20 December 2010

Further adventures in bread baking

Two of my glorious loaves

For the last couple of years, I've been on a real bread kick. I've written about it here a couple of times and I've taken this bread-baking thing to the point where I don't buy bread anymore. I doubt I save any money this way and it certainly doesn't make very efficient use of my time. However, there is nothing more satisfying to me than knowing I have a loaf of fresh bread sitting on my kitchen table. A loaf of bread I made from scratch.

Bread baking isn't just an activity I'm finding. It's a way of looking at the world. I actually like it that it takes time and effort for me to make the thing that holds together a sandwich or gets slid into the toaster. My bread baking teaches me to be patient and as proud as I am of the finished results, I am at the mercy of a fungus when it comes to the finished result.

The fungus in question is a yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae. S. cerevisiae is the yest sold as baker's yeast and it's the same organism that ferments beer. S. cerevisiae is just one of a host of related species that will make bread dough rise. For example, Saccharomyces exiguus is the yeast that makes sourdough bread taste like sourdough bread.

I've been reading a lot lately about the role different yeasts play in how finished bread tastes. It makes sense and I'm beginning to wonder if there's more to life than Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Susan Tenny's amazing blog Wild Yeast has been a real inspiration. My starter, to make a bad bread joke.

So yesterday afternoon I embarked on an experiment to culture my own Saccharomyces exiguus. There's a lot of folklore surrounding the whole process of harvesting wild yeast. While it's true that there's wild yeast everywhere, the yeast that will grow in my starter arrived with the flour my starter's built around. Over the course of my starter's life it will attract other local bacteria and fungi and it will lend a special St. Pete flavor to my breads. But my goal here is to culture the yeast that's already in my flour naturally.

I'm partial to King Arthur flour and no that's not a paid plug. I think their bread flour is a perfect consistency and I get good results with it. King Arther also has a great website and it's their website that got me started on this grow your own yeast kick.

From what I understand, this will take a few tries until I get it right but I'm dying to see how this affects my breads.

Photo via K. Fields

OK, from King Arthur's website:
  • 2 cups warm water that's been allowed to sit for a day to let the chlorine dissipate
  • 1 tablespoon sugar or honey (optional)
  • 2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
Mix the water, flour and optional sweetener together thoroughly in a clean, scalded glass or ceramic bowl. The scalding will ensure that you’re starting “pure.” Cover the bowl with a clean dishcloth. Put it in an area where there’s apt to be the highest concentration of airborne yeast as well as the warmth that is needed to begin fermentation.

If the surface begins to look dry after a while, give the mixture a stir. It should begin to “work” in the first day or two if it’s going to at all. If it does, your trap has been successful. As you would with a dried starter or active dry yeast, let this mixture continue working for 3 or 4 days giving it a stir every day or so. When it’s developed a yeasty, sour aroma, put it in a clean jar with a lid and refrigerate it until you’re ready to use it.

If the mixture begins to mold or develop a peculiar color or odor instead of a “clean, sour aroma,” give a sigh, throw it out and, if you’re patient, start again. Along with the vital yeasts, you may have inadvertently nurtured a strain of bacteria that will not be wonderful in food. This doesn’t happen very often though, so don’t let the possibility dissuade you from this adventure.
Have any of your guys ever tried this? Any words of advice? I know there are some bakers out there.

I'll keep you posted on my further adventures in bread baking.


  1. I tried it many years ago, but I read somewhere that you can use grapes to capture yeasts instead of from the air. You make the mix as stated above but just submerge a couple of grapes into it. At the time I stupidly used store-bought grapes when I should have used the Concords that grow around here. It worked and I used the starter a few times, but then moved across the country a short time afterwards and abandoned it. I might have to give it another try. There's also Carl Griffith's sourdough starter that you can get for free. Just google his name and you'll find the website that his family runs.

  2. Susan Tenny, the woman whose blog I mentioned is my new hero. She's a skeptic who understands chemistry and biology and who bakes. She has a post called "Five Things You Thought You Knew about Sourdough" and she talks about the whole harvesting wild yeast thing: http://www.wildyeastblog.com/2008/04/22/sourdough-stories-myth/#more-540

    Her whole blog is shot through with reality checks that cut through the sometimes mystical world of bread baking. I think I'm in love with her.

  3. I have made bread before and it amazing the functionality of the yeast.

    It is no easy task being a baker i assure you of that. I never tried to culture my own yeast but if I ever have anytime in my busy schedule, I might just try the concord grape method.

    Your bread does look delicious with butter and a hot cup of coffee. Yum!

  4. I have a schedule that would kill a lesser man and if I can find the time to do this, anybody can. I'm convinced that scratch-baking bread lends itself to modern life because the time it requires comes in short bursts spread out over a couple of days. I swear though, if I could make a living from it, baking bread would be all I did. It's a pleasure to meet another baker! Oh, and my bread goes best with coarse salt and olive oil. Bread with salt and olive oil has made me forget that butter even exists when it comes to bread spreads.

  5. I feel the same way about cheesecake. Unfortunately nobody here at the DogWalk likes cheesecake, so disposing of the evidence gets to be a bit of an issue. I usually have a slice, maybe two and that's all I can afford to eat. My latest creation was a caramelized banana, almost like a Bananas Foster. I need to make a few more to get the right balance of caramel and banana, but I'm willing to make that sacrifice.

    Making things by hand from scratch slows my brian down a bit and makes me realize that this "24/7/365-gotta-have-it-yesterday" world is a very artificial one. And if you are the best bread-maker in town, folks will give you the time you need to make it right.

  6. Ahhh, cheesecakes are another thing that lend themselves to wild experimentation. There's just something fundamentally appealing to anything that comes out of an oven.

    I bake bread for the very reason you bake cheesecake. I like running into something that can't be rushed and I love that bread is resolutely impulse-proof.

  7. I learned how to bake while I was in the Army and did bake bread a few times after I got out. The best was one Thanksgiving when we we served at 2:00, then went into the kitchen about 7:00, sliced some of that bread and made sandwiches! Since then, though, I always end up making homemade biscuits, and even those just once in a while.

  8. The highlight of my Thanksgiving every year is when I bake the bread my stuffing's made from. Nothing can compare with handmade and homemade.


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