Friday, May 13, 2011

IT'S ALIVE! Demystifying Yeast.

Often, when I mention to someone that I made something involving yeast (rolls, bread, pizza dough), they shake their heads and say, "Wow.  I've never had any luck with yeast.  I could never do that."  If this sounds like you, and you've given up on having home-baked yeasty breads, I am here to say... (cue motivational speaker voice...)


Yeast is not magic, no matter how magical the products taste.  It's science!  Let's explore, shall we?

I wish.

Yeasts are unicellular microorganisms.  The word "yeast" comes from the Indo-European root yes-, meaning boil, foam, or bubble.  In baking, the yeast converts sugars present in the dough into carbon dioxide, which gets trapped in little pockets and causes the dough to rise.  When you slip the dough in the oven, the yeast dies, and the air pockets set, resulting in that heavenly texture, full of bubbles and holes.  Yeasts are also used in the production of alcoholic beverages; the sugars present in fruits or grains are converted into ethanol, carbon dioxide, and other byproducts which affect the flavor.  Learn more (I did!) about the history and ecology of yeasts here.

The trick to getting yeast to do your bidding is a simple matter of temperature.  If the water or milk you use to "proof" the yeast isn't warm enough, it won't convince the yeast to wake up and start doing its job.  If it's too hot, the yeast will die without having fulfilled its life's mission!  Now, I'm sure you could find out the ideal temperature for yeast to grow, and then use a digital thermometer to make sure it's perfect.  Or you could do this: stick your finger in it.  If it's room temperature, it's not hot enough.  If it burns you, it's too hot.  If it feels like bath water (in other words, you can put your finger in it, but after a few seconds it starts to get a little uncomfortable), it's juuuuuust right.  Good job, Goldilocks.  You're ready to add the yeast.

Spoon some yeast into the hot liquid, stir it very briefly, and then leave it alone!  You can't make it do anything.  It has a mind of its own.  Let it do its job.  With any luck, in a few minutes, your yeast will have gone from this:

to this:

Now, when I performed this bit of science-magic last night, it was all for some pizza dough.  And so, to my 1 cup of hot water + 1 tablespoon of yeast granules, I added a teaspoon of sea salt and (about) 2 cups of flour.  Maybe a little bit more.  The point is, you want to end up with a dough that doesn't stick to your finger when you poke it.  When you've got it, take the dough out, spray some cooking spray in the bowl, replace the dough, and spritz the top a bit, too.  Then put a damp kitchen towel on top and put it in a warm place to rise.  Put your pizza stone in the oven and crank the oven as high as it can go (this is the secret to a crispy, awesome crust!).  Let the dough rise until it's doubled in bulk, and then punch it down and cut it into pieces.  From this size batch of dough, I made 4 smallish, very thin crust pizzas, but you could make two larger, not-as-thin crust ones, too. 

Here are my ready-to-go toppings:

Green garlic, lemon zest, parmesan cheese, and asparagus ribbons!
Thank you to Deb at Smitten Kitchen for the ribboned asparagus idea!  I love it!

Roll out the dough and place it on the hot pizza stone.

Brush with olive oil.

The cheesy, meaty toppings need more time than the asparagus-ribbon topping.

In goes the asparagus-lemon-parmesan-topped pizza! 
Cook time is 8-12 minutes total, until the cheese is melted and the crust is golden and crispy.

I made a boy pizza (tomato sauce, jack cheese with basil, and prosciutto) and a girl pizza.

Dessert pizza!  Apricot preserves, ricotta and lemon zest.

What can't you put on pizza?!  Yum.  

Ribboned Asparagus Pizza
(Adapted from Smitten Kitchen)
makes 4 flatbread pizzas

1 cup very warm water
1 Tbsp. dry yeast
1 tsp. coarse sea salt
2 cups (or more) all-purpose flour

Olive oil (for brushing)
12 asparagus, peeled into ribbons
1 cup shaved parmesan cheese
zest of 2 lemons
4 stalks of green garlic, thinly sliced

Combine the warm water and yeast and let rest until yeast is foamy.  Add salt and flour and mix together, then knead until it forms an elastic, not-sticky dough, adding more flour as necessary.  Cover with a damp towl and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk (about 1 hour).  Meanwhile, put a pizza stone in the oven, and preheat oven as hot as it goes.  Divide dough in four pieces, and roll into thin, oblong shapes on a floured surface.  Place the dough, two pieces at a time, onto the preheated pizza stone, brush with olive oil, and place in the oven for 4 minutes.  Remove and add asparagus, green garlic, parmesan, and lemon zest.  Return to oven and bake for 5-8 minutes longer, until the asparagus is wilted and the crust is golden and crisp.  Slice and enjoy!


  1. This post was really informative! And the timing couldn't have been better for me as a reader: I just tried baking some bread on Friday that turned out absolutely AWFUL, and I think it's because my water wasn't warm enough. My dough barely rose at all, and was so dense after it baked that a hamburger-roll sized "loaf" weighed about 5 lbs (all right, a slight exaggeration, but...yeah, it was basically a bread bomb). I was disappointed, and didn't think I'd bother trying the recipe again, but after reading this I think I may dare to take another shot. :)

  2. Science is tasty...very tasty. I've always wanted to make my own pizzas, so thanks for sharing!

  3. I made pizza crust; success! Thanks for this post. I especially appreciated the photo of what the yeast is supposed to look like. That helped!

    We did a variation of your recipe with asparagus ribbons, garlic, onion, green pepper, and goat cheese. It was delish!

  4. Sarah, goat cheese was my first through for that pizza, too, but they didn't have any at the farmer's market! Maybe a trip to the regular market is in order... :-) So glad your pizza crust worked out!!!