vice versa – use this handy conversion table. If you bake frequently, skip the individual packets, which are surprisingly expensive, and buy yeast in bulk at a restaurant supply store. These bulk packages usually only cost about $5 and have over a hundred times as much yeast for about twice the money – a spectacular value! You can store your yeast in the refrigerator, but in our dry desert climate I never have trouble keeping it at room temperature. If you have yeast of questionable freshness, test it by combining the packet (always about 2 ¼ teaspoons in U.S. measurements) with ½ cup of lukewarm water and one teaspoon of sugar. Stir gently; after about ten minutes, the mixture should be bubbly and creamy, and can be used as directed. If nothing happens, the yeast is dead – don’t waste the rest of your ingredients. And buy some new yeast.

Two very helpful baking books, especially if you’re at altitude.

If you’re baking at altitude, as I am, know that it’s usually a good idea to reduce the amount of yeast called for in bread doughs. The lower air pressure at higher elevations causes the yeast cells to become overly enthusiastic and the dough may well rise far too fast, which will compromise flavor development and oven spring. Overproofing is a big risk at altitude, and will negatively affect the final product.

In addition to the liquid temperature influencing yeast activity, the ambient temperature has a huge impact on yeast-risen doughs, too. My baking technique shifts quite a bit between winter and summer, as I have to adjust to temperatures that might be too cold (place the dough bowl on top of the gas fireplace!) or too hot (slow the rising by refrigerating the dough!).

One of the best tips I’ve ever seen in reference to baking is to “watch the dough, not the recipe.” It all seems unnecessarily complicated, but like anything else, baking takes practice. With experience, the ingredients and the techniques become simpler and easier to understand, and you start adjusting your doughs based on your senses, rather than what the recipe says. When you bake regularly, you start to learn how the dough will behave and how to create the ideal environment to yield a perfect finished product. Yeast-risen doughs are truly a living thing, and often adjustments need to be made.

Hopefully this post has clarified rather than muddied the topic of the different yeasts you might find in your local grocery store. As always, we’re here to help with any baking questions, so please contact us if we can offer any guidance. Wishing you lots of fresh homemade bread this week and always, dear friends.

Cookbook Club: Flatbreads & Flavors

Not pancakes! Rye-sourdough crumpets with homemade bitter orange marmalade and soft salted butter!

It’s been far too long since we’ve offered a Cookbook Club post here at FQF. And since I’m trying to select a “cookbook of the week” from my (extensive) collection to avoid the ever-present malady of dinner fatigue, now seems like a good time to dust off some classics. May I present Flatbreads & Flavors, by the inimitable team of Duguid & Alford? (They’ve split now – but they did produce some stellar cookbooks together. I’d also highly recommend Seductions of Rice and Hot Sour Salty Sweet.)

Naan dough resting after being rolled out into rounds.

I adore their cookbooks because they’re not simply recipes but travelogues, too. As with many of you, I read cookbooks like novels, and in this extended no-travel period we find ourselves stuck in, these books are a transcendent escape. Duguid & Alford visited some very off-the-beaten-track locales – long before selfie sticks, Instagram, and exploitative overtourism were issues – and they have the stories and adventures and recipes to prove it. Their passion was never high-end restaurants catering to well-heeled tourists, but the tiny, unremarkable street stand tucked away in a nondescript alleyway serving the best Afghan snowshoe naan or Sichuan pepper bread in the world. Their palpable love for both food and the people who make it, day in and day out, as they’ve done for centuries, shines through in all their books.

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Farm update: November 9

There’s no question that it’s been one hell of a week. Scratch that: it’s been one hell of a year. Over here at Quiet Farm, though, we carry on planting, tidying, baking, canning, caring for our animals and preparing for winter. Here are a few things we’ve been up to recently, if you’d like to see.

Ready for a long winter’s nap.

We planted our 2021 garlic crop this week; it’s tucked under a warm, cozy blanket of compost, alpaca manure and straw. Garlic is a unique annual crop in that it stays in the ground for about nine months, but during that time it requires almost no maintenance beyond occasional watering. As usual, we’d separated this year’s garlic harvest and saved the largest cloves for planting; thanks to garden magic, each individual clove grows into a full head. We planted about one hundred and fifty cloves in two new beds, then a friend texted with an offer of extra garlic that she had over-ordered (thanks, Judy!), so another seventy cloves went into an additional row. Every year I run out of garlic before the July harvest, and every year I vow to plant more. Will over two hundred heads be enough for next year? Stay tuned, and vampires beware.

Simple. Elegant. Gorgeous. (Also filthy.)

My winter will hopefully involve lots of sewing and reading, and N will focus his time and energy on this rescued beauty. For all you gearheads out there, this is a classic example of American motor muscle: a Ford 289 small-block V8 manufactured in the summer of 1964; it likely came out of a Mustang or a Galaxie. At the moment, it needs a lot of cleaning and possibly a replacement part or two, but who knows what it could accomplish once restored to its former glory? While electric cars might be all the rage, there is much to be said for the elegant simplicity of a powerful internal combustion engine. (We obviously love beautiful 1960s Americana here; see also the recently-acquired Singer Touch ‘N’ Sew.)

So thrilled with our dry bean harvest!

I may well be more proud of the beans we grew than just about any other crop. While I love growing vegetables, with each passing year (especially when there’s a pandemic and associated food scarcity!) I am more and more committed to growing long-term food storage crops like grains and beans. We planted just one small row of these ‘Peregion’ beans this season, and though I doubt I have more than a few pounds of homegrown beans for the winter, I know that I’ll be expanding on the varieties we grow next season. Dry beans are easy to grow and to store, require very little post-harvest processing and punch well above their weight in terms of nutritional value. Plus, they’re delicious! We hope to grow a lot more beans here at Quiet Farm.

Flying the coop.

Domestic chickens are the closest living relatives of the T.Rex (that’s true) and have similarly tiny brains. Here, one of our genius hens decided to make her way to the top of the chicken house, but was understandably somewhat perplexed as to how she might get down – although she did finally make the leap. Little does she know that the roof offers zero protection from raptors, of which we have many, and actually makes a perfect runway for a hungry hawk searching for a tasty chicken meal. If she continues her high-flying adventures, she’ll learn that lesson the hard way.

This is how we roll.

True confession time, friends: all November and December issues of food and entertaining magazines (Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Martha Stewart, etc.) received at Quiet Farm usually go straight into the library donation bin without even being opened once. Such is the extent of my loathing for the end-of-year holidays and all the attendant expectations, “must-have foods,” waste and excess! This year, however, a customer requested soft, fluffy dinner rolls, and I wanted to experiment with a few different iterations. Plus, I was completely sold on this caption: “If food could give you a hug, these rolls definitely would.” As we face the end of one of the most difficult years any of us have ever experienced, is there anything we all need more than a giant, warm, comforting hug? I think not. (P.S. The rolls are a bit labor-intensive but excellent, and they work at altitude. Worth your time.)

Wishing everyone a calm, restful and healthy week.

Farm update: September 28

Aspens Fall

How are things in your world, friends? It’s officially autumn here, with clear bluebird days and crisp, cool nights; the destructive Pine Gulch fire, sparked at the end of July about seventy miles away, is thankfully entirely contained. Our neighboring orchards are nearly all harvested, and our task list is packed with tidying, organizing, preserving, cleaning and stocking up for what we hope is a very snowy winter.

Hay Delivery 01 sml

Hay for animal feed has to stay dry at all costs.

The winter feed for our alpacas and llama has been delivered and safely stored in our de facto hay barn. As this is our first year with the animals, we had to guess on quantities and are hoping that we won’t find ourselves out of hay in frigid January with no green pasture on the near horizon – in a situation like that, a hay farmer will be able to charge us whatever he wishes, and rightfully so. Our llama, Kingston, has already figured out that with some crafty contortionist maneuvering he can reach the fresh bales through the corral panels. Bless his tenacity, and his flexible neck.

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The sourdough bandwagon

Here’s what N and I have learned in the five-odd weeks since this madness really kicked off: the things we’ve been doing for years – growing food, baking bread, keeping chickens, buying only secondhand, cutting our own hair – are exactly what all of America seems to want to do right now. Listen up, everyone: we’re cool and we’re on-trend and we are probably influencers too. We’re going to call ourselves influencers, anyway. We’d like to influence you to bake sourdough, mostly because no one can find any yeast yet people still really, really like fresh bread.

Sourdough 05 sml

Really, what’s better than fresh bread and good butter?

I’m not at all surprised by the gardening and the bread baking, truly. People have extra time on their hands and want to do something both purposeful and satisfying, plus spring has arrived in most places and it’s a pleasure to be outside. But the sourdough thing? That did take me by surprise, as sourdough has a reputation for being so tricky and difficult and obsessive and a little weird because people name their sourdough starters and refer to them as pets. But then of course all of the country’s commercial yeast disappeared somewhere so it’s only natural that everyone would turn to sourdough, and people also need new pets in this time of isolation, kind of like Wilson in Castaway, so it all sort of makes sense.

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Farm update: February 24

Greetings! We are currently stuck in that awkward phase between winter and spring. Some days it’s all teasing warmth and perfect blue skies, and some days it’s bleak and grey with icy, biting winds. Most of our snow is gone, though we expect (and hope for) one or two more storms, at least. It’s a changeable season, but spring is definitely in the air and we’re starting to hear more songbirds and see new growth everywhere we look. Here are a few things we’ve been up to recently.

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A prairie falcon (Falco mexicanus) in one of our towering cottonwoods.

We still haven’t captured a photo of our shy Northern harrier, seen regularly hunting mice in our pasture on sunny afternoons, but N did snap this lovely photo of a prairie falcon. The prairie falcon is about the size of a peregrine falcon, but with a much different hunting style (low swooping over the ground, rather than rapid dives). Unfortunately for the songbirds we’ve been hearing, much of the prairie falcon’s winter diet is the Western meadowlark, but we hope this one will focus more on our ground squirrel population. As with all falcons, the female is substantially larger than the male. Continue reading

Farm update: February 25

It hasn’t really been the most exciting week here on Quiet Farm, dear readers. We’ve been busy with boring but grown-up things like obtaining contractor quotes for electrical refits and game fencing (tedious), comparison shopping for auto insurance (horrible), changing oil in the cars (chilly), and taxes (the new 1040 is rather streamlined!). While necessary, none of those tasks make for very interesting tales.

Snow Removal 01 sml

Like a real farmer!

Winter continues its slog. After another six inches of fresh powder we did finally see our bluebird sky again, which was a welcome change. N borrowed our neighbor’s tractor to do some plowing; we’ve also been out shopping for our own tractor and ATV, since our current Snow Management Plan – i.e. ignore it and hope it melts – is definitely not panning out.

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All this just to protect some vegetables!

This uninspiring pile of materials is the beginning of our game fence. We can’t install it until the ground is a little more workable, and the hungry deer are taking full advantage of their current unrestricted freedom. We thought seriously about installing the fence ourselves, but once we realized we’d need to rent heavy equipment (skid-steer, auger and probably some other complicated, expensive, possibly dangerous things) we decided to hire it out. It’s going to cost us many thousands of dollars, but some jobs should be left to the professionals. We hope the deer will learn to respect our boundaries.

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Farm update: February 18

Despite the snow on the ground, spring is in the air. We’re entering the freeze-thaw cycle (also known as mud season) and our quarter-mile driveway is the worse for it, but all around us, things seem to be softening and readying for growth. We’re excited for spring, friends. This winter has offered much more moisture than last year’s punishing drought, and we’re looking forward to seeing how our fields regenerate once the snows have disappeared for good.

Snow Tracks 01 sml

One of our favorite winter activities has been watching for wildlife across our land; the persistent snow has made tracks easy to see. We’ve spotted coyotes, foxes, rabbits, raccoons, ground squirrels and of course our nemesis, deer. We are trying hard to learn this land, to know what lives here now and what was here before us so we can figure out how to best live in harmony.

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Farm update: December 17

Hello! How are you? We’ve still got quite a lot of snow sticking around, but it’s been dry for a week and we’d love to have more moisture. We attended the annual meeting of our ditch company recently, and all of the stoic old-time farmers seemed quite thrilled at the snowpack thus far this year. It’s a big change for the better from last year, to be certain, and we hope the pattern continues.

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The peach orchard across the road.

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One of the most delicious items we received in our CSA was heirloom cornmeal, ground from Painted Mountain corn. We take corn so much for granted in this country – as Michael Pollan says, we’re “the United States of Corn” – and sometimes we forget how much of humanity has been nourished on this incredible grain. Growing heirloom corn for eating fresh and for grinding is just one way we can recapture some of the food sovereignty that we’ve lost. I made fabulous hot pepper cornbread and plan on making cheesy polenta this week.

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Farm update: November 19

Hi there! Is it cold and snowy where you live? We think everyone in the world is getting lots of snow except us, but really that’s fine. It has been remarkably chilly, though, so most of our activities and projects are indoors these days.

Fall CSA wk2 01 sml

Nom nom nom.

We are loving our fall CSA share; each week we receive delicious vegetables that we’d never find in our grocery store. Those sweet, colorful carrots were devoured raw; the delicata squash was roasted and served over the arugula, and the tatsoi went into a spicy stir-fry with local pork. We highly recommend joining a CSA in your community if you have the option.

Paint Sprayer 01 sml

Like a Roomba, only better.

Our new pet looks like a Star Wars extra, but when you have this much painting to do, a sprayer makes things a whole lot easier. There is a learning curve with a paint sprayer, but once you’ve mastered set-up and clean-up it saves hours. Pro tip: do not skip the cleaning and storage instructions. If you store the sprayer without cleaning it properly, you will regret it. Trust us on this.

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