Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wild Yeast

I will never forget baking bread with my friend Betsy for the first time. In the first crucial step of the bread recipe, we added a packet of yeast to a bowl of warm water. When the yeast began to bubble, she shrieked, "That is so cool!"

Even cooking enthusiasts view the bread making process as arduous and obtuse. However, leavened bread (that is, bread that rises) follows a simple template. The primary ingredient is yeast. Yeast is an everyday term for several common strains of unicellular fungi that feed on carbohydrates, creating the gaseous byproduct that causes bread to rise.

Active Dry Yeast is commercially produced en masse; it comes in packets and jars. I used this magic ingredient for several years in bread recipes until a recent radio program, The Splendid Table, introduced a question that should have been obvious to me. Before yeast packets, how did bakers make bread rise?

Ken Albala, a guest on The Splendid Table and author of The Lost Art of Real Cooking, explains that yeast occurs naturally in the environment. "This is the simplest thing to do," he says. "Put out some food, and the babies find it. They like to eat flour. Simple as that." Albala boasts that using wild yeast to make bread results in a better texture and flavor. Just as the flavor of cheese is distinct based on the region in which the cheese is produced, the type of yeasty fungi varies based on location. This isn't harmful; rather, it is essential to the bread making process.

This week, I tried Albala's method. I obtained a large glass bowl and made a "sludge" of about 1c. Organic Rye Flour and 1c. Water. I left this mixture on the counter, uncovered, for 24 hours. Then, I added more Rye flour and water, mixing these ingredients so the sludge maintained its consistency. I covered the bowl loosely with a towel. I repeated this step once a day for three days. Every few days I would transfer the mixture to a clean bowl, in order to avoid mold growth. Day by day, I noticed an increasing amount of bubbles appearing in the flour and water mixture.

Yesterday evening, I added more flour and water. This morning, I noticed the bowl of yeast had doubled in size! Albala's advice worked. I trapped fungi from the environment and created a natural yeast. Though this yeast works more slowly than yeast from packets, it promises to produce unique and especially flavorful bread.

I'm making bread this weekend. I'll let you know how it turns out.

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