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Yeast. From bread to beer, this sexy little single-cell fungus has made putting calories in your mouth fun since the days when humans attributed bread rising to Gawoditheraleth the Baguette God*. But yeast isn’t an automatic deal — it needs activating. But how?
How to activate yeast: A quick guide
Want the tl;dr version? Here it is:
- Get yourself some dry yeast.
- Fill something with warm water (100–110ºF/38–43ºC). If it’s too cold, the yeast won’t wake up, and if it’s too hot, the yeast will die. (Oh yeah, yeast is alive, FYI.)
- Add a pinch of sugar to the water. You know how yeast is alive? Well, sugar is how we’re gonna feed it once the water wakes it up.
- Put your yeast in the warm sugar water and leave it for 10–15 minutes. Yeast activation specialists refer to this stage as proofing.
- Add your now-activated yeast solution to your other ingredients.
You’ve probably heard of yeast. You may not have heard much more about it besides that it hangs around in bread, beer, and (sometimes) genitalia.
The good news is that vaginal yeast and food yeast are 100 percent unrelated. The better news is that we’re going to dive into how to activate yeast so you can use it in your baking or brewing adventures.
*probably not a real deity
Here’s how you can go full yeast mode without hassle.
There are different kinds of yeast and different ways to activate them. Here’s everything you need to know about activating the most commonly available yeasts and some alternatives to the standard warm water + sugar method.
At what temperature does yeast activate?
Yeast is a fussy customer. It’s a little Goldilocks when it comes to temperature.
If it’s even a smidge too cold, it won’t activate. Too hot, though, and the yeast dies. Yeast being not dead is kinda fundamental to it working its fermenting and leavening magic.
Yeast activates at 100–110ºF (38–43ºC). This varies depending on who you ask (some bakers say 105–115ºF/41–46ºC is perfect for yeast activation), but aiming for that 100–110ºF/38–43ºC sweet spot may maximize the efficiency.
How to activate dry yeast
“Dry yeast” is a slightly confusing term. You’ll also find some pretty dry-looking yeast products that are labeled “instant yeast.”
If your yeast is instant yeast, then congrats — you don’t even need to activate it. Go bake.
If your yeast is regular old dry yeast, then you’ll have to follow a few steps. You’ll be pleased to know it’s super easy to activate dry yeast:
- Put some warm water (100–110℉) in a bowl.
- Add a pinch of sugar.
- Add your dry yeast.
- Leave it to proof for 10–15 minutes.
- Scream, ‘”IT’S ALIVE, IGOR! IT’S ALIVE!”
- Add it to your dry ingredients.
How to activate instant yeast
Some folks found that activating yeast took too long, so they invented instant yeast. In theory, you can just smash the instant yeast into your other ingredients and you’re ready to go.
If you’re the kind of person who wants to chuck a bunch of stuff in a bread machine and enjoy the dough smell for a few hours, instant yeast is the one for you (there’s a variety of instant yeast literally called “bread machine yeast”).
However, you may want to check that your instant yeast is still alive and active. If you want to test your instant yeast before baking, pour some into 1/4 cup of warm water and leave it for 10 minutes. If you come back to find a bubbling cup of yeast shake, your instant yeast is still ripe for baking fun times.
Remember, no bubbles = dead yeast.
How to activate fresh yeast
Stores don’t sell fresh yeast (or baker’s yeast, as it’s sometimes called) in a dry, powdery form. You’ll find it on sale as tiny “yeast cakes” in a refrigerated section of your local store.
Fresh yeast lasts only about 2 weeks when refrigerated, so you need to use it pretty quickly. You can freeze fresh yeast by mixing it with a little flour.
Fresh yeast is already active, so you won’t need to do anything extra to get it going. However, it’s best to proof it in tepid water at 80–90ºF. Don’t worry about the sugar, though — that’s all accounted for.
How to activate yeast in milk
Water isn’t the only liquid you can use to yeet your yeast. Many bakers go for warm milk to ensure their yeast is yeasting.
Milk has a few advantages over water in the yeast arena. For starters, milk is full of natural sugars like lactose or fructose. These natural sugars can give your yeast the kick it needs to get moving, whether in the form of lactose-y cow’s-milk sugar or fructose-y plant-milk sugars.
Activating yeast in milk follows the same steps as activating it in water. The only change is that you don’t need to add sugar. But you’ll still stick to the 100–110℉ temperature and the 10- to 15-minute “leave it to do its thing” window.
How to activate frozen yeast
Did you know yeast can be frozen? Well, you do now. Here’s how to use it:
- Amounts will vary, but start by mixing 2 parts crumbled yeast with 5 parts ordinary bread flour.
- Put it in a small baggie, and then leave it in the freezer. Easy.
- When you’re ready to use it, mix it with 100 milliliters* of warm water and a small pinch of sugar.
- Leave it to proof as you would with non-frozen yeast. Because it’s frozen, this process will take longer than the 10- to 15-minute window we’ve been trumpeting so far.
- There’s no set time in which frozen yeast thaws, so you’ll have to keep an eye on it.
(*The 100-milliliter amount is based on a mixture of 12 grams of yeast and 30 grams of flour. The amount will vary depending on how much frozen yeast you’re activating.)
There aren’t many foods or ingredients that need action ahead of cooking, so it’s completely reasonable to be asking what makes yeast think it’s so damn special.
Well, unlike most other ingredients you bake with, yeast is alive. If you looked at active yeast under a microscope, you’d see loads of little yeastlings wriggling around. That sounds a little gross, but it’s super important. If the yeast-beasts aren’t making any moves, then your bread/cake/whatever won’t rise. Sad times.
Yeasts are literally fungi. (Fun fact: It’s estimated that around 1 percent of all identified fungal species are yeasts.) Like all single-celled organisms, yeasts can enter a dormant state for extended periods to conserve energy. Activating yeast is, in the simplest terms, getting them out of that dormant state.
So, yeah — that packet of dry yeast you have is literally just a bag of snoozing fungi, and you need to wake it up with a sugar-water alarm clock.
The answer is pretty simple: If your yeast isn’t instant, you need to activate it. If it’s instant, you don’t.
Inactive yeast doesn’t do anything. Yeast is a leavening agent. We add it to recipes because it makes bread/cakes rise. This happens because of the chemicals released when individual unicellular yeastlings get their munch on.
Dormant yeastlings don’t do anything except stay dormant (or, if it’s too hot or they’re left too long, die). Cooking with inactive yeast will leave you with nothing but some burned sludge full of dead fungi.
So, here’s a quick roundup of everything we’ve covered.
Yeast is a leavening agent used in baking (as well as in brewing beer and other hops-based booze). It’s a single-celled fungus that you can buy in several forms: dry, instant, or as already-active fresh yeast cakes.
Dry yeast is the most common type used at home. To activate dry yeast, you’ll need to leave it in a bowl of warm water (100–110℉) mixed with a pinch of sugar for 10–15 minutes. You can also use warm milk if you nix the sugar.
Yeast is used in baking as a leavening agent, meaning it makes cakes and bread rise. You need to make sure your yeast is active before every recipe. There’s no way around it. Inactive yeast just doesn’t work. Get that sh*t active.