· Close Encounters of the Yeast Kind

really aren’t that scary.


Ironically, the first time I’d ever used yeast was in a recipe for naan – a flatbread! Even now, aside from a complement to a delicious curry, one of my favorite uses for this bread is grilled pizza.

One of the first steps in making naan involves dissolving a teaspoon or so of a granular, grayish-white substance in water and watching it froth up. While I may have successfully followed the directions in the recipe, I didn’t have a clue what yeast was or how it works. It turns out that yeasts are organisms in the kingdom Fungi, and one species in particular, saccharomyces cerevisiae, is commercially cultivated for baking purposes. Yeast is an ideal leavening agent because it produces carbon dioxide and ethanol, the main metabolic byproducts of sugar consumption, allowing dough to rise. Bread chemistry is obviously a lot more complex, though I think it will make good fodder for another post.


My first encounters with yeast yielded great naan, but that’s about where my adventurousness stopped. It wasn’t until about 10 years later when I picked up a copy of the Cook’s Illustrated All-Time Best Bread Recipes special issue for 2014 that my interest in baking bread took off. I didn’t really know where to start, but what I did know was that my nearly nonexistent and dated yeast supply wasn’t fit to leaven anything.

While making my first pan loaves, I quickly noticed that what I thought were negligible differences in ambient temperature actually significantly affected the rate at which the dough would rise. In hindsight, many of them were over-proofed, but by paying attention to the details of the process I began to understand some essential principles.

It wasn’t long before I considered abandoning a non-stick vessel and attempted to create a hand-shaped, rustic-style loaf. Rather than beginning with the nearly foolproof (almost) no-knead bread, I decided to make the rustic Italian loaf. Even at 67% hydration (relatively low), I found it to be quite a sticky undertaking that required cutting boards to keep the loaf from spreading all over the place during the final proof. Although the gluten was clearly not developed enough (again, hindsight is 20/20), the loaf baked well the decision to bake it dark resulted in a delicious final product. I also forgot to score it!


Next I made (almost) no-knead bread:



Despite making some mistakes such as using too much flour on the outside of the dough, I was very pleased with my first attempts at hand-shaped loaves consisting of only flour, water, salt, and yeast.

Enchanted by the idea of full-on artisan bread, I knew it was time to buy a book. The question was: which one? ·


2 thoughts on “· Close Encounters of the Yeast Kind

  1. copemish March 1, 2015 / 11:14 pm

    Love making no knead bread ala James Beard. Found a new recipe that the second rise occurs in a round glass bowl which is also the baking vessel. Haven’t tried it yet. I worked with some R&D guys who were bakers. Very fun to listen to them discuss pros and cons of the chemistry of bread baking. I almost always rise my doughs in the oven with the light on for the heat source

    Liked by 1 person

    • liveandletrise March 2, 2015 / 3:11 pm

      A second rise in the baking vessel makes a lot of sense! Personally, I like the experience of feeling the dough when its time for a fold, observing how it changes as the gluten and gases develop. This is obviously tough with the no-knead approach, but that said, I think it is fascinating how it works!


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