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Yeast, most commonly Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is used in baking as a leavening agent, where it converts the fermentable sugars present in the dough into carbon dioxide. This causes the dough to expand or rise as the carbon dioxide forms pockets or bubbles. When the dough is baked the yeast dies off and the air pockets "sets", giving the baked product a soft and spongy texture. The use of potatoes, water from potato boiling, eggs, or sugar in a bread dough accelerates the growth of yeasts. Salt and fats such as butter slow down yeast growth. The majority of the yeast used in baking is of the same species common in alcoholic fermentation. Additionally, Saccharomyces exiguus (also known as S. minor) is a wild yeast found on plants, fruits, and grains that is occasionally used for baking. Sugar and vinegar are the best conditions for yeast to ferment. In bread making the yeast respires aerobically at first producing carbon dioxide and water. When the oxygen is used up anaerobic respiration is used producing ethanol as a waste product; however, this is evaporated during the baking process.[29]

A block of fresh yeast.

It is not known when yeast was first used to bake bread. The first records that show this use came from Ancient Egypt.[30] Researchers speculate that a mixture of flour meal and water was left longer than usual on a warm day and the yeasts that occur in natural contaminants of the flour caused it to ferment before baking. The resulting bread would have been lighter and tastier than the normal flat, hard cake.

Active dried yeast, a granulated form in which yeast is commercially sold.

Today there are several retailers of baker's yeast; one of the best-known in North America is Fleischmann's Yeast, which was developed in 1868. During World War II Fleischmann's developed a granulated active dry yeast, which did not require refrigeration and had a longer shelf life than fresh yeast. The company created yeast that would rise twice as fast, cutting down on baking time. Baker's yeast is also sold as a fresh yeast compressed into a square "cake". This form perishes quickly, and must be used soon after production in order to maintain viability. A weak solution of water and sugar can be used to determine if yeast is expired. When dissolved in the solution, active yeast will foam and bubble as it ferments the sugar into ethanol and carbon dioxide. Some recipes refer to this as proofing the yeast as it 'proves' [tests] the viability of the yeast before the other ingredients are added. When using a sourdough starter, flour and water are added instead of sugar and this is referred to as proofing the sponge.

When yeast is used for making bread, it is mixed with flour, salt, and warm water (or milk). The dough is kneaded until it is smooth, and then left to rise, sometimes until it has doubled in size. Some bread doughs are knocked back after one rising and left to rise again. A longer rising time gives a better flavour, but the yeast can fail to raise the bread in the final stages if it is left for too long initially. The dough is then shaped into loaves, left to rise until it is the correct size, and then baked. Dried yeast is usually specified for use in a bread machine, however a (wet) sourdough starter can also work.

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