What Are the Essential Ingredients in Yeast Bread and What Do They Do?

Anyone can make delicious homemade bread! Each of the basic ingredients in a yeast bread plays a critical role in producing a good loaf.

What are the Basic Ingredients in Bread?

  • Flour: primary ingredient, varies in protein content
  • Yeast: makes bread dough rise
  • Water: activates yeast, creates dough
  • Salt: controls yeast, adds flavor


  • Fat: makes bread tender, flavorful, longer shelf life
  • Sugar: adds flavor, makes crust golden

Keep reading to find out more!


By volume, flour is the primary ingredient in bread. Different types of flour contain different amounts of gluten, one of the proteins in flour. It is a tough, elastic, grayish substance that resembles chewing gum when wet. It is the gluten in flour that, when the dough is kneaded, helps form the elastic meshwork that traps the gas bubbles formed by yeast and makes the bread rise, creating a light structure. 

Types of Flour:


All-purpose Flour can be used in everything from pastries to breads. It has 11 to 12 grams of protein per cup. Unbleached flour is preferable to bleached flour because certain nutrients are destroyed in the bleaching of the flour.


Bread Flour has a higher protein count of 13 to 14 grams per cup. More protein creates a more elastic dough and thus a chewier texture. 


Cake Flour has only 4 to 9 grams of protein per cup which produces tender, flaky pastries and crusts and lighter, more delicate cakes.


Whole Wheat Flour contains the natural bran of the grain which is milled into the flour. It is also called graham flour and while it does not have quite as much protein as all-purpose flour, it has additional nutrients such as niacin and iron which have to be added to white flours during the milling process. Since whole grain flours have lower gluten protein, they will not rise as well. Therefore, recipes for whole grain breads usually only use 50% whole grain flours, balancing the gluten with bread flour. 


Gluten Flour, sometimes called “vital gluten,” is high-protein, hard-wheat flour treated to remove most of the starch, leaving a high gluten content. It can be used as an additive to doughs made with low-gluten flour, such as rye flour or other whole grain flours. When there is less than 50 percent bread flour in a recipe, it is helpful to add gluten. Gluten flour contains 36 grams of gluten protein per cup, so the addition of 1 or 2 tablespoons of gluten flour will boost the rising power of most whole grain breads.


What is yeast?

Yeast is a microscopic, single-celled living organism that will grow once it is given moisture and food. It is a fungus, so it is a biological rather than a chemical leavening agent.

What does yeast do?

When rehydrated and activated by warm water, yeast releases carbon dioxide gas bubbles. These bubbles get trapped in the gluten of the bread dough and produces the rising action of the dough. Yeast also gives the bread flavor.  

How much yeast should I use?

A rule of thumb for yeast measurement is to use ½ teaspoon of yeast per cup of flour. 

Using yeast in recipes:

Yeast can either be added directly to the dry ingredients or it can be reconstituted in warm water first.

Dissolving yeast in warm water first:

To ½ cup warm water that is between 1100F and 115°F, dissolve 1 teaspoon sugar and stir in the yeast. Wait 5-10 minutes until foamy. Add to the remaining ingredients. Remember to account for the ½ cup of water in your recipe by subtracting it from the total amount of liquid. Note: Any type of thermometer can be used to test the temperature of the liquid, as long as it can measure between 750F and 1500F. Yeast will not become active at temperatures below 50°F unless it is softened in warm water first. Liquid cooler than 105°F gives yeast a slow start and is part of a long-rise bread method which gives the grain time to develop its flavor. Yeast will be killed if mixed directly with liquids above the temperature of 115°F. 

Adding directly to the dry ingredients:

Blend the yeast into the dry ingredients. Be aware that the yeast’s activity may be reduced if it comes into direct contact with salt or sugar. In recipes using dry yeast, be sure the liquid added to the recipe measures between 1200F to 1300 F. If using cake yeast, use liquid between 900F to 950F. In a bread machine, use liquid that measures 800F.

Types of Yeast:


Use a ¼ oz packet of Active Dry Yeast (2 ¼ teaspoons) for up to 4 cups of flour. In a bread machine, use ¾ tsp Active Dry Yeast per cup of flour. Active Dry Yeast is not recommended for use in express cycle settings of bread machines.


Instant Yeast shortens the rising time by as much as 50%. Use a ¼ oz packet of Instant Yeast  (2 ¼ teaspoons) for up to 4 cups of flour. In a bread machine, use ½ teaspoon Instant Yeast per cup of flour. If using the express cycle setting on a bread machine, double or triple the amount of instant yeast you use, according to the manufacturer’s instructions.


Also called WET, FRESH, or COMPRESSED YEAST, Cake Yeast is moist, very perishable and has to be refrigerated and used before it spoils. It is available in some grocery stores and health food stores in the dairy section, sometimes only seasonally. It can be crumbled over dry ingredients directly or it can be dissolved in water. One 2 oz cake can rise 9 to 12 cups of flour. One third of a cake is equivalent to one package of dry yeast and can rise up to 4 cups of flour.  If adding cake yeast directly to dry ingredients, use liquid temperatures between 900F to 950F. Cake yeast works well in regular cycle bread machine recipes but should not be used in express cycles.


Water and milk are the most common liquids used in making yeast breads. Milk can be used in place of water and vice versa. Water gives the loaf a crunchy crust. Milk gives the loaf a velvety crumb and a soft crust. Breads made with milk stay moist longer than breads made with water.

Other ingredients in a recipe may add to the liquid balance, such as cheese, sour cream, vegetables, fruits, applesauce, sourdough starter, and eggs. The total amount of liquid balance in a dough must be considered because too much liquid makes a wet, sticky dough that will become too bubbly to handle and too little liquid makes a dry, stiff dough that will not rise well and will become a dry, tasteless bread.


Besides enhancing the flavor of bread, salt controls the growth of the yeast and strengthens the gluten structure of the dough. A rule of thumb for salt measurement is ½ teaspoon salt per cup of flour. Too much salt kills the yeast. Bread with no salt will have an overly porous texture and a very bland flavor.


Fats such as butter, shortening, and oil will lubricate the dough, give breads a longer shelf life, and make the bread more tender and flavorful. Doughs that are high in fat require more yeast than low-fat doughs. Too much fat inhibits rising. When adding butter or solid shortening, cut it up into small pieces so that it will mix in better. Be careful that the fat does not come in contact with the yeast, as it inhibits the dissolving of the yeast.


White sugar, brown sugar, honey and molasses add flavor to the bread and give the crust a golden color because they increase the browning power. A large amount of sugar in a bread can make the bread brown too much.  If using a bread machine, you may need to select the “light” crust. An excessive amount of sugar may also slow down or stop the yeast activity. Because yeast needs sugar to produce carbon dioxide, too little sugar may cause the dough to rise too slowly or not at all.

Types of Sweeteners:


When sugar is called for in a recipe, use granulated. Sugar is processed from either sugarcane or sugar beets which have no difference in quality or performance.  Sugar will feed the yeast if used in small amounts (up to 3 teaspoons per package of yeast). Beyond that, sugar adds flavor to yeast breads.


Dark brown sugar has a slightly stronger flavor because it contains more molasses than light brown sugar. Keep brown sugar in a container with a tight fitting lid, which should keep it from drying out. To soften brown sugar that has become hard, place a piece of apple in the container with the sugar and it should soften within just a few hours. Otherwise soften the sugar by heating it in the microwave for ½ to 1 minute.


Superfine sugar is ideal for meringues and some cakes because it blends in quickly and easily into the ingredients.


Pearl sugar is used to decorate the tops of sweet breads and cookies and is used frequently in Scandinavian baking. Pearl sugar looks like coarsely crushed sugar cubes.

It is found in Scandinavian and European baking sections of supermarkets, and of course is available online.


Honey is produced by bees with the nectar of flowers. Honey adds a sweet, smooth, and distinctive taste to recipes and tends to absorb and retain moisture, which will retard drying and staling of baked goods. Honey is high in fructose, so it is sweeter than sugar. Store honey at room temperature. If it crystallizes, remove the lid and place the jar in warm water until crystals dissolve or microwave for two to three minutes, stirring every 30 seconds until crystals dissolve. To substitute honey for granulated sugar in recipes, use ¾ cup honey for each cup of sugar, reduce liquid in the recipe by ¼ cup for each cup of honey used, and add ½ tsp of baking soda for each cup of honey used. Baking temperature should be reduced by 250 F to prevent over-browning.


Black, thick liquid molasses used to be a by-product of sugar production and was used as a common sweetener in early Colonial days because sugar was an expensive ingredient. Today, molasses is made from pure sugarcane juices that are clarified, reduced, and blended with the dark syrup produced by first- and second- strike centrifugal juices to achieve a consistency of mellowness, flavor, and color. Molasses contains iron, potassium, a little calcium, phosphorus, thiamine, and riboflavin.

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Beatrice Ojakangas

Food writer Beatrice Ojakangas grew up as the oldest of ten on a farm in Floodwood, Minnesota and learned to cook and bake on a woodstove. Author of 31 cookbooks, Beatrice has a degree in home economics, has been inducted into the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame, was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Minnesota, has written for magazines such as Bon Appetit, Gourmet, and Woman's Day, and appeared on the television shows of both Julia Child and Martha Stewart. Her specialties include baking, Finnish and Scandinavian cooking, and writing well-tested, simple recipes that use wholesome ingredients. She lives in Duluth, Minnesota.

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