Should I put less yeast in my bread?

Back in the noughties when I first learnt to bake, the idea of putting less yeast in my bread wasn't even considered! We would often double or triple the amount of yeast that was supposed to go into the recipe.

Partly to get the range out quicker.

Partly for fun.

But I soon realised it wasn’t the best idea. The bread didn’t look that good and it wasn’t very tasty either.

Fortunately for me I later learnt more about artisan baking. I fell in love with it. Doing so changed my ideology about yeast.

Less is better!!

If you’re looking for a quick answer for what happens when you add less yeast, here you go:

Putting less yeast in a bread recipe slows the development of the dough.

Slowly fermented bread made with less yeast makes a better loaf of bread. Baking like this extracts more flavour and brings out a deep aroma from the flour.

It also makes a stronger gluten network which gives the bread a better crust and crumb.

But if you're curious to know why, let's take a look in more detail…

How many bakers (including me!) approach yeast

So before artisan became a “thing”, us bakers were passionate about the volume of bread we could knock out and not a lot else.

Quality wasn’t important. Well, not in the company I kept anyway.

These days, it's not that way anymore. There’s a new culture! The cowboy bakers have changed, or swapped career.

The industry has moved on. We care about bread quality!

Artisan bread baking basics

The way artisan baking has hit the mainstream over recent years is impossible to hide. Baking like this uses natural ingredients.

Typically just flour, water, salt and yeast are used in artisan bread recipes. Some where required call for fats or sweeteners to enhance the bread.

Natural ingredients are the base of every dough. There is no need for enzymes or emulsifiers in an artisan bakers cupboard.

Instead the baker manipulates temperature, time and technique to create different breads. 

How important is baking the traditional way?

Artisan baking is fascinating, romantic even. For customers and those in the food industry.

Being a baker is now a well respected job. Even more so if their name is above the door.

When I eat a bread from an elite bakery it leads to a personal discovery of passion, personality and desire. It explores the boundaries and pushes an experience of flavour beyond what I thought was previously possible.

It’s a fantastic industry to be in. 

The current world of baking bread

Let’s go back to a non-elite baker for a bit, as not every bakery houses those abilities.

Many have come from the previous era, during a period when pushing it through at rapid pace was the motivation of the baker.

But those that would have been described as the roughest jewels a few years ago, have been forced to care about quality.

To do that, before they learn to become bread pioneers, they need to be consistent. They need to follow a recipe. 

Our relationship with bread in Britain

Ok, so in the UK the idea of visiting a local Boulangerie to buy un Croissant and deux baguettes is very distant. We'll leave that for the French. The way of living in this country isn’t based around food experiences like across the channel.

We love it. But it's not important for us to associate personalities of the creators of food.

Even with artisan bread, a sourdough’s a sourdough, we don’t pay attention to the age of the levain, the choice of wheat or the bakers experience.

Its just Sourdough.

Even if the information is available, we say, “it’s good, I’ll have it again from their.”

That's about it. In contrast to our continental cousins who like to know more of the story.

Perhaps we’re too busy. Maybe ignorant. Or possibly there’s a level of gratitude missing of the person whose life experience has led them to creating the product that's in front of us.

I don’t know.

Tv chef Jamie Oliver changed a lot of people’s attitude about food. Using common language and cheeky phrases he showed the nation just how easy it can be to embrace foreign cuisine.

This philosophy extended to all food culture. And in the bread world, foreign staples such as ciabatta, pizza and sourdough became less exotic.

As they became more widespread, they became more accurate in their traditional description. The days of foodies being satisfied with frozen “pain de cuisine” loafs reheated in supermarket bakeries is over.

They want the real deal.

Naturally, the competition of bread quality has heated up.

Supermarkets produced “artisan” ranges, whilst bakeries in the capital popped up everywhere influenced on Parisian culture. 

The country embraced quality bread!

But the bread is still a long way off from the demanding quality expected by our continental cousins. 

How my outlook of bread production has changed

One of the biggest explosions over the past decade or two has been Sourdough bread. I admit, I hadn't come across it until my mid twenties. Despite its heritage, as far as I was concerned, before 23, it didn’t exist.

At that time I had bought a bake book. It mentioned no need for ascorbic acid and used tiny amounts of yeast, it made no sense! I had been baking for supermarkets for years and it contradicted my previous experience.

In the end, I found a recipe to work with and gave it a go.

The result was uninspiring.

Without any knowledge of what's going on I made a few mistakes.

The bread turned out to be a complete bomb.

How I learnt to bake like an artisan

My first experience in baking with natural ingredients was a disaster. The second was pretty pants too.

I realised that I should either give up or get some training.

I was determined to learn advanced skills of baking. So I decided to take an advanced baking course (like the one here). 

learn to bake bread

I gained the ability to understand what was really going on when baking bread.

…. Ahhh the bake book made sense now!!

Following a sourdough bread recipe, or…. well… any artisan bread recipe extracts structure and flavour from fermentation.

To get the most out of flour and yeast fermentation the baker should control the temperature, and development time.

This is where the amount of yeast in the dough comes to the fold. 

How does yeast work?

Yeast is a type of levain, which is a product that raises bread. Different types of levain include bakers yeast, dried yeast, sourdough, poolishs’, bigas' and bicarbonate of soda.

Yeast reacts with the moistened starch (sugar) in the flour which creates carbon dioxide (gas) and ethanol.

The gas gets trapped in the gluten structure and raises the bread.

The ethanol burns away in the oven. There's a more comprehensive guide on flour and yeast fermentation here.

How has yeast played a part in bread culture

Busby's bakery

The ancient Egyptians made bread by leaving flour mixed with water in the warmth to rise. Just like sourdough!

They didn’t use a yeast, they created their own levain.

So really, despite its recent growth, sourdough is not a new thing.

It was around centuries before yeasted bread. 

These days manufactured sliced bread has high levels of yeast which encourages a quick proof time, typically in half an hour.

It requires the addition of other ingredients and enzymes to give the bread structure, flavour and keeping quality -there’s an article about fermentation here that will tell you more-

But this isn’t the way an artisan bakes his bread. For he is a lover of giving bread time to develop naturally!

How using less yeast can improve your bread

One of the golden rules or philosophies of an artisan baker is to get the most from a bread it should develop slowly.

Some of my favourite bakes take 2-4 days to develop into the perfect loaf. A long development time creates an intense density of texture and flavour in the bread.

To slow down the fermentation time you can do two things:

-Reduce the amount of yeast
-Drop the temperature

Many bakers do both. 

How much yeast should I add to my bread

The typical start point is a ratio of 2% of the flour.

This can increase to perhaps 3% in heavy doughs for instance rye bread or when baking with laminated doughs which contain added fats and sugar.

It can also be dropped to 1-1.5% for a slow fermentation.

As mentioned it’s best to use the least amount of yeast required for maximum flavour.

If you're planning to use a long development time then you should reduce the amount of yeast to gain the most flavour and texture. 

should I put less yeast in my bread

Yeast multiplies it’s activity much like a virus. A small amount amount of yeast when active in the dough will be strong enough to raise a large amount of dough.

It just takes a bit longer to get going.

Not only does using less yeast slow the development time, it also doesn’t taste or smell very nice.

Using less reduces the overpowering flavour that yeast adds.

The flavour of nicely fermented flour is allowed to shine through.

Does putting too much yeast in bread dough change the crumb of the loaf?

Adding too much yeast forces the development time to quicken. The dough is not properly developed and becomes the size it should be however, it’s not ready. It's not developed enough.

This often also results in bread with holes in it. The structure has not had enough time to develop so is not strong enough to retain gas. During the oven spring the bread shoots up erratically.

Over-yeasted bread also creates holes, sometimes very large ones in the crumb and can also have an effect on the crust which becomes weak and often separates from the rest of the bread.

Should I add more yeast to bread ever?

Yes, sometimes it can be helpful if you want your bread to have less flavour. Typically a sandwich bread is designed to be less intense as the flavour of the filling is the celebration.

By decreasing the development time the bread will have a weakened structure. To counteract this the baker may need to add more salt to the recipe.

Salt strengthens the gluten strands which aids the dough to hold its shape.

What effect does the amount of yeast have once the breads in the oven?

A big oven spring!

Putting a ridiculous amount of yeast in bread like i did in my cowboy stage does not give a good product. As the yeast ratio was out of balance, I’d find the bread would shoot up in the oven uncontrollably.

I would have to put the dough in the oven underproofed to counteract this.

When I forgot, we would often have to use some cardboard to protect the top of the crust as we tugged them out of the oven door.

(Hoping not to damage the crust too much!) 

The oven spring from a over-yeasted loaf is too great. 

Should I add yeast to Sourdough bread dough?

online bakery website

Not really. Yeast and sourdough work in completely different ways.

Yeast works with the starch in the flour to create carbon dioxide and ethanol.

Sourdough works by having a contrasting Ph factor that reacts to push the bread up. They don’t work together.

Other ways to add yeast to bread dough

You may choose to create a starter levain called a poolish to your bread dough.

A poolish is an equal amount of water to flour with a tiny amount of yeast. It’s then lightly mixed for around a minute before being left to develop for 12-18 hours, or longer if put in the fridge.

It’s a Polish method that was accepted by French bakers years ago and is now a common technique used across the world.

During the development time the yeast multiplies whilst the water and the flour combine to create a strong gluten structure.

The poolish is then added to the bread dough and no more -sometimes a tiny bit- yeast is added. This technique reduces the amount of yeast needed and creates a strong crumb structure.

This process is common in artisan baking. When making baguettes or bread with large holes in it, it essential.

A biga is from the Italians and works in much the same way. The flour to water ratio can be adapted.

A strong biga is perfect for ciabatta and focaccia.

Any tips on buying yeast?

I recommend you choose a particular yeast and stick to it. Changing the brand or even how the same product is stored will affect the properties of your bread.

I recommend you learn the quirks of one yeast type before changing to another.