Free Yeast for Baking

Few things on earth are as satisfying as a loaf of home-made bread of sourdough. First, the aroma spreads through the house, and then you get to saw through a rich dark crust and taste that still-warm bread. It has a tang that elevates it over blander loaves, and it’s all yours for a bit of patience and less money than the cheapest supermarket fluff.

Sourdough yeast is wild yeast – not from a packet or a jar, but from the air and surfaces surrounding us. Yeast is everywhere, hoping to find the right opportunity to start converting sugars and starches into carbon dioxide and alcohol. If you give yeast that opportunity and capture its carbon dioxide in a glue of flour and fluid, you have bread dough.

Thousands of varieties of yeast exist around us. Over time, civilization has cultured the “best” varieties, and these are the ones you find in foil packets in the grocery store. They are wonderful at what they do – produce consistent loaves with dependable rise and a neutral flavor. Now, they even have rapid-rise versions that do all those things in about half the time the prior generations had to invest in their bread.

Sourdough yeast is different. It has a tangy, distinctive, sour taste. It rises on a slower schedule, and can be finicky about whether it will rise at all. Sourdough yeast is typically kept in starters, some of which have been passed down for generations and originally gained fame when gold prospectors left their civilized yeast behind and started fresh cultures of wild yeast in the Wild West (you can get a free starter of a Carl Griffin’s Oregon Trail strain from 1847 here, for the cost of a self-addressed stamped envelope).

It’s easy to make your own starter, though. Saturday morning, I mixed a cup of flour and a cup of water, and put it in a loosely covered jar and let it sit. By Saturday evening, a layer of yellow-brownish fluid had formed on the surface, and I mixed it back in. Sunday morning, it looked kind of foamy. This morning, it had risen up the jar and fallen back down, and is ready to be “fed” with more water and flour.

The yellowish stripe in the second picture is “hooch” – a layer of fluid with alcohol in it, but nothing you would want to drink. You can either mix it back in or wait for it to rise to the surface and pour it off.

I have captured the wild yeast, and, as baking season returns, I’ll be able to create my own unique versions of sourdough loaves, biscuits and even waffles.

5 Responses to “Free Yeast for Baking”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Never poor the hooch out! Unless the smell of alcohol is overwhelming. Hooch is very important to taste and the complexity of your poolish. Always mix it up – even before you remove some, to feed it more as you're maintaining the culture.

  2. Leigh Ann says:

    I recommend adding pretzels, pizza crust, and English muffins to your sourdough repetoire.

  3. Dan says:

    Anonymous – thank you for the advice. Leigh Ann – I certainly will be attempting pizza crust and pretzels. Do you have a recipe for crispy pretzels? I love good old-fashioned crispy pretzels, but have never found a recipe.

  4. KC Hop Head says:

    You said you were able to capture the wild yeast? Did you get your yeast from the mail or did you actually culture yeast? I've always been interested in trying to capture and culture a brewers yeast. I think it would be good knowledge to have.

  5. Jodi says:

    Thanks for posting this! I have wanted to try this homemade sourdough thing for a long time, and I am always looking to improve my woeful bread-making skills. You've inspired a new project!

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