She’s omnipresent, temperamental, and if appeased, can work her magic with any recipe. She’s the Yeast Goddess. This post is an ode to her.
South Indian cuisine has excelled at the art of harnessing wild yeast – a unicellular organism present in air and water – through the fermenting of rice and lentil-based batters.
Some leavened breads like the San Francisco sourdough exclusively use wild yeast that is in the air. Cultivated strains are used around the world for baking and brewing.
Yeast loves carbs. She thinks the Atkins diet is for miserable, misguided souls. She gorges on the carbohydrates and sugars in dough, and converts them into carbon dioxide gas and alcohol. This is called “fermentation.”
Bread dough has gluten – the long, elastic strands of protein that give the dough its structure. The carbon dioxide generated by the yeast is trapped between the gluten strands, causing the dough to expand and rise. Yeast basics here.
There are various types of yeast one can use for baking – fresh, instant, active dry, etc. The Yeast Goddess gets very irritable if it gets a tad too hot or cold for her comfort.
1. She sleeps most of the time, and likes the refrigerator – 45F or less.
2. She stirs and slowly awakens around 60-70F. She likes to be brought to room temperature before being introduced to flour and water.
3. She thrives between 70-90F. That’s when she’s in her element, fermenting and allowing the bread dough to rise.
4. Above 100F, she starts getting drowsy and lethargic.
5. At 125F, she’s in an inferno.
6. At 140F, she is dead.
Appeasing the Yeast Goddess
1. Open the refrigerator, take her out. She likes being addressed in Sanskrit. Bow your head and chant:
Yaa Devi Sarva Bhooteshu Yeasti Roopena Samstitha
Namastasyai Namastasyai Namastasyai Namo Namaha
(Salutations again and again to the Goddess who resides in all Creation in the form of Yeast)
2. Make her cosy by dousing her in 1/2 cup of warm water/liquid used in the recipe (100-105F is the ideal temperature). A food thermometer is very useful. Else, make sure it is barely warmer than your hand. If you suspect the liquid is too warm, add some cold liquid.
3. She hates chemicals like iodine and chlorine. Use filtered or distilled water.
4. She has a sweet tooth. Add one teaspoon of some natural sweetener to the yeast and liquid, like sugar, honey or maple syrup. Articifical sweeteners like Splenda will not work. If the recipe calls for 2 tbsps. of sugar, add the remaining to the flour, not to the yeast when she is blooming. Soon, she will start getting…how do we put this delicately… gassy, and you’ll see little bubbles in the liquid.
The Yeast Goddess has very little self-control. If she binges on too much sugar to begin with, she gets lethargic when it comes to the actual fermentation of the dough.
5. She doesn’t like salt. It inhibits her responses. Be very precise with salt and yeast measurements in a recipe. That’s something you do not want to “approximate” or guess. Add the salt to the bowl first, then the flour and other ingredients, then the yeast on top. The longer you separate the yeast and the salt, the better.
6. If you add salted ingredients like olives or cheese that are not listed in the original recipe, reduce the amount of salt added.
7. The Yeast Goddess needs her dose of Vitamin C. If your bread flour does not have ascorbic/citric acid, add a tsp. of lemon or lime juice to the recipe.
8. To substitute instant or bread machine yeast for active dry yeast, use 25% less instant yeast than active dry.
9. A 0.6-oz cube of cake yeast is roughly equivalent to 1.5 to 2 tsp. instant yeast or 2 to 2.5 tsp. active dry yeast.
10. If a recipe calls for a ‘packet’ of active dry yeast, use 2 and 1/4 tsps.
11. If you have a recipe for a loaf and want to make rolls instead, increase the amount of yeast by a third. For instance, if the recipe calls for 2 tsps. yeast, increase it to 3 tsps. to make rolls.
Kneading and shaping the dough
You can knead dough by hand, in a food processor, or in a bread machine.
We have had our Zojirushi bread machine for six years, and absolutely love it. We knead our dough in it, but shape and bake our loaves in the oven. Our Zo kneads the dough, lets it rise, kneads it again, lets it rise again, and beeps to let us know when the it needs to be taken out and shaped for baking. Then, it shuts off automatically. This is the brand the pros at King Arthur Test Kitchen recommend, and so do we.
Most other bread machines have the temperature set in the mid-90s. Our Zo keeps it at 88F throughout, and has two kneading paddles. If you are a regular bread maker, get this baby. We also knead chapathi dough in it.
If you don’t have a bread machine, don’t worry. Artisan bread makers swear by hand kneading. It gives you a “feel” for the dough, is therapeutic, and yields excellent results, besides a good upper body workout.
Step-by step kneading instructions here.
The key is handling the dough gently, pushing down with palm of the hand and ‘punching’ it down in a controlled manner with the knuckles, in order to avoid breaking the gluten strands.
Instructions on shaping a loaf here.
Look in your local library for bread baking videos, esp. the ‘Bread & Baker: From the Source’ series.