On Instant & Active Dry

Reader Chia writes in to ask:

Why do we have to choose between instant and active dry yeasts? Which one do you recommend? How do I substitute one with the other? How do you keep the freshness when one buys that huge bag from CostCo or Sam’s?

Very good questions, Chia. Thanks for asking! I use instant yeast (SAF Red or sometimes SAF Gold) almost exclusively for one reason: it’s less fuss. Unlike active dry, instant yeast can be added directly to any recipe that calls for yeast, no “proving” necessary.

Back before instant yeast came into common use, dry yeast had to stirred in to warm water or milk before it could be added to a dough. The reasons were twofold. First, because the yeast granules in active dry yeast are very large, they needed to be dissolved. Second, because you wanted to “prove” your yeast was alive. The evidence of life: bubbles on the surface of the liquid.

This led to all sorts of problems and anxieties. Is the water too warm? Is it not warm enough? What signs should I be looking for? Just a few bubbles? Or a lot? Large or small? I’m sure I killed far more yeast than I grew in my early attempts at baking.

Instant yeast differs from active dry yeast mainly in that its particle size is smaller. That eliminates the need to dissolve it — you just toss it in. As for the “proving” part, that’s a step leftover from the early days of dry yeast, back when a baker could never be completely sure how old the yeast was, or whether is was any good at all. Home bakers haven’t needed to “prove” yeast for decades, but old habits die hard.

As for substitutions, if you have a recipe that calls for active dry yeast, just skip the yeast-in-the-water step. Add the equivalent amount of instant yeast to the dry ingredients in the early mixing step, and add all the liquid together. Also, if you’re working with an old bread recipe, skip the “punching down” and second rising that most of those older recipes call for. Instant yeast, because it contains yeast enhancers, works a lot faster than active dry. Which means if you let your dough rise twice before you shape your loaves there’s a good chance it will be over-risen by the time it gets into the oven.

Regarding storing, unopened dry yeast will keep for about a year in the pantry. Opened, it will keep for several months in the refrigerator or a full year in the freezer. I keep mine in the freezer in a tupperware container and just scoop it out as I need it, straight into the mixer bowl (frozen yeast doesn’t need to be thawed first or anything like that).

Hope this helps — and thanks again for the questions!

14 thoughts on “On Instant & Active Dry”

  1. Thanks for your post. I always enjoy gaining knowledge. I’ve been making bread for years using active dry. Recently switched to instant, and have been having problem with the rising in baking. I start to wonder if my yeast is not good enough in keeping in the pantry for a month or so.

    1. If the yeast is already open, it should be refrigerated for sure. Otherwise it will become partly activated because of humidity, then starve (and die).

      – Joe

  2. That’s all very interesting and informative; however, it forces a question. Everything I read about bread-making these days (even from you, good sir) stresses the relationship between time and flavor. Let the dough rise, overnight if possible, long and slow for maximum flavor, etc. You mentioned “enhancers” in instant yeast, and I know that various companies sell things like “flavor enhancers” for breads. (I have to admit, it makes me shudder.) So, the question: given a choice, would you use the “enhanced” yeast over the “regular” dry yeast? Let’s assume the issue here is flavor, not time. Which yeast would you prefer?

    1. Hey Chana! The “enhancers” in yeast are there to help it grow, not impact the flavor. For example, since most types of bread yeast grow better in an acid environment, a yeast manufacturer might put a little ascorbic acid (vitamin C) in the mix.

      But it’s interesting you should point out the relationship between flavor and time. For more than a few artisan bread bakers, commercial yeast of any kind (cake or dry) is an abomination. Hence the outcry in some bread circles when formerly all-levain bakers like Peter Reinhart started to incorporate packaged yeast into their doughs. But the fact is that quick-rising package yeasts allow you to create a greater range of effects than starters (levain) alone. The risk of a fast rise is of course flavor, which is why retarding a dough in the refrigerator is such a neat trick: the yeast sleep while the flavor-creating enzymes keep on working.

      I prefer tricks like that over flavor additives (which you can buy from King Arthur if you wish). Not that there’s anything bad in those packets, but because it feels to me like a cheat. Huh…I never considered myself a purist before…

      1. At what point is it appropriate to put the dough in the fridge when using instant yeast? Is there a visual you look for, or an amount of minutes that it should be left at room temp before putting it in the fridge, or do you just put it right in the fridge as soon as it is in a ball, covered with saran wrap etc?

        1. Santa!

          Good to talk to you. Recipes vary, but as a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to let the dough ferment a bit before refrigerating it. That is, let the yeast get off to a limited start before you slow down its action. So if, say, you’re making a bread dough, you might let it ferment 20-30 minutes before you put it in the fridge.

          By the same token you need to let it wake up after it comes out of the fridge. About 30 minutes should do the trick. At that point you can carry on with the directions as written.

          – Joe

  3. Hi Joe,

    I just stumbled upon this post and it’s very helpful. Might I suggest that you add it to your ingredients menu?

    Also, I use active dry all the time, but was forced to buy some instant yeast and I find it quite perplexing stuff. I thought I could still make a sponge if I wanted, but the yeast didn’t really dissolve even after sitting for quite some time – instead, it formed a wet cement-like paste that I had to rub between my fingers under the water to break it down, and even then, I didn’t get all of it. Does that sound normal to you? Also, with the same batch, I later tried to just toss it in dry (into kouign amann dough), but it didn’t dissolve – I found myself with a dough as stiff as, well, flour and water, and speckled with hundreds of little beads of yeast. I put it aside and started from scratch, but noticed after a couple of hours that my “discarded” batch now looked fine, as all the beads had dissolved and turned it into a nice soft dough. Again, is this normal? I should mention that I knead exclusively by hand.

    1. Hey Jen!

      The thing with instant is that you have to get out of the habit of adding it to water. The trick is to distribute it in the flour before the mixing starts. That’s the key to success with instant yeast. Once you get into it, you’ll probably never go back!

      – Joe

  4. Hi Joe!

    I recently bought a pound of SAF instant yeast and froze it in a ziplock bag as soon as it arrived. Today, I used it in a recipe that called for warmed milk and eggs, so it was a bit enriched dough.

    I mixed the yeast into dry ingredients which included salt and sugar and added poured egg and milk mixture. When I was waiting for the dough to rise, I noticed undissolved yeast granules on the dough surface. They were not separated from the dough but did not seem to be fully dissolved, by the look of them. Since I didn’t want to let that be wasted, I went ahead and finished baking. The surface got darker faster than usual and the bread had uneven crumb when sliced.

    I started looking for the cause and found your blog. I didn’t thaw the yeast so thought it might have been a problem since the red star yeast website suggests thawing the yeast before using.

    http://redstaryeast.com/yeast-baking-lessons/yeast-types-usage/instant-or-fast-rising-yeast/

    But before the current yeast, I had used the same packaged one pound bag of yeast which I froze. As usual, I added frozen yeast right out of the freezer. Then, very rarely, I ran into similar problems that I had today but most of the times bread loafs came out fine.

    Do you think I might have killed the yeast by heating the milk too much? Or do I have to thaw the yeast before using as red star website recommends? Or do you think my water was too hard (I moved to new place recently and found the water hard.)

    You said on the post that the yeast doesn’t need to be thawed and most of the times my bread came out fine. Well, I usually don’t make enriched dough, which might interfere yeast activity. When I bake a simple loaf, I don’t warm water or dissolve the yeast first in water or anything like that. Today the yeast must have been pretty fresh since I recently purchased it so I was confused!

    1. Hello Youngjoo!

      How strange that the yeast did not dissolve in the mixing step. How long did you mix and knead the dough?

      Unless the milk and egg mixture was very hot it should not have killed the yeast. If it was hot enough to kill the yeast culture the eggs would have cooked first.

      I always use yeast right out of the freezer and have never had a problem. This is all very curious. Let me know more about the recipe, please.

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  5. Hi there,

    My recipe called for instant yeast but I accidentally bought an active dry yeast. After baking the bread I noticed undissolved yeast particles in it. Is is safe to eat it?

    1. Yes it is, Joy. The yeast are dead after baking, and probably wouldn’t do you any harm in they weren’t. Don’t worry.

      – Joe

  6. Hello,

    Every time i follow any recipe (i use instant dried yeast btw), my bread seems to come out dense. I think its always over proofed. By the time i put it in the fridge for the cold ferment after even just 2 hours it has doubled in size. I think by this time, it is already too late to put it in the fridge.

    Can i avoid this by making my dough and then putting it right in the fridge for a long, slow rise instead of the room-temp proofing at first? Do you think it will help to avoid the dreaded over proof? And can i do this with virtually any simple dough recipe? Please keep in mind i use instant dried yeast.

    1. Hey again Santa,

      You are exactly right. Letting a dough rise for a full 2 hours before refrigerating guarantees an over-proof, since it takes a good long while to chill a mass of dough. If it’s already at the shaping or punch-down point when it hits the chill chest, it’ll be rising for a good hour or more before the yeast stops working.

      So chill much earlier. Right after mixing if you want, though you can let most bread doughs chill about 30 minutes to get them started, as I mentioned.

      Good luck!

      – Joe

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