Sometimes maintaining a vegan diet and lifestyle can feel like a full-time job, especially when you’re still learning the ropes and realizing that—gasp—animal products are lurking everywhere (like in margarine and mascara). And now you’re wondering to yourself, is yeast vegan? Good news, friends: This is one ingredient you don’t have to worry about. Here’s our full guide to yeast (and why it’s totally in line with a plant-based diet).
So, what is yeast, exactly?
Well, for starters (pun intended), it’s alive! Yes, yeast is a living thing, but it is neither plant nor animal—it is a type of single-celled fungus, and it’s found in nature growing on plants and in the soil. There are thousands of different species of yeast, but Saccharomyces cerevisiae is the one most commonly used in food—and when it comes to cooking, baking and brewing, this itty-bitty microorganism can make big things happen.
Is yeast vegan?
As previously mentioned, yeast is not an animal or an animal byproduct. Moreover, although yeast is a living thing, it has no nervous system and thus, can feel no pain. What does that mean? Basically, it means that yeast, like other fungi, is a cruelty-free ingredient and fair game for vegans.
5 Different Types of Yeast
Now that you know you can consume yeast without betraying your plant-based lifestyle, let’s talk about the different types of yeast you might encounter and how best to use ‘em.
1. Active dry yeast
This kind of yeast is commonly used in baking recipes and is sold as a dry powder. That powder is actually a bunch of dehydrated yeast cells that will only come to life (i.e., activate) when dissolved in warm liquid. With active dry yeast, it’s important to follow the package directions to the letter to ensure you successfully resurrect the dormant yeast before you add it to your dough. In fact, one of the major drawbacks of active dry yeast is that it’s quite delicate—there’s a lot of room for user error, and even a risk that the yeast you brought home from the store died before you got your hands on it. (Tip: Check the expiration date before you buy.) For this reason, it is not often used by professionals, but it is a very common choice for home bakers and easy to find in any supermarket; it’s also a go-to for cold-proofed doughs and breads that require more than one rise.
2. Fresh yeast
This type of yeast—sold as a compressed cake in the refrigerated section of the grocery store—is not as popular as active dry yeast and is even more perishable. Before use, fresh yeast must also be proofed (i.e., mixed with warm water)—you’ll know you’re on the right track if it starts to foam within five to 10 minutes. Fresh yeast is an excellent option for breads that require a slow, cool rise as well as recipes that involve the ‘sponge method’ of bread making.
3. Instant yeast
This widely available form of yeast is fairly foolproof and very active. As such, it doesn’t need to be proofed prior to use—meaning that it can be added directly to a recipe—and behaves far more consistently than the other yeasts mentioned. It’s also very shelf-stable and can be stored in an airtight container without incident until the expiration date. In terms of usage, instant yeast works well in any recipe, including those that involve more than one rise, and it can be used with a bread machine to boot. (Note: The best type of instant yeast for bread machines is easy to identify as it will say “bread machine yeast” right on the label.)
4. Nutritional yeast
Nutritional yeast is an inactive type of yeast that’s frequently used in vegan recipes for its savory, cheesy taste. As the name suggests, nutritional yeast is also very good for you—it’s loaded with B vitamins and minerals and, because it isn’t active, you can eat a lot of it without worrying about your body becoming too, well, yeasty. Needless to say, this type of yeast won’t make bread rise, but it is delicious and healthy when sprinkled on top of vegan pasta dishes or mixed into just about anything that would otherwise benefit from the addition of cheese (think: popcorn, salads and quiche).
5. Yeast extract
The savory taste of nutritional yeast makes it a prized ingredient and go-to flavor enhancer in vegan recipes, in lieu of dairy and animal products; yeast extract—a deactivated form of yeast that contains the content of yeast cells without the cell wall—serves a similar purpose. Yeast extract, which can be purchased as a gel or powdery paste, boasts some of the same benefits as nutritional yeast—insofar as it’s also packed with B vitamins and makes things taste yummy. Marmite and Vegemite are a couple well-known manufacturers of the stuff, but really any brand of yeast extract will give an umami flavor boost to a wide range of dishes—just keep in mind that it tends to be very salty, so it’s wise to tread lightly (i.e., start with a thin layer on toast or a teaspoon in your soup and take it from there).