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Sourdough Vs Yeast – What’s The Difference?

Sourdough vs yeast? Which is the better option for home bakers? Does commercial yeast yield different results from a homemade sourdough starter?

Three wooden spoons on a table with yeast to compare sourdough vs yeast vs active dry yeast

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Sourdough starter and yeast are ingredients that have one job: to act as a leavening agent. Both are common ingredients used in a lot of bread recipes, such as dinner rolls, sandwich loaves, and even no-knead bread recipes.

However, what exactly are the commonalities between commercial yeast and a homemade starter? Could they be used interchangeably? Do they taste different?

In this post, I explain the similarities and differences between a sourdough starter and commercial yeast. 

A bowl of commercial baker's yeast on the table.

What is Commercial Yeast?

Commercial yeast, also known as baker’s yeast, is produced and sold specifically for baking and fermentation purposes. It is a convenient way to add yeast to homemade recipes and doughs.

Commercial yeast has one job: to make bread rise. It does so by fermenting the sugars to produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. Fermentation is essential in many baking recipes such as dinner rolls and sandwich breads.

This type of yeast is used widely in home baking as well as in commercial bakeries. If you’ve ordered bread, croissants, or any baked good from a restaurant, chances are the baker added commercial yeast. 

A No-knead bread made using instant yeast. This bread has both sourdough vs yeast
No-Knead bread made with commercial baker’s yeast.

Types of Commercial Yeast

There are three main types of commercial yeast products available to consumers: instant yeast, active dry yeast, and fresh yeast (also known as cake yeast).

There is a wide variety of products to choose from. Many popular brands such as Fleischmanns, Saf-Instant, and even Anthony’s can all be bought at any grocery store. They even come in convenient packets!

You have eaten a baked good that was made with commercial baker’s yeast. It is widely used in restaurants and also at home. Due to the ease, restaurants will usually use this over a traditional sourdough starter. 

A measuring spoon of  commercial yeast.

Instant Yeast

Instant yeast is a form of dry yeast that is composed of yeast cells. It activates quickly in the dough. It can simply be added to any dough recipe. 

The brand of Instant Yeast I use is Saf-Instant Yeast

Active Dry Yeast

Active Dry Yeast is a yeast that is composed of dehydrated yeast cells. Just like instant yeast, Active Dry Yeast can also be added to any dough recipe. However, before it is added to the recipe, it needs to first be activated.

To activate, simply add the yeast to warm water. You will know when it is activated when there are light brown foams at the top of the water. 

A popular brand you’ll see at grocery stores is Fleischmann’s Active Dry Yeast.

Fresh yeast cake on a table in a clear bowl. Next to a rolling pin.
Fresh Yeast also known has yeast cake.

Fresh Yeast – Yeast Cake

This is a moist and perishable yeast that comes in a block or cake form, hence the name “yeast cake”. It is found in the refrigerated section in grocery stores.

Compared to the other forms of commercial yeast, fresh yeast has a shorter shelf life. It absolutely needs to be refrigerated. 

sandwich bread with cheese and ham. sourdough vs yeast bread comparison
Sandwich bread that was made with commercial yeast.

Yeast Bread Benefits

There are many benefits to yeast breads, such as:

  • Quick Rising Time: Commercial yeast will rise bread faster than a starter does. Many recipes that use yeast are fast. You can start the recipe in the morning and be eating bread by lunch.
  • Consistent Results: It is very reliable. Expect the same dough rise every time you bake bread. You’ll get consistent results when using yeast no matter what environment you are in.
  • Soft Texture: Ah, my favorite! The soft texture of the crumb is so delicious!
  • Enriched Bread: Many yeast bread recipes include enriching ingredients such as milk, sugar, honey, and eggs. 
  • Easier To Maintain: No need to take care of it. You can buy packets of fast-acting yeast and leave them in your pantry. 

Pros

  • Convenient
  • Easy to Learn
  • Readily available
  • Very affordable
  • Long shelf life (for active dry yeast and instant yeast)

Cons

  • Made in a lab (highly processed)
  • Not a natural yeast
  • Does not break down the gluten
an active sourdough starter in a jar. It is next to a loaf of sourdough bread.

What Is Sourdough Starter?

A sourdough starter is a mix of wild yeast and beneficial bacteria.

A Sourdough starter is created by combining a mixture of flour and water, which in turn cultivates wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria from the environment. This is added to bread recipes and used as a natural leavening agent. 

A Sourdough starter was one of the first leavening agents that was added to breads. It has been used for thousands of years by various civilizations around the world. It’s pretty cool to know that starters were being used in ancient Egypt 4,500 years ago.

Is There Commercial Baker’s Yeast In Sourdough Bread?

No! You won’t find any instant or active dry yeast in sourdough bread. That is because this type of bread is leavened with the starter which contains natural yeast.

two sourdough boules that were made with a sourdough bread starter

Does Sourdough Have a Taste?

Yes! Sourdough tastes, well, sour. It definitely has a unique flavor profile. There is a tanginess that affects the way that baked goods taste when using a starter.

Most sourdough breads have a distinct sour taste to them due to the starter. The tangy flavor comes from the lactic acid that is produced during the fermentation process. 

The starter itself can also vary in flavor by types of flour used. For instance, a starter made with all-purpose flour will be different than one made with whole wheat flour. 

Moreover, the length of the bulk fermentation process and proofing can affect how sour the baked good is. 

The rule of thumb: the longer the bulk fermentation, the more sour the final product will be. The shorter the bulk fermentation, the less sour the final product will be. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. 

sourdough starter that was fed and is now ready to bake with
An active sourdough starter at its peak

How To Make A Sourdough Starter

There are only two ingredients needed to make a sourdough starter: flour and water. Simply mix equal parts of flour and water into a jar. Then, you will leave the jar at room temperature to allow the yeast to grow. 

Sounds easy, right? Well, not really. Even though all you need for this process are two simple ingredients, making your own sourdough starter can take MONTHS!

Lots of home bakers try to make their own starters at home and sadly fail. Sometimes they fail because their starters become moldy.  However, most times they simply give up because the process is long and they run out of patience. 

Fear not! I am here to guide you. If you are interested in making your own, I have a foolproof sourdough starter guide for beginners

The Upkeep of a Sourdough Starter

You will need to baby your jar of sourdough starter. Having a starter is not for lazy people or those who are impatient! You’ll need to take care of it. It requires regular attention so that it is healthy and thriving.

For instance, a starter needs to be fed regularly. To feed, you’ll need to discard part of it, then add equal parts of flour and water. 

Moreover, you’ll need to learn how to troubleshoot it as well. For example, if your starter has become acidic, you’ll need to fix that! 

If you do not perform the required maintenance, your starter can go bad and even become moldy. Sadly, that has happened to me before. That is why it is best to keep a frozen backup in case anything happens. 

Pouring sourdough starter into a ziplock bag to be frozen.
Pouring sourdough starter in a bag to be frozen as backup.

Sourdough Benefits

There are several benefits when it comes to sourdough bread. Some of these benefits include:

  • Digestibility: Sourdough fermentation breaks down gluten which then makes the bread easier to digest. 
  • Lower Glycemic Index: Since the fermentation process breaks down gluten, this bread is lower in the glycemic index. However, it is not gluten-free. 
  • Prebiotics and Probiotics: Sourdough is a natural prebiotic. Additionally, the lactic acid bacteria may act as a probiotic.

Many bread lovers love these health benefits. However, keep in mind that a sourdough loaf still has gluten. 

Pros

  • Gives complex flavors to any bread recipe
  • A natural leavening agent
  • Less processed than commercial yeast
  • Good for breads, cakes, muffins, and other baked goods

Cons

  • Can take months to make a sourdough starter
  • Not readily available
  • Needs to be fed regularly
  • Bread recipes take a long time (usually a two to three-day process)
  • Less room for error!
  • Tough learning curve

Sourdough Bread vs Yeast Bread Comparison

Although both types of leavening produce delicious loaves of bread, the outcome cannot be any more different. 

You will be able to tell whether or not you’re eating bread made with a natural starter versus commercial yeast. These loaves differ in taste, smell, and texture. 

Does Sourdough vs Yeast Bread Taste Different?

Yes! Sourdough bread and yeast bread differ in their flavor, texture, and aroma.

You will be able to tell whether sourdough vs yeast was used in bread. There are different flavor profiles in sourdough bread that other breads simply lack. 

Most sourdough recipes have a distinct tanginess. This tanginess comes from the lactic acid produced by the wild yeast and bacteria during the fermentation process. 

On the other hand, yeast breads do not have that tanginess. They have more of a neutral flavor. Even though the yeast ferments the dough, the process does not produce the same lactic acid and flavors that sourdough does. 

natural yeast that was made with water and flour. on a table next to bread dough

Does Sourdough vs Yeast Bread Smell Different?

Oh, you bet they do. 

Sourdough has an earthy, tangy, and slightly nutty smell. 

On the other hand, the aroma of yeast bread is milder and less complex. Still smells great and I would never turn down a slice of bread made with commercial yeast!

Texture and Crumb of Sourdough vs Yeast Bread

Different!

Sourdough bread has a chewier crust and also a different crumb. The crumb is usually more irregular, consisting of a combination of big holes and smaller holes. 

In contrast, yeast breads usually have a soft and delicate texture. Unlike sourdough, this type of bread has uniform holes that are smaller in size. 

easy sourdough dinner rolls. sourdough vs yeast rolls, the yeast rolls will rise quicker
Dinner rolls made with sourdough. It took double the time for the dough to rise.

Can I use Sourdough Starter and Yeast interchangeably? 

Yes, you can use sourdough starter and commercial baker’s yeast interchangeably. However, you will also need to alter the original recipe as well as the rise times.

Since wild yeast and commercial yeast are different types of yeast, they both behave differently.  I’ve stated before that commercial yeast is much more predictable and reliable. 

To Substitute commercial yeast for sourdough starter:

The general rule of thumb is you need 200 grams of starter for each packet of commercial yeast. A packet of your typical yeast weighs roughly 7 grams, which is roughly 2 ¼ teaspoons. 

For any recipe, simply:

  • 1 – subtract 100 grams of wet ingredients
  • 2- subtract 100 grams of dry ingredients
  • 3- add 200 grams of active starter.

There will be trial and error when it comes to this process. Trust me, even I have had my fair share of frustration when substituting starter for yeast. However, I’m always happy at the end when I have a delicious sourdough baked good!

I go into how to make your sourdough starter at home

sourdough apple fritters on a table. with an apple and cinnamon
sourdough apple fritters made using sourdough starter and yeast

Can I use both sourdough starter and yeast in a recipe?

Yes! You can use both a starter and yeast in a recipe. 

However, if you add baker’s yeast to a recipe, it will no longer be considered a sourdough recipe. It’ll be called a sourdough discard recipe

I have multiple recipes that utilize both types of yeast that you should check out. My favorites are the sourdough discard bread and the sourdough apple fritters

Why use sourdough starter instead of yeast?

Even though commercial baker’s yeast is quite convenient, sourdough breads just taste better. Sourdough starter adds more depth of flavor, and different flavor profiles and are more complex than regular yeast you can buy at the grocery store.

What is Better: Sourdough Starter vs Yeast?

Honestly, it all comes down to personal preference. 

Although I LOVE sourdough, I would be lying to you if I said that it is better than commercial yeast. There are benefits to both. On the other hand, there are negatives to each and it all depends on whether those matter to you.

Do you not like the unique flavors that sourdough adds? Or maybe you do love the taste. However, you might not want to deal with the maintenance it takes to keep your starter alive. If so, then fast-acting yeast will always have your heart. 

On the other hand, maybe you’re willing to put the time in. Well, then sourdough yeast will be better for you. 

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