How to Bake the Best Yeast Breads

All rise.

Want to make bakery-worthy yeast breads at home? It's actually easier than you think, and it's very rewarding on so many levels. We'll show you how to proof yeast, handle dough, and test your bread for doneness. Plus, we'll answer the most frequently asked questions about baking yeast breads.

Rye Beer Bread
Try this recipe: Rye Beer Bread | Photo by lutzflcat.

Baking bread is actually quite simple. It's just a handful of basic ingredients. Still, it's an art as well as an exacting science, requiring attention to detail. The main point to keep in mind is that the star of the show, yeast, is actually a living organism. It requires a warm, moist environment and a food source to grow and thrive. Before you're a baker, you're kind of a rancher, feeding and growing the yeast.

More: How to make sourdough bread and sourdough bread starters.

Step 1. Proof the Yeast

Yeast feeds on sugars and starches in the dough. And when it grows, it produces carbon dioxide that makes your dough rise. Yeast is a living organism; it's also very sensitive. Too much heat (at the wrong time), sugar, or salt can kill it.

When you're "proofing," you're growing the yeast: this ensures it is active and re-hydrated. Note: This step is not required for fresh or instant yeast.

To proof yeast:

  • Pour 1 cup of warm (110 degrees F) water into a bowl.
  • Add 2 teaspoons of sugar; stir to dissolve.
  • Sprinkle a packet of yeast (2 ½ teaspoons) on top.
  • Let it sit for a few minutes, then stir until it dissolves.
  • Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it in a warm, draft-free place (inside your turned-off oven, for example).

Within 5 to 10 minutes the top of the mixture should have turned creamy and foamy, which means the yeast is working. If nothing happens, the yeast is dead; discard the mixture and try again with different yeast.

Your foamy, proofed yeast should look like this.

proofing yeast in a measuring cup
Photo by Meredith. Meredith

Types of Yeast:

Active dry yeast is the most commonly available form for home bakers. It is available in 1/4-oz packets or jars. Store jars in the refrigerator after opening. Be sure to check the expiration date before baking.

Instant yeast is a dry yeast developed in the past thirty years. It comes in smaller granules than active dry yeast, absorbs liquid rapidly, and doesn't need to be hydrated or "proofed" before being mixed into flour. "Bread Machine Yeast" is instant yeast that may include ascorbic acid, a dough conditioner.

Cake yeast, or compressed yeast, is fresh yeast. It is used by many professional bakers and can be found in the refrigerated section of some supermarkets. It has a short shelf-life of one to two weeks. Some pastry recipes call for fresh yeast, which comes in 0.6-oz squares. A 0.6-oz cube of cake yeast is roughly equivalent to 2 to 2-1/4 tsp. active dry rapid rise, instant, or bread machine yeast.

No time for yeast bread? Consider quick breads like pumpkin breads and banana breads, muffins, scones, and biscuits. They don't need time to rise and require no kneading. Check out how to bake the best quick breads.

Step 2. Combine Ingredients and Mix Well

Combine the liquid and proofed yeast at the bottom of a mixing bowl. Add flour and salt. Some of the best breads are "lean doughs," consisting simply of flour, water, yeast, and salt. Baguettes and ciabatta bread are examples of lean doughs. Enriched doughs contain fat, whether in the form of butter, milk, oil, or eggs. Challah, brioche, and sweet roll doughs are enriched doughs. If your recipe calls for butter or egg yolks, mix the flour-water-yeast mixture to hydrate the flour and develop the gluten strands before working in the fat.

Step 3. Knead the Dough until Smooth and Soft

Using a plastic bowl scraper, wooden spoon, or your hands, scrape the dough onto a liberally floured work surface. Kneading develops long elastic strands of gluten, or wheat protein, which trap the gases produced by the yeast. Kneading by hand is not a complicated process, but it does require some stamina. With the heels of your hands, press the dough down and away from you. Fold the dough over, turn 90 degrees, and repeat over and over until the dough is smooth and elastic. If you're using a stand mixer, knead with the hook attachment on low speed until the dough is elastic. Flour or oil your fingertips and pinch off a small piece of dough. You should be able to stretch the dough to a thin "windowpane" without tearing it.

Step 4. Let the Dough Rise until Doubled

Set the dough aside until it has doubled in size -- this can take between 45 minutes and two hours, as enriched doughs take longer to rise. Punch it down to deflate it and expel the gas.

On a lightly floured surface, shape the loaves as desired: if you're baking in standard loaf pans, pat the dough into a rectangle to express the gas bubbles and fold up in three parts, like a business letter.

Step 5. Place Bread in a Greased Loaf Pan

Or for a round loaf, on a baking sheet. If you're topping loaves with seeds, now is the time to do it. Cover with a damp towel and let the dough rise again until nearly doubled while you preheat the oven. Flour your index and middle fingers, and gently poke the sides of your loaf. The indentations should remain; if the dough springs back, it needs to rise more.

For a soft and tender crust, brush the loaves with milk or egg wash before baking. You can also brush the tops of the baked loaves or rolls with melted butter as soon as they come out of the oven.

Scoring the Loaves: Scoring adds more than a decorative touch, it also allows gas to escape without bursting open the seam and disfiguring the bread. Use a serrated knife -- or if you're fancy, a baker's lame, a curved razorblade -- to cut diagonal slashes. Work quickly, cutting about 1/4-inch deep. Immediately transfer loaves to the hot oven.

Step 6. Bake the Bread

Most bread is baked in a moderate oven, 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the bottom of a loaf sounds hollow when tapped.

Baking stones help home ovens mimic hearth ovens by storing heat and moderating the temperature.

To help develop a crisp, chewy crust, use a spray bottle to spritz the walls of the oven, creating a blast of steam.

Step 7. Cool the Bread

This is the most overlooked step in the bread-making process. Cool the loaves in their pans for about ten minutes before removing the pans. Cool on a rack for proper air circulation. As tempting as a warm-from-the-oven loaf may be, the bread needs to cool in order for the structure to set. Cutting a warm loaf causes mashing and tearing. Never wrap loaves until they're fully cool: condensation will form, causing a soggy crust and promoting spoilage.

Plain and Simple Sourdough Bread
Plain and Simple Sourdough Bread | Photo by Dianne. Dianne

Yeast Bread Recipes to Try

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Baking Yeast Breads

Is there a way to convert bread machine recipes so that I can make them the old-fashioned way?

In general, any bread machine recipe can be converted to traditional methods. A recipe for a 1.5-pound loaf should make one 9 x 5-inch loaf.

What is baking mix? What can I substitute for it?

Baking mix or biscuit baking mix is a mixture of all-purpose flour, baking powder, salt, and other ingredients. It is sold under a variety of brand names, such as Bisquick® and Krusteaz®. We have a recipe for a homemade version: Easy Biscuit Mixture.

How many teaspoons are in a small package of active dry yeast?

There are 2 1/2 teaspoons of yeast in a .25 ounce packet.

Can I substitute active dry yeast for compressed yeast?

You may certainly substitute active dry yeast for compressed yeast in a recipe. The only difference is that you should dissolve the active dry yeast in the liquid ingredients before combining it with the flour. One (.25 ounce) package of active dry yeast is equal to one (.6 ounce) cake of compressed fresh yeast. For more info, see Yeast: The Basics.

How should I store my starter?

How you store your starter depends on how long it will be before you use it again. If you will not use your starter for a month or two, you may freeze it in 1- or 2-cup portions and thaw it as necessary for your recipes. If you think that you will be using your starter on a regular basis in the near future, you should refrigerate the starter. This will slow the fermentation. To refrigerate your starter, feed it 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water and place it in a loosely covered non-metallic container. Stir and feed it every week or so, discarding starter periodically if you accumulate too much. If you plan on using it to make a batch of bread, take the starter out of the refrigerator, feed it 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water and let sit for 6 hours or so to make it strong and active. See Sourdough Starters for more tips.

Can I freeze dough and then bake it later?

Yes. We recommend increasing the yeast by 1/3 in any dough that you will be freezing. For loaves, we suggest that you let your dough rise once, form it into loaves, lightly flour the inside of a freezer bag and place the bagged dough into a loaf pan. Once the loaf has frozen, remove the loaf pan, and then place another sealed bag around the loaf and freeze for up to 1 month. The night before you want to bake, remove the loaf from the freezer, remove the bags, and place the loaf in a lightly oiled loaf pan. Place the pan inside a plastic bag and allow it to thaw in the refrigerator overnight. If the loaf hasn't begun to rise by then, move it out of the refrigerator and let it rise (covered) until nearly doubled in volume.

For rolls, form them as you normally would. If you are baking them the next morning, simply cover them with plastic wrap and let them rise in the refrigerator overnight. If you are planning to bake them two or more days later, freeze them. Place the shaped rolls in a greased pan (disposable aluminum pans are fine), wrap them inside two plastic bags and then place them in the freezer. Let them thaw in the refrigerator for 12 hours before moving them to a warm place to rise. The second rise should take about 2 hours.

Can I freeze bread loaves and rolls? How should I reheat them?

Many people find it convenient to freeze bread loaves or rolls after they have been baked. Wait until they have cooled completely and make sure to double wrap them in plastic bags. When you want to reheat them, wrap the rolls in aluminum foil and reheat them in a moderate (350 degrees F/175 degrees C) oven.

I live above 5000 feet in elevation, so what adjustments do I need to make in order to bake bread successfully?

Baking at high altitude is problematic for two reasons. One, because the air pressure is lower, baked goods rise faster. If they rise too fast without the proper structure to support them, they collapse. To correct this problem, reduce the amount of leavening in your breads. We suggest that you reduce the amount of yeast in your recipe by 1/3 to 1/2.

The second problem is that there is also less moisture in the air at high altitude, and drier air means that your flour is drier. This is corrected by increasing the liquid in your recipes by 10 to 15 percent. You may also want to reduce the amount of sweetener in your dough as sugar will weaken the gluten and increase the risk of it collapsing in the oven. Also, keep a close eye on your dough. Once it has doubled, punch it down (deflate it) and then let it rise a second time.

Get recipes for top-rated yeast breads, rolls, buns, and more.


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