When you think of yeast, you probably imagine bread making. Or maybe alcohol brewing. But the uses of the micro-organism are far broader than that.
Yes, yeast is an organism; it’s alive (cue Frankenstein movie music). Yeasts are eukaryotes of the fungi family, and there are many different species. This is in fact what makes them so useful in baking or brewing, because specific species metabolise carbohydrates and produce carbon dioxide or alcohol as a by-product. Carbon dioxide is what makes your bread rise when you bake it, and the alcohol is of course the basis of any beer, wine, etc. So yeast is a very useful little creature.
It’s also got a very distinctive flavour, which tends to divide people into love it or hate it camps. You will almost certainly have had some sort of food made with yeast, though not all of it will have a yeast flavour. If you haven’t tried yeast by itself yet, I highly suggest you do, to see which side you fall into! But it is worth tasting the different types available, as they are not all the same. Actually there are thousands of yeast products out there, and its uses are endless.
One way in which you may have already been enjoying the flavour of yeast is in beer. While bitters don’t tend to have much of a yeast flavour, and most lagers don’t either, proper ales do. If you’ve ever sipped an ale and wondered at the slightly savoury note it can have, that would have been the yeast. Another place you are likely to have tasted it is in bread dough, if you’ve ever taken a pinch before it went into the oven. No doubt when people discovered the magical-seeming fermentation process yeast brought about in bread and alcohol making, they also gave it a taste, decided they liked it, and began humanity’s long love of yeast (which is thought to have been in use even before the advent of written language).
Here then, apart from the two most obvious, are some more common, modern yeast treats:
This is very similar to brewer’s yeast, except that nutritional yeast is deactivated (dead) and so it will not produce alcohol. You can buy it in most health shops, as a pot of light, crisp, dry flakes. These are typically light brown in colour, and very brittle. Nutritional yeast has a stronger flavour than brewer’s yeast, which is quite hard to describe. It’s savoury, and nutty, and has a note which is a little bit like parmesan cheese.
Nutritional yeast is in fact used as a parmesan substitute by many vegans, as it works wonderfully when sprinkled on pasta or salads. Other than its flavour, this type of yeast is also sought after for its health properties, since it has high percentages of protein and vitamins.
Some ways to enjoy nutritional yeast:
- On popcorn. I’ve even seen this in some independent cinemas. It’s like salty popcorn, but with an added flavour. Yum.
- In breadcrumbs. If you are making anything breaded, mix in some yeast. It will make your breading a lot crunchier and tastier.
- With pesto. I think fresh green basil pesto and nutritional yeast are a match made in heaven. It is so much more satisfying than parmesan.
This is a kind of nutritional yeast which has been smoked. It has a completely different flavour, and is often the basis for bacon flavourings. As someone who isn’t too fond of how bacon tastes, I don’t really rate this type of yeast much. But if you are looking to give any dish a smoky, meaty flavour, this is the stuff to do it with!
Some uses for Smoked Yeast:
- In place of bacon bits in a salad.
- Mixed into tomato sauce to turn it into more of a smoky barbeque condiment.
- In veggie Bolognese sauce. It will really enrich the flavour which can be missing from substitute minces.
Marmite / Vegemite
In the UK it’s Marmite, in Oz it’s Vegemite or Promite, in Switzerland Conovis, and many other countries have a version of their own, but I honestly can’t tell the difference. Lovers of the stuff from both ends of the planet would hotly disagree with me though, and insist that they each are totally different. Well, whether they are the same or different is immaterial, because they are all utterly vile! You are supposed to spread these dark yeast-based pastes on bread and eat them, but frankly I’d rather pass. I can’t tell you why I’m one of the people who hates Marmite (and Marmite by any other name), but I am. I love other types of yeast, but definitely not this…
- Shoe polish
- Pest repellent
- Alternative road tar
Anyway, what I hope readers take away from this ramble is that yeasts are very versatile and tasty little things, and that you really should give their different varieties a try! Man’s oldest industrial microorganism has a lot to offer.