For some reason (cold weather?) we’ve got a lot of doughy recipes coming up, so I thought I’d say a few words about working with our tiny friend, yeast.
Until fairly recently I had very little experience working with raised dough. My mother made cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning, and sometimes I helped, but that was about it. It wasn’t until I jumped on the No-knead bread bandwagon a few years ago that I started to really enjoy baking. I had always felt that making bread from scratch was more trouble than it was worth; so messy, so prone to failure, no instant gratification as from muffins or even pancakes. But after a few experiments, I’ve found that raised dough is really very forgiving, fun, easy, and doesn’t even need to be messy!
First, I pretty much always use what is labeled here as “instant” yeast. In the US “fast-acting” seems to work the same way. It’s in the form of little dry granules and usually sold in individual packets (one packet works for about 4 cups or 500 g flour) You don’t need to let it dissolve in liquid, or wait for it to start acting (“proofing”), just stir in the liquid and off you go. You do still need to take care not to use liquid that is too hot, because the yeast is a little living beastie and heat kills it.
I sometimes use bread flour, but if I don’t have any, I use the same flour I use for everything else. I have noticed that I don’t need to use quite as much liquid as called for in most recipes, possibly because European flours tend to come from softer wheat than American ones (and I’m usually using American recipes). Or maybe it’s just my sloppy measurements!
It doesn’t take long to get a feel for proportions when baking. After baking a few loaves, you’ll soon find that you recognize when a dough is too soft or too dry for your purposes, and compensate by adding more flour or liquid. Always add a little at a time, to avoid upsetting the balance of flavors or ending up with a giant mass of dough! Don’t be afraid to doctor a recipe you like, or even make one up as you go. It’s rewarding to experiment with using different flours, liquids (beer!), and add-ins like nuts, or dried fruit, seeds, or onions.
And counterintuitively, the way I’ve gotten over my annoyance at having to wait for bread to rise, is to make the dough a day ahead. Most doughs are improved by slowing down the rising process in the fridge, so if you make the dough in the evening, you can bake it up the next day and enjoy!