Yeast is quite a mysterious, almost magical-seeming substance. It's a vital ingredient in foods that most of us eat every day, yet you can't generally see it or taste it. When making leavened breads and other dough-based delights, bakers learn to appreciate and utilize its transformative properties – yeast turns carbohydrates into carbon dioxide, creating bubbles that rise and expand dough. If you're interested in baking with yeast, perhaps to avoid the high fructose corn syrup and preservatives in store-bought baked goods, you'll soon discover the power in just a pinch of yeast. Delve deeper into the culinary domain of yeast, and you'll find it's responsible for the alcohol in all your favorite adult beverages, along with some nonalcoholic ones like kefir and kombucha, and it's naturally present in a wide range of other foods, as well.
Leavened Breads – Yeast's Most Famous Creation
Yeast is a key ingredient in almost all leavened breads, meaning those that are risen via fermentation. An exception is quick breads, such as soda bread, that use baking powder instead of yeast. Breads that are made with yeast include all kinds of loaves, rolls and buns as well as baguettes and ciabatta. Other bread-like foods containing yeast are soft pretzels, bagels, English muffins, bread sticks, pizza and sometimes biscuits. Some flat breads, among them Indian naan, Italian focaccia and Ethiopian injera, are also made with yeast. Remember this food group also includes anything made with bread, such as stuffing, croutons, bread crumbs and bread pudding. When you're baking bread, you'll see different types of yeast required by recipes – generally fresh, active dry or fast-acting yeasts. Sourdough breads get their distinctive flavor from wild yeasts, which bakers harness in the form of a sourdough starter.
Sweet Treats Containing Yeast
Many other baked goods made using a dough contain yeast. Enriched breads such as brioche and cinnamon-raisin bread, along with sweet, bread-like items like cinnamon rolls, croissants, sweet rolls, hot cross buns, panettone and coffee cake all usually include yeast. Donuts and beignets, which are fried rather than baked, are made using yeast. Some recipes for muffins, waffles and pancakes feature yeast too.
Niche Yeast Foods – Yeast Extract and Nutritional Yeast
Yeast extract and nutritional yeast are two types of yeast that are eaten for their flavor, as opposed to baker's and brewer's yeasts that are used for leavening and fermentation. Nutritional yeast is inactive yeast, sold in the form of powdery flakes. With its strong, nutty, cheese-like flavor, nutritional yeast is used both as a seasoning and an ingredient in many vegan recipes. It's also highly nutritious, containing substantial amounts of vitamin B12, protein, fiber and folate.
Yeast extract comes in two different forms. It's used as a flavoring ingredient in crackers and other savory snacks, and also sold as Marmite or Vegemite, which are thick, flavorful spreads for toast and sandwiches popular in the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. Yeast extract is very salty and savory with a major umami punch, so it's used in small doses. Like nutritional yeast, it's a very good source of B vitamins.
Unexpected Foods Featuring Yeast
If you have a yeast allergy or sensitivity and need to cut all yeast-containing foods out of your diet, know that there's a long list of items to be aware of. Among them are stock cubes and gravy powders, mushrooms, tofu and some cereal products. Berries, grapes and dried fruits naturally have small amounts of wild yeast on their skins. Vinegar contains yeast too, along with other foods made with vinegar such as pickles, relishes, ketchup, mustard and many other condiments. The list also includes fermented foods like sauerkraut, buttermilk, miso paste, soy sauce and some cheeses.
Joanne Thomas has worked as a writer and editor for print and online publications since 2004. As a specialist in all things food and drink, she has penned pieces for Livestrong, Robert Mondavi and Modern Mom, among other names. She found her first jobs in a series of kitchens before moving on to celebrate food via the written word. Thomas resides in California and holds a bachelor’s degree in politics from the University of Bristol, U.K.