Capturing Wild Yeast

My first loaf of bread. It’s not just about the kid’s projects. I’ve started one of my own. 🙂

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on April 13, 2016.

I have never been much of a cook or a baker, but I greatly admire those who have these skills. While I can see that cooking can be an art, it’s not my go-to creative outlet. But I wish I were better at it, and for a long time, I have wanted to learn how to bake bread…beautiful, healthy, aroma-rich bread.

My bread-baking goal became a reality recently after my family watched a series on Netflix called Cooked. The book of the same title, written by Michael Pollan, inspired this series. Pollan has made a living writing about food, and while I haven’t read any of his books, this series was fascinating. It had a lot to do with the history of food and how different cultures cook and find food. One of the episodes, titled “Air,” was about bread.

Bread baking has been around since before recorded history. No doubt some early baker neglected his or her flour and water mixture for several hours and came back to find it bubbling. That is, it began to ferment, or it became a sourdough starter, which is what we call it now.

It probably took many accidents before humans realized this chemical process could yield some tasty bread. Then it took centuries before scientists discovered what was happening. Later still, someone created the commercial yeast that is used in all the breads you buy at the store. (Artisan bakers who use natural yeast will tell you that not only are the breads we’re accustomed to bland and tasteless, they aren’t as healthy either.)

Before I watched this documentary, I had no idea about this process or that I could do it at home. By setting out a bowl of flour and water for several days, I could capture wild yeast and bacteria (two of the microorganisms that are always floating around in the air we breathe) to make my own sourdough starter. I knew I had to try it.

If you want to try it, there are dozens of tutorials online to help you, but it really was as easy as putting 1 part flour (most bakers recommend unbleached all purpose flour) to 1 part water in a bowl and mixing them together. I covered mine with a thin kitchen cloth and put it by a window that I opened for several hours each day. You can also leave it on a porch. Everyday, I stirred the mixture vigorously to beat the air into it. After two or three days, I began to see bubbles in it.

Since I had never done this before, I wasn’t sure what to look for. I knew if it started to smell bad, I’d need to throw it out and start again, but the only smell it gave off was a sweet, fermented smell. I knew it must be working, but I had no idea how long it would take. After another day or two, I added more flour and water to the mixture, and I continued to do this everyday. After about seven days, after much wondering if I was getting it right, I knew I had the yeast. It was very bubbly and it had a smell but not a bad one.

Now that I have my own yeast, the bread baking has commenced. Unfortunately, I have yet to bake that perfect loaf. From everything I read, learning to bake bread takes many trials and errors. Each loaf I make seems a little closer to the real deal, although I’m happy to say my husband likes what I’ve made. Though they’re not perfect, they are edible.

In my research I have learned that every baker who uses a sourdough starter bakes his or her bread differently. This could be extremely frustrating, but no, I refuse to get frustrated. (Okay, at least most of the time.) I am in this for the long haul. I’m going to figure out how to get that perfect loaf with the big holes. And hopefully it’s going to taste good too. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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