No, you do not have to buy yeast to make really great bread. In fact, you never have to purchase yeast from the store again if you collect your own wild, local yeast and make your own sourdough starter. After you collect your wild yeast, the sourdough starter lives in a jar in your refrigerator. In fact, it can live there for hundreds of years if you take care of it properly. Here are the basics of collecting and maintaining your own wild yeast sourdough starter.
It’s important to note that not all wild yeasts are created equal. The iconic San Francisco sourdough is a wonderful wild yeast, but it is exceptional. In my last home in eastern Kansas the wild yeast was on the weak side, so while it was great for things like bagels and soft pretzels, it wasn’t the best for a light bread. However, now that I’ve moved to the Colorado Front Range I’m pleased with how wonderful the wild yeasts are and the wonderful light bread they make.
The ultimate goal with this is to have fun and to have another way to cut your tie to the commercial food chain. This is not always easy, and with wild yeast it means that you need to experiment with your starter often to learn the nature of your local yeast. But that’s where the fun is! Through time your wild yeast starter will be like an old friend; one that you can literally pass on to your children and grandchildren. For a video introduction on sourdough check out our video, “Intro to Sourdough.”
Collecting wild yeast is pretty easy. All you need is a bowl, flour, warm water (about 85F) and a jar in which to store your starter. When you’re first collecting your yeast, white flour seems to work a bit better than wheat flour, but after you have a nice starter going you can add wheat flour as you maintain your starter, and you are free to use just about any kind of flour when baking.
First, take a bowl and mix together 2 cups of flour and 2 cups warm water (about 85F). It’s ok if there are lumps–it doesn’t need to be perfectly mixed. But do not mix in anything else besides flour and water! This is very important. Incorporate air into the mix with some vigorous strokes, however; yeast floats around in the air, so the more air contact your mix has the better.
Next, cover your bowl lightly with cheesecloth or a kitchen towel; never use anything like a plate or saran wrap, as this will prevent air (and therefore yeast) from making contact with your mix. If it’s summer time you can let the bowl sit outside so your mix has access to as much wild yeast floating around as possible. If it’s winter, put the bowl in a warmish, protected spot like in a cold oven. Over the next 24 hours, stir your mix about once every three to six hours just to get more air incorporated.
For a review of the process up to this point watch “Step 1: Collecting Wild Yeast for Sourdough.”
After 24 hours, check your starter and see how bubbly it is. You may not have many bubbles at all–it just depends upon a variety of factors like season and the nature of your local yeast, so don’t feel discouraged if the process takes two or three days. If you don’t see a lot of bubbles, whip the starter with a fork or something to incorporate more air, then let it sit, covered, in a warmish spot for another 24 hours. For more info on this step watch “Step 2: Growing your Wild Yeast.”
It can take two to three days for the yeasts to start growing in your starter. You’ll be able to tell if the bubbles you’re seeing are “active” bubbles or just air bubbles that you’ve mixed in coming to the surface. Check out this video to see what you can expect: “Step 3 Final Step Sourdough.”
Now that your starter is done, you can put it in a quart-sized jar and add another cup of flour and another cup of 85F water. Leave it sit for another day or so, then put it in your fridge where the yeasts will go dormant, ready for you to activate when you bake.
SWEETENING THE POT
The only thing that can really kill your sourdough starter is too much heat or starving it to death, and to prevent the later your starter does require some maintenance to remain happy and productive. Luckily, keeping it happy is easy, and it gives you the chance to share your starter with friends and family. You need to feed your starter once every five or six months, so this is not a time-consuming endeavor. Gold miners of old, who coveted their starters, called this maintenance process “sweetening the pot.” For a video of this process, see “Maintaining Your Sourdough Starter.”
The first step is to remove the jar of starter from your refrigerator. If you haven’t used your starter in several months, you’ll notice there is a layer of liquid at the top. This is called the “hooch” and can simply be mixed back in with your starter.
Grab another jar, which has been cleaned and sterilized, and place half of your starter in the new jar. Add a cup of new flour to this, and a cup of warm, 85F water. Mix until incorporated (lumps are fine) and let it sit overnight so the yeasts have a chance to start eating the new flour. Put your new jar back in the refrigerator until your next baking (or next pot sweetening). That’s all there is to it!
What do you do with the other half of your starter that’s in the original jar? This is your chance to earn some good karma and give it away to friends or family. It will be a great chance to bond with people you care about, and spread some fun and food independence along the way.
Check out our recent post on baking bread using your new sourdough starter: Using Wild Yeast Sourdough Starter: Basic Bread.