Conquering A Baker's Fear Of Yeast Baking with yeast — which gives bread its structure, rise and flavor — is an art that can only be learned by doing. So ditch the shortcuts and try making bread the old-fashioned way. With practice, you'll experience the unmatched satisfaction — not to mention the taste and smell — that accompanies a fresh-baked loaf of bread.

Conquering A Baker's Fear Of Yeast

Mia Morgenstern for NPR
A half-dozen rolls are nestled in a towel-lined basket
Mia Morgenstern for NPR

About The Author

Mia Morgenstern is a Boston-based writer, foodie and recipe developer with a soft spot for whole grains. When she's not in the kitchen, she can be found poring over a good cookbook, or online at Red Ramekin, her food and cooking blog, and The Natural Consumer, where she reviews natural and organic food products.

The time comes in every baker's life when yeast must be confronted. We can only eat so many cookies, cakes and pastries before we long for bread. From burgers to brioche bread pudding, from morning toast to dinner rolls, bread plays a role in many of the meals we eat.

Nonetheless, even accomplished home cooks approach yeast bread with trepidation. Until a few months ago, I was one of these yeast-fearing cooks. Although I could whip up a batch of cookies in the blink of an eye and make muffins in my sleep, anything with yeast was relegated to put-it-on-the-grocery-list territory.

There are, of course, plenty of quick-fix bread remedies for the yeast-averse. Bread machines do all the hard work for you, and you can find homely, par-baked loaves in the grocery store that only require a quick stint in the oven between freezer and dinner table. However, the only way to truly overcome the fear of yeast is to ditch the shortcuts and make bread the old-fashioned way. Baking with yeast — which gives bread its structure, rise and flavor — is one of those arts that can only be learned by doing.

Like any novice baker, I've had my fair share of bread failures. I've baked rock-solid loaves, killed my yeast and allowed my dough to over-rise. I call them "learning experiences," and they've given me plenty of opportunities to make homemade croutons and fresh bread crumbs. However, I have some advice for anyone looking to minimize the "experiences" while maximizing the learning.

First, get over the fear of failed bread. Yes, it will happen, but once you pull a perfect loaf out of the oven, you will forget that anything bad ever came from working with yeast.

Second, keep it simple. Find a basic recipe, such as a white or whole-wheat sandwich loaf, that you won't mind making (and eating) many times. If you can get one basic recipe down, it will be easier to move on to more exciting challenges. Working repeatedly with one recipe will help you work out all the kinks in your baking process, from kneading to testing for doneness. From there, you can stick with the loaves you are comfortable with, or move on to things such as sourdough starters.

Finally, think outside the loaf pan. The world of yeasted bread encompasses everything from focaccia to English muffins to naan to pita, so why limit bread-baking to sandwich bread? Successful flatbreads depend less on proper gluten development than high-rising loaves do, so breads like pitas and pizza crusts are great for building up confidence with yeast.

While flatbreads can be made by hand, a stand-mixer is best for some recipes. These mixers usually come with a paddle attachment and sometimes come with dough hooks. Recipes call for instant yeast that can be mixed directly with the dry ingredients, or active yeast that must be "bloomed" in liquid before it's mixed in with the rest of the ingredients.

Like anything worth doing, baking bread requires a bit of time and patience, but the satisfaction — not to mention the taste and smell — that accompanies a fresh-baked loaf is unmatched. And don't worry — all of those (unintentional) croutons and bread crumbs tucked in your freezer are sure to come in handy.

Breakfast-For-Dinner Rolls

These dinner rolls also make a great base for sandwiches and hamburgers. Mia Morgenstern for NPR hide caption

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Mia Morgenstern for NPR

These dinner rolls also make a great base for sandwiches and hamburgers.

Mia Morgenstern for NPR
Mia Morgenstern for NPR
Breakfast-For-Dinner Rolls
Mia Morgenstern for NPR

These soft rolls are perfect for using up leftover oatmeal. Leftover oats have had a chance to more fully absorb the water they have been cooked in. They tend to congeal a bit after cooling, and this is good for mixing into the dough. Add the water a little bit at a time, as cooked grains release their liquid as they're mixed into the dough. Serve these with butter, or use them as hamburger buns or sandwich rolls.

Makes 16 small rolls

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast

2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons melted butter

3/4 to 1 cup cooked and cooled oatmeal

3/4 to 1 cup water

Whole milk, for brushing

Poppy or sesame seeds, for sprinkling on top

In a large bowl, mix flour with yeast, salt and sugar. Add melted butter and oatmeal to flour mixture, and stir to combine, using hands to break up large bits of oatmeal.

Add 1/2 cup water and knead with hands to incorporate. Add another 1/4 cup water and continue kneading, adding additional water by tablespoonfuls if necessary until dough is no longer shaggy and comes together into a ball..

Turn dough onto a clean, lightly floured surface and knead with heel of your hand, turning periodically, until dough is soft, smooth and elastic, 5 to 10 minutes.

Place dough in an oiled bowl, cover and let rise until doubled in size, 1 to 1-1/2 hours.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Punch down dough. Divide into 16 pieces and form each piece into a tight ball, pinching dough together on the bottom of each roll.

Place rolls on an oiled or parchment-lined baking sheet and cover with oiled plastic wrap. Let them rise for another 30 minutes, until puffy. Before baking, brush the tops with milk and sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds, if desired.

Bake until tops are deep golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes.

Whole Wheat Canvas Bread

Mia Morgenstern for NPR
Whole Wheat Canvas Bread
Mia Morgenstern for NPR

This recipe is called "canvas" because you can use it as a blank slate for any number of additions: nuts, dried fruits or the apple-cinnamon version below. Unlike some 100 percent whole-grain breads, which can be dry and dense, this loaf is soft and sandwich-worthy. The enriched dough is very wet, so a stand mixer is a must for kneading. I use skim milk. Whole milk will make a richer bread.

Makes 1 loaf

1 1/2 cups milk

2 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons honey

3 to 4 cups whole-wheat flour

2 teaspoons sea salt

2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast (such as SAF)

1 large egg, lightly beaten

Heat milk and butter just until butter is melted, then allow mixture to cool to lukewarm. Add honey to the warm milk and stir to dissolve.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix 3 cups flour with salt and yeast. Add milk mixture and egg to the flour and, using paddle attachment, thoroughly mix ingredients.

Switch to a dough hook and knead dough on low speed until very elastic, at least 10 minutes. Pause the machine periodically to scrape down sides and bottom of bowl to ensure that everything is well-mixed. Dough will build strength and body during kneading, but will still be wet and should stick to the bottom of the bowl.

Once kneaded, cover bowl with oiled plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Stir dough down and place in an oiled loaf pan, patting down the top with oiled fingers to spread it evenly.

Cover dough and let rise for another 30 minutes or so, until dough has crested the top of the pan.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Bake for about 45 minutes, until top is deeply browned and crusty, and the internal temperature of the bread is about 200 degrees. Allow to cool for an hour before slicing.

Note: For apple-cinnamon version: Mix 1 peeled and diced apple with 1 teaspoon each cinnamon and sugar. After patting dough into loaf pan (before final rise), place apple on top of the dough and press down, pinching the sides of the loaf up and around the apple. Proceed as directed. For other mix-ins, incorporate after the first rise by kneading them into the dough gently.

Basic Pita Bread

Mia Morgenstern for NPR
Basic Pita Bread
Mia Morgenstern for NPR

This bread is easier to make than you think, and the perfect accompaniment to Middle Eastern food. Serve fresh, and your dinner guests will love you.

Makes 8 to 10 pitas, depending on size

1 1/2 cups warm water

1 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons active dry yeast

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups whole-wheat flour

2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

In bowl of a stand mixer, mix warm water with sugar and yeast and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes, until it's just starting to foam.

Add all-purpose flour and mix with a paddle attachment for 2 minutes. Add whole-wheat flour, salt and olive oil, and mix until combined. Then switch to a dough hook and knead for about 5 minutes more, until dough is homogenous and just a bit tacky.

Remove from bowl and knead a few times by hand, then form into a ball. Spray or brush a large bowl with olive oil, and place ball of dough into bowl, turning to coat lightly with oil. Cover and allow dough to rise for about 1-1/2 hours, until doubled.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to its highest setting (about 500 degrees). If you have a baking stone, preheat it along with the oven. If not, preheat a large cast-iron skillet or a heavy-duty baking sheet.

Gently punch down dough and divide into 8 to 10 pieces. Keep remaining dough covered and roll out one piece into a circle, a bit less than 1/4-inch thick. Set aside and cover. Repeat with remaining dough.

When ready to bake, slide 1 or 2 pitas at a time onto stone, skillet or baking sheet. Bake for about 2 minutes, until pitas are puffed and firm, but not crispy. Carefully remove from oven and wrap in a dish towel until ready to serve.

Pumpkin, Dill And Walnut Batter Bread

Mia Morgenstern for NPR
Pumpkin, Dill And Walnut Batter Bread
Mia Morgenstern for NPR

Batter breads only require one quick rise and no kneading — perfect for yeast-bread novices. They lack the complex flavor of twice-risen yeast bread, but this recipe more than makes up for it with the addition of flavorful pumpkin, dill and walnuts. White whole wheat is a lighter, milder version of whole wheat flour. This bread is perfect with a hot bowl of soup.

Makes 1 loaf

2 cups whole-wheat flour

1 cup white whole wheat flour, or all-purpose flour

1 3/4 teaspoons salt

2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast

2 teaspoons dried dill, or 1 tablespoon fresh

1 cup milk, heated to lukewarm

1/4 cup warm water

1/2 cup canned pumpkin puree

1 large egg

2 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon molasses

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

In a large mixing bowl, combine flours, salt, yeast and dill.

Add milk, water, pumpkin, egg, honey and molasses to flour and mix thoroughly, until all ingredients are incorporated. Beat mixture with a wooden spoon for another minute or two, until slightly elastic.

Add walnuts to batter, and stir to incorporate.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Pour batter into an oiled 8-inch cake pan or a loaf pan, and cover with oiled plastic wrap. Let rise until slightly puffed, about 45 minutes. Bake bread until firm and browned, 45 to 55 minutes.