Which yeast to use: choosing the best type for any recipe

With all of the varieties of yeast out there (let alone brand names), how do you know which yeast to use?

Which Yeast to Use via @kingarthurflour

Traditional active dry yeast and fast-rising yeast

Active dry yeast (ADY), the stuff your mom may have used, is widely available everywhere. You’ll find it in your supermarket’s cold case in 1/4-ounce packets, three packets to a strip; it’s also available in bulk, in 4-ounce jars. ADY is the tortoise in the tortoise/hare race: while slow to get going, it provides hours of steady growth.

Then there’s fast-rising yeast (a.k.a. highly active yeast) – the hare in the race. Red Star Quick-Rise™ and Fleischmann’s RapidRise® are the two most popular brands. These yeasts purport to work 50% faster than ADY.

Now, here’s an important point: Red Star advises bakers not use their fast-rising yeast for refrigerated or frozen dough – which eliminates no-knead dough as well as many sweet dough recipes, which often call for a long, slow rise in the fridge.

Which Yeast to Use via @kingarthurflour

Versatile SAF instant yeast

Here’s our favorite yeast: SAF instant yeast, a King Arthur Flour test kitchen staple for decades. SAF gets going much more quickly than ADY, and has just as much staying power.

SAF instant yeast is appropriate for all dough, from your standard sandwich bread with its minimal rising, to multi-day refrigerated no-knead dough, to frozen-dough dinner rolls.

Note: The nomenclature for yeast can be very confusing. Red Star and Fleischmann’s don’t offer “instant yeast” per se – but both call their fast-rising and bread machine yeasts “instant yeast.” We’ve found that SAF instant yeast is not the same as Red Star and Fleischmann’s fast-rising yeasts; so when you see a recipe on this site calling for instant yeast, we’re referring to SAF instant yeast.

Why choose ADY or fast-rising yeast instead of instant?

Instant yeast certainly looks like the way to go. Still, there are times when bakers might choose active dry yeast, or one of the fast-rising yeasts. Why?

Comfort and tradition. Some bakers simply love to use what they’ve always used, or what their mom or grandma used. Carrying on family baking traditions is important, and certainly a valid reason for sticking with your tried-and-true active dry yeast.

Flavor. Many bakers report a difference in flavor between active dry and instant or fast-rising yeast, with ADY lending bread milder, less aggressively “yeasty” taste.

Fear and confusion. “My recipe calls for active dry yeast, so I have to use active dry yeast.”

Not true! It’s easy to use instant yeast in recipes calling for ADY or fast-rising yeast – no fancy conversions needed. Simply use the same amount of instant yeast in your recipe as ADY or fast-rising. Add it right along with your other dry ingredients; there’s no need to dissolve instant yeast in water first.

Let’s put all three yeasts to the test.

How do these three most common yeasts – active dry, fast-rising, and instant – perform against one another?

Which Yeast to Use via @kingarthurflour

Active dry yeast takes longer to work.

Here we have (l to r) Red Star ADY, Red Star Quick-Rise, and SAF Red instant yeast. I’ve just kneaded the dough, and it’s going through its first rise in mini loaf pans (top).

The Quick-Rise and SAF instant yeasts are about equal in volume after an hour; the ADY is lagging behind (bottom).

Now let’s shape and bake these breads.

Which Yeast to Use via @kingarthurflour

Here they are shaped and in the pan (top); and 1 hour later, risen.

The ADY is still behind Quick-Rise and SAF instant. SAF (right) has pulled ahead of Quick-Rise just a tad, though you can’t see it from this angle. In fact, the SAF loaf has crowned about 1/4″ over the rim of its pan, so I put it into the oven to bake. Fifteen minutes later, the Quick-Rise loaf is also ready, and goes into the oven.

A full hour after the first loaf went in, the ADY loaf still isn’t fully risen. The point’s been made by now; ADY is slower than both Quick-Rise and SAF instant. So I go ahead and bake it.

Which Yeast to Use via @kingarthurflour

The finished loaves

Here’s a cross-section of the results. That’s ADY on the left; Quick-Rise in the center, and SAF Red on the right.

The SAF Red and Quick-Rise loaves bake to virtually the same height, but the SAF loaf rises a bit more quickly in the pan than the Quick-Rise.

The ADY loaf is shorter – though, given enough time, it would have risen fully and no doubt produced as tall a loaf as its Quick-Rise and instant competitors.

Flavor-wise, both the Quick-Rise and SAF instant yeast loaves have a distinctly yeasty flavor and aroma, while the ADY loaf’s flavor is more neutral.

The overall winner? SAF instant, by a crumb.

By virtue of its fast, strong rise; and its versatility (standard, no-knead, and refrigerated/frozen doughs), we choose SAF instant.

OK, now that we’ve established SAF instant yeast is the ideal all-around yeast, we have another potential decision to make:

Which SAF yeast to use, Red or Gold?

SAF Red is your best choice for all-around baking, from sandwich loaves to crusty no-knead bread to freeze-and-bake dinner rolls.

SAF Gold is formulated for one specific type of dough: sweet dough. Think Portuguese Sweet Bread, Hawaiian Buns, Panettone, Raisin Challah, and the like.

What about cinnamon rolls or sticky buns, you ask? Well, they’re sweet – but mainly from their topping/filling. The dough for these sweet rolls is often only lightly sweetened, if at all; so they don’t need SAF Gold.

Here’s a rule of thumb: if the weight of the sugar in your recipe is equal to or greater than 10% of the weight of the flour, SAF Gold will hasten the dough’s rise.

Roughly translated to volume, any recipe calling for over 1 tablespoon sugar per cup of flour will benefit from SAF Gold.

But can’t you just use SAF Red, and let everything rise longer?

Yes – but there’s a tradeoff. Most sweet doughs also include eggs, milk, and/or butter. Letting these elements sit at warm room temperature for hours at a time, as the dough rises, can cause them to take on a slightly tangy, fermented flavor; and this flavor can clash with the appealing sweetness of your finished loaf. SAF Gold, with its shorter rising time, prevents this flavor deterioration.

Let’s see what happens when we test Red against Gold in our Hawaiian Buns. With the buns’ sugar/flour ratio climbing above 22%, they’re one sweet candidate for this test!

Which Yeast to Use via @kingarthurflour

Here are the two doughs just after mixing (top), and 90 minutes later (bottom). That’s SAF Gold on the left, SAF Red on the right.

Which Yeast to Use via @kingarthurflour

I shape the dough into buns, and let them rise for an hour (bottom).

The SAF Gold buns (left) have risen slightly more than the Red buns; see how the Gold buns are filling more of the pan?

Which Yeast to Use via @kingarthurflour

And here they are, baked and ready to enjoy.

Which Yeast to Use via @kingarthurflour

SAF Gold wins the sweet dough test.

That’s Gold on the left, Red on the right. In sweeter recipes, Gold produces a higher-rising bun.

So we’ve gotten to the end of our tests, and I’m happy to say SAF instant yeast has validated my long-time faith. For the full range of all my yeast baking, SAF is the choice.

Still, there’s one more reason to choose SAF instant yeast:

The price is right.

Sold in its typical three-packet, 3/4-ounce strip, active dry yeast or fast-rising yeast at the grocery store costs around $40 a pound.

A pound of SAF Red instant yeast – the equivalent of 64 (1/4-ounce) packets – costs $5.95.

Are you worried about using up a pound of yeast? Stored in your freezer, it’ll stay good for at least a year, and probably longer. In fact, though the manufacturer would certainly never recommend it, I’ve used 6-year-old instant yeast (stored in the freezer), and still achieved good results.

SAF gives you the most bang for your buck. Its value, combined with quality, seals the deal for me.

Which yeast to choose – the bottom line:

P.S. For those of you who go WAY back, fresh yeast (cake yeast) was the staple of every bread baker’s kitchen. These days, though, the familiar foil-wrapped cubes are available only in scattered grocery stores. So for the sake of simplicity, I didn’t include fresh yeast in these tests.

Looking for more information on successful yeast-bread baking? See our 5 Quick Tips for High-Rising Yeast Loaves.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Monica

    Thanks for affirming and confirming my use of SAF-Instant. I have experienced everything you have described in this article except for the SAF gold vs. red. Thanks for the comparison.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Betty, we’re assuming you’re asking about Fleischmann’s Pizza Crust Yeast here. While we haven’t done much testing with it, our understanding is that the primary benefit is the ability to shape and bake right away, without any rise time. It includes dough conditioner which helps make the dough easy to stretch and shape just after mixing and relies more on oven spring than trapped CO2 for the rise. Since yeasted doughs develop flavor over time, anything that shortens that time does tend to shortcut the flavor as well. That being said, we have heard from other bakers that this shortcut can be well worth it for the ability to enjoy pizza so much sooner. We encourage you to give it a try yourself and let us know what you think! Mollie@KAF

  2. Janet Kuzma

    Nice information, but I sure would like to see that you included fresh yeast in all the information. The much older recipes from our Grandmothers called for a “cake” of yeast. Back then wasn’t the “cake” much smaller than it is now?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks for your request, Janet. In our experience, using cake/fresh yeast doesn’t present a performance advantage or disadvantage over dry yeast, but some bakers do enjoy the smell, flavor and/or feel of working with it. We defer to the experts at Red Star Yeast for help converting to/from cake yeast. As you’ll see on their site, “Since dry yeast is essentially cake yeast that has been dried, using the proper conversion and given a little extra time to fully activate, dry yeast will yield the same results. Keep in mind that cake yeast has been sold in many different sizes over the years; therefore, if a recipe doesn’t specify the weight of the yeast cake, it is best to determine the amount of dry yeast you’ll need based on the amount of flour in your recipe.” For more info, please visit the yeast conversion section of Red Star’s site. Hope it helps! Mollie@KAF

  3. Jim

    My grandmother (born around 1900) swore that yeast cakes were far superior. She avoided dry yeast whenever she could. You’re right: it’s almost impossible to find. But I’d like to know the relative merits anyway. Is it better in any way? And is it dying out because it’s more perishable? It needs refrigeration as I recall?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It does require refrigeration, Jim, and has a much shorter shelf life than dry yeast does. As dry yeast quality has improved over the years, the perishable nature of cake yeast has made it relatively less appealing to many bakers. We polled a few of our KAF experts, and the general consensus is that there is no performance advantage or disadvantage to using cake yeast. Some bakers claim that they can taste the difference and that they find the flavor more “authentic”, while others find that the simple smell and the feel of fresh yeast in your hands is what sparks nostalgia. Bottom line, we think the main reasons to use it are to enjoy the sensory experience and/or carry on tradition. Mollie@KAF

  4. Penny

    When using regular yeast I dissolve it in warm water and then start adding other ingredients. With Saf-Instant do I skip this step and just add it with the flour? Do I omit the water that the yeast was dissolved in?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      That’s right, Penny. There’s no need to add your yeast to water before using. You can add it right in with the other dry ingredients and you bread will still rise beautifully! Simply add the amount of water the recipe calls for. Kye@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      You can, Marijke! We’d recommend doing it the same way you would with ADY – dissolve 1/2 tsp yeast and 1/2 tsp sugar in 1/2 cup warm water. After 10 minutes, if the yeast is still fresh, you should see signs of activity. Hope this helps! Mollie@KAF

  5. sue

    I live in Israel and the most commonly used yeast here is cake yeast, sold in every grocery store, and I do love using it. How long will this yeast generally last in the refrigerator? Freezer?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Sue, we don’t do much work with cake yeast ourselves because it isn’t as widely available to US consumers as dried yeast, so we tend to defer to the experts at Red Star Yeast for info on this product: http://bit.ly/2hebUrj As you can see, cake yeast is highly perishable and should be marked with a “best if used by” date. As with all yeast, if you’re ever in doubt of its freshness, it is recommended that you “proof” it before using; and they do not recommend freezing it. Hope this helps! Mollie@KAF

  6. Clare

    This is such a helpful article! Thank you! I’ve ordered some SAF Red and am really looking forward to trying it out. I’m also very glad to hear that it keeps in the freezer, since I know it will take me more than a year to go through a pound of yeast!

    However, I still have most of a jar of Fleischmann’s “instant bread machine” yeast. This article states that it’s not really the same thing as instant. My doughs seem to rise OK, but would I be better off treating it like ADY and proofing it in warm water first?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Clare, when we refer to “instant” yeast on our site, we’re referring to something like the SAF Red yeast you’ve ordered or Red Star Quick Rise yeast – good, all around yeasts. “Instant bread machine” yeast and others like it are designed to have an especially quick burst of activity but tend to peter out over time, which makes them a great choice for single or very quick rising breads, but less reliable in recipes that call for multiple or more extended rise times. Proofing the yeast in water won’t do anything to help that, but if you’ve had good success with the instant bread machine yeast as is, we’d recommend sticking with what you’re doing until you have a chance to compare its performance with your new yeast – both should keep well if frozen in an airtight container! Mollie@KAF

  7. annmartina

    I know it keeps for over a year in the freezer, but are smaller sizes than 1 lb. of SAF yeasts available, especially the Gold? I do some sweet dough baking, but not in the quantity that I do other types of dough.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      SAF Gold is only available in a 1 pound package currently, but you’re right; you can store it in the freezer to help extend the shelf life. We do sell the Lallemand Instaferm (instant) yeast in smaller packages, which might be what you’re looking for. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  8. Hakam

    Thank you for the excellent yeast review..
    am trying to bake Simit (Turkish Begal) what is best type of yeast should I use for great test do you have an I idea.

    Reply

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