Bread Basics (Yeast-Leavened Breads)

Whole-Spelt Sourdough Bread

Cat’s Whole-Spelt Sourdough Bread

By Cat, June 2008 (Photo and bread, right, by Cat)

  • See also: 1. Sourdough Introduction2. Natural Leavens3. Bread & Rolls menu
  • Includes: 1. Bread-Making Tips; 2. Test for Rise (risen enough); 3. Test for Doneness; 4. Yeast Conversions; 5. Converting a European Recipe (from grams); 6. Using Spelt; 7. Overview of Yeast- and Natural Leaven-Bread Methods

ks of the Bible’s Old Testament, and can be very nourishing, especially when made the way it was way back then – either from sprouted grain, or using natural leavens (like sourdough starter).

But in our western culture, we have so reduced the nutritional content of bread, that it is now suspected of being a root cause in the diabetes (type 2) and obesity epidemics, and in the surging number of people with heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and even arthritis, not to mention those with gluten sensitivity and coeliac. We have over-hybridized wheat so that it barely resembles the ancient wheat that was once so nourishing.

Nevertheless, it is still possible to make nourishing, healthful breads at home.

Bread-Making Tips

Here are some bread-making tips adapted from the MediterrAsian Cooking (1) website:

  • Bread is made of just four basic ingredients:  flour, water, salt and yeast.  Nothing else is needed, but other ingredients such as egg, milk, sugar (or other sweetener), fiber, etc. can be added for different effects.
  • Bread grows better with cold water rather than warm, because it grows slowly and helps to increase the strength of its texture;
  • To get dough off your fingers, just rub them together with a little flour over the sink or garbage can.
  • A pinch of salt [I recommend Unrefined sea salt] is needed even for sweet bread, because the salt helps create elasticity for the dough;
  • Rule of thumb for water:flour ratio:  600 ml (2 ½ cups) water for every 1000 grams flour [8 ¾ cups or 35 oz *].  Don’t be tempted to add more flour to make it easier to work; a very moist bread dough makes better bread (however, the substitution of bulgur for some of the flour confuses the issue a bit).   * [NOTE: The conversion of grams to ounces is more accurate than grams to cups. See Converting a European Recipe, below for more detail. To convert the 1000 grams flour to cups, I used the All Recipes table for all-purpose flour. The conversion also depends upon the type of four and grind].
  • Sugar is not needed unless you want it sweet.  The yeast can get all the sugar it needs from the flour, [but this slows down the rise – a good thing for many breads, but may not fit in your busy schedule].
  • Do first-rise in refrigerator, for slower, stronger rise. See Fine Cooking’s Make Ahead Bread Tip (14) for details.
  • Especially if using mostly whole grain flour, use a poolish (sponge) method for the best rise; see Poolish, below, for details.

Test for Rise (doubled in size):

  • Finger test for rise in bowl: Poke it with 2 fingers (apart), about ½” deep; if it holds the indent, it’s ready (per Bon Appetit (2), Choosing Voluntary Simplicity (3)), or if it mostly holds the indent but springs back a little (per Fresh Loaf (4)).
  • Finger test in pan: With one finger, make a SMALL dent in the dough near the side of the pan. If dent remains it is ready to bake. (from Choosing Voluntary Simplicity (3))

Test for doneness

  • Tap the bottom – it should sound hollow.
  • Internal temperature of most breads should be 190°F, but if dough contains milk, eggs or butter, it should be closer to 200°F. (from The Kitchn blog (5))

Yeast Conversions

I use Traditional Oven’s  Yeast Converter (13), to convert oz, grams, tsp  or Tbsp of one type of yeast to oz, grams, tsp, or Tbsp of another type of yeast.

How much dry yeast in a packet:

  • About 2 ¼ tsp dry yeast in one packet. This is useful with conversations, if you buy your yeast in bulk.

How much dry yeast in a ‘cake’ or ‘cube’ of fresh (compressed) yeast:

The problem, here, is how many oz or grams in a cake or cube, so that you can use Traditional Oven’s Yeast Converter (13) to determine tsp or Tbsp or packets of dry yeast.

  • In the US, a ‘cake’ of fresh yeast is 0.6 oz (11), and is equivalent to 3 tsp active dry yeast (12). However, Red Star sells a 2 oz cake of fresh yeast, which is equivalent to 3 packages active dry yeast (6 ¾ tsp) (13).
  • For a recipe of European origin, a ‘cube’ of fresh yeast is 42 grams or 1.5 oz, or 2.5 US cake portions (11).

Converting a European Recipe (metric to English measures)

This is not a perfect science for several reasons, including:

  • Grams and ounces do not measure the same thing. Grams is a measure of mass, which is constant no matter your elevation (relative to sea level), but ounces is a measure of weight, which changes as your elevation changes. Conversion charts are based on sea level; if you live at a higher elevation, the conversion will not be accurate.
  • Similarly, grams and cups are not directly related. Grams is a measure of mass, and cups is a measure of volume; the conversion between them depends on the density of the substance, which is not the same for all ingredients. For example, 1 cup of all-purpose flour is equivalent to 128 grams, but 1 cup of rolled oats is equivalent to only 85 grams, because the rolled oats are less dense than the flour.
  • Oven Temperature conversions °C to °F are more direct.

I’ve found a few websites that are useful in converting from European measurements (grams and milliliters) to American (cups):

  • Gourmet Sleuth, gram converter (6)
  • All Recipes, cup to gram tables for common ingredients (7)
  •, Conversion Tables for Cooking (8)
  • What’s Cooking America, Metric Conversion Charts for Liquid & Dry Measures (9)
  • What’s Cooking America, Oven temperature conversions (10)
  • See also my Miscellaneous Info page near the top:  Miscellaneous Information for other conversion sites.

I highly recommend using a digital or other scale to weigh your ingredients, at least until you get a feel for the bread.

Using Spelt

I prefer to use spelt, or at least part-spelt, in my bread because it is an ancient variety of wheat and is more nutritious. However, it’s gluten is different from that in wheat, and works up faster (faster rise), so you need to check it sooner.

Generally, you need less moisture (or more flour) when using spelt, because it is not as dry as wheat.  Also the gluten in spelt is quite a bit different from wheat gluten.  For this reason, many people who have problems with wheat gluten can tolerate spelt.

Spelt gluten acts differently in recipes; you may notice that your bread doesn’t rise as much. This is because it develops faster than wheat gluten, so needs a shorter rise time. If you let it rise as long as wheat, it will fall in the oven.

I’ve found that adding a bit of wheat, oat or barley flour to the spelt helps with the rise problem. And while these may also contain gluten, the gluten of all these flours is different from that in wheat, so some people with sensitivity to gluten can tolerate spelt, oat and barley gluten.

Overview: Yeast- and Natural Leaven- Bread Methods

Dry yeast vs Natural Leavens

Most breads today are made with dry yeast, such as Fleischmans or Red Star. But many people believe that breads made from natural leavens are more healthful, more easy to digest. Dry yeast is a single sub-species of yeast S. Cerivisea, but natural leavens contain many different species and subspecies of lactic-loving yeasts as well as lacto-bacteria that create the acidic environment in which the yeast can survive.

Natural leavens usually take longer to rise than dry yeast, but this allows for more development of flavors and crumb. I use sourdough (a type of natural leaven) for many of my bread recipes

Recipes using dry yeast usually specify the amount of yeast by number of packets. Because I buy my dry yeast in bulk (Bob’s Red Mill), the packet-to-bulk conversion is helpful: 1 packet dry yeast is about 2 ¼ tsp bulk dry yeast.

Proofing Yeast

This step will let you know if the yeast is still active. Some recipes do not include this step, but I highly recommend it.

Add yeast to a bit of warm water or milk (75°-80°F); typically ¼ cup liquid for 1 Tbsp active dry yeast. If using raw milk, you need to scald it first, then cool to proofing temperature. A pinch of sugar can also be added – but just a pinch.

Once the foam starts to form, it is time to add it to your dough. If you wait too long, the yeast will not be as strong.

How it works: The water dissolves the dry coating around the granules of yeast, releasing the active yeast inside. The active yeast will go to work on the sugar and a bubbly foam will start to form on the surface from the carbon dioxide being released. This foam is proof that the yeast is active, and once you see it, you can add the yeast to your bread dough.

Simple Yeast Method

The most common method for making a yeast bread is quite simple, but doesn’t yield the best nor the most healthful product, and works best when making an all-white flour bread.  It involves using commercial dry yeast as follows:

  • Mixing yeast, water, flour & salt (plus optional ingredients like egg, milk or butter),
  • kneading a bit,
  • allowing to rise,
  • punching down then shaping loaf and rising again
  • baking

Sponge Method (Poolish)

A better method for using proofed dry yeast includes a sponge rise, also known as a ferment or poolish, typically overnight. The overnight rise can be done in the refrigerator for a stronger, slower rise. This gives a better texture and loft to the bread, and improves the nutrient quality if using whole grain flour.  It also makes kneading easier. In addition to the sponge, an extra rise is often added. The sequence of steps:

  • Mixing a ‘sponge’ of yeast, water, and half of the flour; then allowing to rise several hours or overnight
  • adding salt and butter/oil (if using), and remaining flour
  • kneading a bit,
  • 1st rise (poolish),
  • punching down for 2nd rise,
  • shaping loaf and 3rd rise
  • baking

Pre-Soak Sponge Method

NOTE: Once I learned how to do sourdough, I no longer use a pre-soak for a yeast-rise bread. My new rule of thumb is:

  • Quick breads: use a presoak method to ferment the flour, and use baking soda (or baking soda/baking powder combo) to leaven the bread.
  • Yeast-leavened breads: use a natural leaven (such as sourdough) to ferment the flour and leaven the bread. See Natural Leavens (my old page: Bread-SD-NatLeaven) for more.

The presoak is a special version of a poolish or sponge, in that it includes a slightly acidic ingredient like whey, yogurt, buttermilk or lemon juice – or sourdough starter.

If you want to try a pre-soak sponge, the method is similar to the sponge method, but with a few differences. It adds an acid medium to the sponge (such as yogurt, whey, or lemon juice).  This is especially helpful with whole grain flours, because the acid soak activates the enzymes in the grain, greatly improving its nutrient quality. However it also partially breaks down the gluten, so the bread will not rise as much unless gluten is added after the sponge.

When using yogurt in the sponge for a yeast dough, I have found I get better results (and taste) if I add boiling water to the yogurt, to kill the probiotics that would otherwise interfere with the action of the yeast, and lead to alcohol fermentation. I also add a tad of baking soda when mixing after the soak, to minimize the sour-acid taste.

Sourdough Method

While sourdough starters contain natural yeast, bread made from the starter is not considered a yeast-leavened bread because the yeast is not a commercial yeast. Also they are different species of yeast.

The natural yeasts in a sourdough starter are strains of a yeast family whose scientific name is Sacchraromyces exiges (or S. exiges). Commercial bakers’ yeast is  Sacchraromyces cerrivasae (or S. cerrivasae). The two have what might be called a distant family relationship but differ in one important way: Commercial bakers yeast cannot survive in a very acidic environment whereas natural yeast is very happy to live in such an environment. This is important because the lactobacilli in a sourdough culture and other natural leavens produce a lot of lactic and acetic acids (which are what gives sourdough bread its flavor). The acids create an environment too acidic for commercial bakers’ yeast, so only natural yeast can live with them.

The basics for making sourdough bread are similar to those for yeasted bread with one big difference: sourdough is slower acting than commercial yeast, so the rise time is much longer. This longer rise time ferments the flour in the bread, making it more nutritious and its nutrients more absorbable.


  1. MediterrAsian Cooking:
  2. BonAppetit (
  3. Choosing Voluntary Simplicity  on rising dough:( 
  4. Fresh Loaf  on second rise ( 
  5. The Kitchn blog on when bread is done baking (
  6. Gourmet Sleuth gram converter (
  7. All Recipes cup to gram tables for common ingredients (
  8. Conversion Tables for Cooking (
  9. What’s Cooking America, Metric Conversion Charts for Liquid & Dry Measures (
  10. What’s Cooking America, Oven Temperature Conversions (
  11. Make Bread, Fresh yeast conversions (
  12. Traditional Oven, yeast converter (
  13. Red Star Yeast, conversion table (
  14. Fine Cooking Make Ahead Bread (

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