Stalking the Wild Yeast, Part 1

Last summer, while I was between jobs, I enrolled in a course called Food Writing offered by Gotham Writers Workshop.  I was deep into my bread phase at the time and got interested in making naturally-leavened bread using home-grown yeast.   I spent half a month growing and cultivating my own yeast culture, and became so enamored with the whole process that I wrote about it for a couple of my Food Writing assignments.  Apparently, I had a lot to say.  Read on if you have any interest in making breads entirely from scratch, or if you’re at all like me and enjoy a break from the sweet stuff every now and then.       

Stalking The Wild Yeast, Part 1 (July something, 2016)

In the beginning, there was flour, water, and a pound of red, seedless grapes.  Now there’s bread.  It’s day 29 of this adventure, that of making bread entirely from scratch, without the use of commercial yeast.  While I’m only just beginning to get the kind of lofty, airy, slightly tangy, beautifully mottled sourdough of my dreams, it isn’t as if I should expect making good bread to come easily.  The yeast itself, without which there would still be only flour, water, and a pound of red, seedless grapes, must first be cultivated.  Apparently, this is done by inviting the yeast over to your house and then coaxing them into staying on as a permanent house guest.

Not knowing much about yeast or whether they prefer to receive their invitations by email or by post, I consulted with a couple of well-known sources of information on all things bread—Nancy Silverton’s Breads from the La Brea Bakery and Peter Reinhart’s Crust and Crumb, Master Formulas For Serious Bread BakersAccording to Reinhart, you don’t want to invite just any old yeast to your bread-making party.  Only yeast of the Saccharomyces exiguus clan will do.  How do I track down members of this elite family?  It turns out they aren’t as obscure as they sound.  They can be found on the skins of fruit, on the surface of wheat grains, and even just floating around in the air.  Apparently, some of these stealthy little ninja warriors might already be lurking in my very own kitchen.  The best way of enticing this particular yeast to grow exactly where I wanted it to was to bribe them with treats. 025-2

As it happens, Saccharomyces exiguus yeast love hanging out on the skins of grapes.  I took Silverton’s advice and went out and bought a pound of red grapes, gave them a gentle rinse, and then tied them up inside a cut of cheesecloth.  I got out my 6-quart plastic Cambro container, the designated high-rise yeast condo, and made a runny batter consisting of roughly one part bread flour to one part room temperature water by volume.  I dredged the sack of grapes through this batter, hoping to leave a trail of yeast in its wake.  As Silverton instructed, I crushed the grapes to release their juices.  The Cambro was now home to a tiny ocean of white sludge, with a stranded crew of grapes bobbing around inside its cheesecloth lifeboat.  Through the musty flour odor, the sweetness of fresh grape juice rose from the concoction.  I placed the lid over the container and dreamed of the homemade bread that was to come after the next 14 days of building the sourdough starter.

It was a long time to wait for bread.  Reinhart calls for only a 5-day period of building a starter—an established yeast culture maintained for the purpose of making bread.  But Silverton had convinced me that doing it her way would give me the strongest of yeast starters, so I decided that Silverton’s book would be my bible.  I set about the daunting task of making room in my schedule, clearing out any parties or plans like a logger going at a forest.  Okay, so my forest was pretty much a clear-cut already.  All the easier to draw a line through the next 14 consecutive days, reserving this block of time for important, mind-blowing, ground-breaking, scientific work.  Above the line, I penciled in, Watch Yeast Grow.

Find out what happens next in Stalking the Wild Yeast, Part 2.

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