This post is the second in a series of how to make the best loaf of bread, ever. HERE is the introduction.
Like many novice bakers, I first only understood yeast as a weird, pellety material that you got from foil packages and then added to your dough because the instructions said so. I had a vague, alchemical notion that it always had to be mixed with sugar to make Things happen, and knew it had something to do with beer.
As I kept baking, however, I started to understand that I was waking up something alive every time I dissolved those pellets in warm water and sugar. I started seeing how I had to time things carefully so that yeast could do its work and raise my bread without running out of fuel. And then I started wondering, because bread had been around for ages…and I don’t think that these convienient little packages were the way it’s always been.
I don’t think they sold little pre-measured pouches in those 1800’s country stores, I’m confident there was no pellet-yeast hanging out the European bakeries of the Middle Ages, and I’d certainly wager that the Hebrew people, experiencing the first Passover in Egypt so long ago, weren’t just omitting Red Star from their recipes when they were making unleavened bread.
So…what is this stuff, and how did people find it? Read on!
To unfairly simplify, yeast is a bitty little one-celled fungus. The variety that you get in the package (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is a strain that was identified relatively recently (okay...1860's recently), and the wild stuff that you can catch for Sourdough (one of them being Saccharomyces exiguus) is said to be the first domesticated creature in history. For thousands of years, even before microscopes and scientific explanations of fermentation were written, people knew that if you left flour and water dough out for a length of time, it could become active and make delicious bread.
So, if you're feeling up for finding more free food and joining in with the millennia of people capturing this awesome organism, you can catch the very yeast in the air around your home (oh, it's EVERYWHERE) and harness it into becoming your very own super-local leavening source. The additional neat thing about this is that your homemade bakery will have a real sense of terroir to it. The same reason why New York sourdough tastes so different from San Francisco sourdough will be why your bread tastes so specifically unique to your environment.
...As a side note, you could also get some already-active starter from a weird friend (if you have weird friends), but then...WHERE IS YOUR SENSE OF ADVENTURE??
So with all that said, get this song playing in the background and get yourself ready. With a little time, you may be able to coach your new yeasty friends into a champion Sourdough in no time!
--2 large glass NOT METAL jars (I love using mason jars with the rings—very convenient).
--Cheesecloth or a coffee filter
--Rubberbands (if you’re not using a mason jar with the ring)
--1 chopstick (the handle of a wooden spoon can work, too)
--100% Whole-Wheat Flour
--Patience. If all goes well, this process takes about 2 weeks until you can eat bread, so buckle in and hang on for the ride!
In your clean mason jar, measure out 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup filtered water. Mix with the chopstick until you have blended well, whipping as much air as you can into the mix. Cover with the coffee filter or two layers of cheesecloth, and secure on the top with rubber bands or the mason jar ring.
NOTE: It is very important to cover it—fruit flies LOVE starter, and will happily lay eggs in it if they can reach it. Don't cover with anything solid, though--your mix needs to be able to breathe (it is going to be alive, remember!)
Put in a relatively warm, dark place. I found that a secluded corner of our kitchen worked just fine.
DAYS 2-5 (may take longer in cold weather)
Every morning, discard half the mix into your compost and feed the start 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup warm filtered water, mixing well. Right now, you’re waiting for the yeast that is naturally in the air to settle into your mix and start eating the starches in the batter you’ve made. You don’t have to hope you caught it—its there (unless you live in an autoclave. A really…big one.) Stir to aerate the mix again mid-day (if you can) and before you go to bed.
Signs of active yeast are bubbles, a clear or light brown liquid rising to the top (it’s alcohol...AKA yeast poop!) and the start of a beery, sour smell. THESE ARE ALL HAPPY THINGS.
Things you DON’T want to see at this stage are mold or fruit fly maggots. If you find these, compost your tears and failure and start over. Thankfully, once your starter is well established, it will never mold--the yeast out-competes anything else alive!
Once you have an active starter:
This is a living thing. It should have a pleasant, beer-y aroma and bubbles. You will need to keep feeding it daily, but as it gains strength, you can use the excess start rather than dumping it! I will have some recipes in a later post.
It's time now to start building up your starter's strength and preparing it for baking. You want to have starter that is strong enough that it can double in size during the 4 hours that occur after a feeding. If you wait longer, it will rise and fall and you might have no idea just how active it is (this is why I threw out my first starter attempt—I only checked it when I came back from a full day of teaching, and found it at the same level. I had no idea that it was rising and falling while I was gone.) When my jar starts looking groty and crusty, I transfer as much of the starter as I can to the second, clean mason jar so that I can wash out the first, and continue!.
After about 2 weeks, you should have a very happy, very active jar of yeast-friends, ready to serve your baking whims.
Soon, you will be able to control the fermentation by selectively refrigerating it and only have to feed it once or twice a week, rather than every day. We'll get into that with the next post, where we take this crazy-scientist jar and finally get to whip up that awesome bread I keep talking about.
Now, if you are having difficulty with this process, there are lots of fantastic resources for troubleshooting your problems. I really enjoy using The Art of Baking with Natural Yeast as a resource. Melissa Richardson and Caleb Warnock are fantastic companions to bring along on this adventure, and Melissa keeps a great blog full of suggestions and advice. She also has a slightly alternative method for capturing yeast than what I've described here. Do what works for you, because your homemade bread will be so worth it, however you come by it!
I think it tells you what kind of people we've become that I'd much rather get to share a lunch with these people than any celebrity. WE COULD TOTALLY GEEK OUT OVER BREAD and it would be great.
We are a husband and wife who are trying to live simply. We are learning much as we transition from life in the city to life in the country. Come along with us, and maybe you can also learn a thing or two as well.
We love writing for these fine folks as well!
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Simple Life Homestead