“The names don’t exactly explain what the difference is,” says cookbook author Jennifer Latham.
If the active dry versus instant question has ever stopped you in your tracks or if you’ve ever grabbed the wrong one by mistake, you’re not alone. In the course of our phone call, Latham opened her freezer and realized she had been using active dry while thinking it was instant. And you know what? Her bakes were all fine.
Here’s what you need to know about active dry vs. instant yeast.
What’s the difference between active dry and instant yeast?
All commercial yeast is the same fungi, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Latham says. After isolating, feeding, propagating, chilling, separating and beginning to dry the yeast, manufacturers take two different approaches to make active dry and instant, says Ralf Tschenscher, a master baker at Lesaffre, one of the world’s foremost yeast manufacturers.
For active dry, the yeast is sprayed onto a hot drum to allow it to dry even more, Tschenscher says. This creates a product in which cells of viable yeast are surrounded by inactive cells. For instant yeast, the yeast is spray-dried, rather than heated. That way, all the yeast cells remain active. (Yes, it’s confusing!)
To get active dry yeast going, traditionally you had to get through the dead outer cells by dissolving it in warm liquid and letting it foam. (Read more below on what’s changed.) Because instant yeast has no dead cells and is a finer texture, Latham says, you could mix it directly into your dry ingredients and proceed with the recipe.
Are active dry and instant yeast interchangeable?
“Yes, absolutely,” Tschenscher says.
One reason is all yeast do the same things, says Martin Philip, baking ambassador at King Arthur Baking: consuming sugars and starches and then expelling carbon dioxide, which causes the dough to rise, and flavorful byproducts, which causes it to taste good.
The main difference between using active dry and instant is time. Because of those dead cells, active dry “is a little bit slower off the mark than instant,” but over the course of a two- to three-hour rise, it catches up to instant, according to King Arthur’s guide to yeast. You might need to let the dough rise a little longer, with 15 or 20 minutes additional time as a baseline when using active dry instead of instant.
More than the clock, you need to pay attention to the dough itself, Philip says. Has it expanded the right amount? Does it slowly spring back when gently pressed with your fingertip? Managing time, temperature, moisture and kneading correctly can be even more important to a successful rise than the type of yeast. “If you drop the ball, it doesn’t matter what the ball is,” Philip says. “You have to get it across the line.”
And what about flavor? In a lean bread dough (no sugar, butter, eggs, etc.) that is mixed, risen and baked over a few hours, as opposed to rested overnight, Tschenscher would rate those with instant yeast on a scale of one to 10 as a nine, with active dry and fresh (cake yeast) a 10. Time equals flavor, and the quicker maturing of the instant dough might be a slight disadvantage. Would this be apparent to the typical home baker? Probably not.
Do you have to proof yeast?
King Arthur’s guide explains that improvements in active dry yeast mean you get more live cells than in the past, so it’s fine to directly add it to your flour and skip dissolving it first. If you’re worried about whether yeast is still alive, especially if it’s been sitting in your pantry for a while, it’s fine to let it proof in warm liquid according to the package instructions. (Freezing yeast in an airtight container is the best way to keep it around for years with no loss in quality.)
Philip says there’s at least one reason you may want to dissolve either type of yeast first. Doing so can ensure the yeast gets evenly distributed in the dough, though it’s more insurance than anything else, as most lean doughs have enough water to facilitate uniformity. If you’re adding yeast directly to your flour, just give it a good whisk.
Are instant, rapid-rise, fast-acting, quick-rise and bread machine yeast the same?
Not necessarily, especially as “the language used to describe yeast is not regulated,” Stella Parks writes at Serious Eats.
SAF-Instant Red, made by Lesaffre, is the go-to for many professional and recreational bakers. It’s most readily available to home cooks in 1-pound vacuum-sealed bags, which usually require ordering online. But here’s what was news to me: It’s the exact same product as Red Star Quick-Rise, which you may find in envelopes or jars in grocery stores (the naming inconsistency has to do with when Lesaffre acquired Red Star, Tschenscher says).
Fleischmann’s is the other yeast powerhouse on American shelves. Its active dry is a staple, but if you’re in the habit of substituting yeasts, be aware that its RapidRise is a different strain and “is faster out of the gate than SAF or Red Star, but gives out sooner,” King Arthur says. This makes it less ideal for long rises, refrigerated doughs or recipes that call for two rises. Similarly, Fleischmann’s bread machine yeast “can be used with reasonable success in recipes that call for instant yeast, though it will not produce as vigorous a rise in refrigerated doughs,” Parks says.
Latham recognizes the this-or-that stress home cooks feel. “There’s so much concern that if you take the wrong fork, you’re just going to destroy your entire baking.” But because bread is so forgiving if you know how to adapt, even if you do end up with less-than-stellar results (and that happens!), I’d say not-perfect bread is better than no bread at all — and probably better than a lot of what you’d buy anyway.