When my mom first taught me how to bake bread, the only type of yeast that existed was the kind that came in the paper packet that magically contained the exact amount you needed to bake one loaf. That’s not true, but when you are not involved in the grocery shopping, the only things that exist are what you have in your house… or see on TV. Now that I am the crucial part of obtaining groceries for my family, I am aware of how many types and brands of yeast there are. After research and plenty of trial and error, I can tell you the difference, and which yeast is my favorite to use. 

What is the difference between active and instant yeast? Active dry yeast has to be dissolved in water because it is made up of larger granules. Instant yeast can be mixed right in with the dry ingredients because it is made up of smaller granules.

Here are some more specifics on their differences:

Active Yeast

Active yeast are actually live yeast cells that are encased in dead cells. The encapsulation means that these granules must be proofed in warm water in order to rehydrate them, and fed sugar to stimulate growth. Active yeast also has a remarkable shelf life, it can be stored unopened at room temperature, like in your pantry, for up to a year. Once opened it can last up to 6 months in your refrigerator. Active yeast can also be a bit temperamental, and sensitive to temperature shock.

Learn more About How To Tell If Yeast Is Activated

Instant Yeast

Instant Yeast

Instant yeast is a dried granule that while smaller than active yeast, contains a higher percentage of live cells. Bread is able to rise faster, and often doesn’t need a second rise because of the volume of live cells in the instant yeast. Instant yeast also has no need of being rehydrated and can be added directly to the dry ingredients. Instant yeast is more perishable than active yeast, and only lasts about 3-4 months once opened in your refrigerator. 

In asking what the differences are between these two yeasts, what we really want to know is which yeast is best? Many bakers buy whatever yeast is called for in the recipe they are trying to create; one recipe calls for active dry while another calls for instant, and then we all end up with 57 little packets of every type of yeast. So let’s get down to the nitty gritty of which yeast to use.

Which Yeast is Best?

The short answer? Either. Turns out that active yeast and instant yeast are pretty interchangeable. When a recipe calls for active dry and all you have is instant, there really isn’t a need to run out to the store to buy more yeast. Go ahead and use what you have, but keep in mind that when it calls for a second rise that may not be necessary. Conversely, if the recipe calls for instant and all you have is active, use that. Just remember you’ll need to proof the yeast and allow it a second rise.

Yeast for the impatient baker.

I am the type of baker that likes to put off making bread until just about the minute I need it. Many Friday pizza nights have been delayed because I started the dough too late. Many Sunday dinners have gone cold waiting for some last minute rolls to finish up. I am not the baker that thinks about making bread three days ahead of time, I am an impatient baker, ready for my bread to be done before I even think of it. If you would also characterize yourself this way, if you need your bread out of the oven pronto, then you probably need a yeast that is easy to incorporate and doesn’t need two hour long rise times. This being the case, I would suggest instant yeast. Instant yeast, the yeast that won’t add extra time to your dough preparation because it needs to be proofed. Instant, the yeast that only needs one rise. Instant yeast for instant bread. I recommend SAF Instant High Power Premium Yeast. 

Yeast for the infrequent baker.

Yeast for the infrequent baker

I make bread every Sunday. We have pizza nights a couple times a month. Throw in rolls or special breads like focaccia, and you can imagine I go through a lot of yeast. I could not characterize myself as an infrequent baker, but not everyone shares my enthusiasm for kneading as exercise. Perhaps you only bake bread for special occasions or holidays. Maybe you only need the smell of fresh baked bread once a month. If this is you, if you would call yourself an infrequent baker, then maybe you want a yeast with a little longer shelf life. If you don’t mind putting a little extra effort into your infrequently made bread, and want it to last until the next time you bake, then the active dry yeast is probably the yeast for you. 

Read more about How To Keep Bread Fresh Longer

Yeast for sweet breads. 

In much of my research about yeast, what I really wanted to see was a clear cut solution for which yeast to use for which bread. I was, sadly, disappointed that instant yeasts and active dry yeasts don’t really affect breads differently, but behave just the way yeast behaves. The one caveat being sweet breads. Yeast needs warmth, water, and sugar to activate and start to grow, but too much sugar will draw water away from the yeast and kill it. In order to make bread with a high sugar content you need to use a yeast that can handle that kind of environment. This type of yeast is called osmotolerant yeast. It is able to withstand the added sugar and thrive. Think of it like runners training at different altitudes, one at a high altitude, and one at a low altitude. When the runners compete at a race high in the mountains, the runner that trained at high altitudes will have no problem, while the runner that trained at the lower altitude will struggle to breathe in enough oxygen. Osmotolerant yeast, like the high altitude runner, has been conditioned to thrive in a difficult environment. Osmotolerant yeast is actually a strain of instant yeast. If you are planning to make bread that is high in sugar such as cinnamon rolls, or coffee cakes, then osmotolerant instant yeast is the yeast for you.

Related Questions

Can you substitute instant yeast for active dry yeast?

Active dry yeast and instant yeast can be used pretty much interchangeably. Instant yeast will give you a faster rise so you may consider using less. Active yeast will rise more slowly, so you may want to give it a little extra time, 10-15 minutes.

How do you know if instant yeast is active?

You can “prove” that instant yeast is still good by proofing the yeast the same way you would proof active dry yeast. Combine ¼ cup of water, 2 ¼ teaspoons of yeast and 1 teaspoon of sugar. Wait 5-10 minutes, if the mixture is bubbly then your yeast is still good. Once you’ve proofed instant yeast, it has lost its fast rising capabilities.

Why is yeast essential in baking? 

Yeast helps in fermentation, producing carbon dioxide, which makes the dough rise and gives baked goods their fluffy texture.