Whether you’ve been dreaming about making your own pretzel buns or are already a bread-baking pro, there’s one thing these delicious, carb-y recipes have in common: yeast. But take one glance at the baking aisle and try not to get overwhelmed. Did that recipe call for instant yeast? Or was it active dry? Wait, what’s the difference anyway? Behold: Here’s everything you should know about instant vs. active dry yeast, so you can get back to baking that bread.
What is active dry yeast?
When you think of yeast, you probably picture the active dry kind. It’s sold in pre-portioned packets or glass jars and looks like tiny breadcrumbs or large grains of sand. Those little granules are actually living organisms—they’re dormant in their dry form but will work their leavening magic once activated.
What do we mean by that? Well, to use active dry yeast, you have to activate it—aka proof it—before adding it to a recipe. The active dry yeast is dissolved in a small amount of lukewarm water (about 100 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit) until it looks alive and foamy, then it’s ready to use.
Whether you buy active dry yeast in packets or a jar, make sure you keep an eye on the expiration date. The yeast will eventually lose its leavening power (um, die), but you can prolong its life by storing it in the refrigerator, especially once opened. And don’t be surprised if your newly purchased yeast happens to be dead already. It’s just the nature of this unstable product.
What is instant yeast?
Just like active dry yeast, instant yeast is a dry, granulated substance sold in packets or jars. It looks almost identical to active dry yeast, except that the particles are slightly smaller because of the way it’s milled, says Fleischmann's Yeast.
To use instant rise yeast, simply add it to the rest of your ingredients. There’s no need to activate or proof this type of yeast; since the granules are so small, the yeast dissolves and starts leavening faster than active dry yeast does.
Another benefit of instant yeast is that unlike active dry, it’s much more shelf-stable and pretty much guaranteed to be active straight from the packet (so there’s no worrying whether it’s spontaneously died in your pantry). If you store it in the freezer, it can last for years.
You can remember the difference like this: active dry yeast needs to be activated before you use it, and instant yeast can be used the instant you open the packet.
What is rapid-rise or quick-rise yeast?
Rapid-rise yeast or quick-rise yeast is very similar to instant yeast—it dissolves quickly and doesn’t require an initial proof. The difference is that they’re made to work at an even faster pace than instant yeast. This also means they can’t be used in doughs that have more than one rise or require a slow, overnight rise in the fridge. (They’ll putter out before you even bake the final product.)
Instant vs. active dry yeast: Which should I use?
If you’re still stumped about which type of yeast you should reach for, you’re in luck: Most recipes will specify the type needed. (You shouldn’t ever run into a recipe that just lists plain old “yeast” in the ingredients.)
But if you’re ever unsure, there are a few benefits (and drawbacks) to each type:
- Active dry yeast is best for recipes that require more than one rise and works well for doughs that are proofed at cold temperatures (like a pizza dough that proofs in the fridge overnight). The downsides? It’s extremely unstable (read: perishable), so you always run the chance of purchasing a dud packet, and since it has to be rehydrated before using, it can add time to recipes. And if your water temperature goes above 115 degrees Fahrenheit, it will likely kill the delicate yeast.
- On the other hand, instant yeast is super stable and can last for years in the freezer without losing its leavening power, and it’s a little more tolerant of higher temperatures (up to about 130 degrees Fahrenheit). But similar to active dry yeast, it works for recipes with more than one rise and cold-temperature proofs. The good news is, this makes the two fairly easy to substitute.
How to substitute instant yeast for active dry yeast:
To use active dry yeast in place of instant yeast, follow the package directions to activate it, but use a portion of the water or other liquid (like milk) that’s already called for in the ingredients (instead of using an additional amount of liquid, which will throw off the recipe proportions).
To swap instant yeast in place of active dry, just add the yeast directly into the dry ingredients and skip the initial activation step. You’ll also want to add any ingredients that were called for in proofing the yeast (like water and sugar) to the recipe when you add any other liquids.