Ahhh yes! The delectable smell of freshly baked bread is spreading through my little cottage today. Few things bring such a sense of contentment to me as slathering butter on a thick slice of hot bread straight from the oven. While there are countless potential combinations of ingredients in a good loaf of yeast raised bread, only four are essential: flour, water, salt, and yeast.
Yeast is a living creature. It makes bread light and fluffy by breathing out carbon dioxide as it digests sugars in the flour. Store bought yeast is a vigorous and hardy strain that will stand up to a lot of abuse and still produce a light loaf of bread. The downside of this; it gives one a very generic loaf with no distinctive flavor or character. While a “sourdough” starter can be begun with this yeast, it is so robust that it tends to simply overrun any wild yeast that may attempt to colonize the starter.
It is possible to create a sourdough starter by simply adding water to flour and hoping for the wild yeast present in the air to colonize it before the mold does. When it works, you get a starter that may or may not make good bread. However; there is a much better and more predictable way to do this. Certain wild fruits have a covering of yeast, a dusty looking coating called a bloom. While many fruits may work for this, the fruits I have used for sourdough starters are wild plum, wild grape, and juniper berry. All of these are harvested and used in the same way.
- Find fruit that has not been sprayed with any insecticide or herbicide. You don’t want to be eating these chemicals and they will likely affect the efficacy of the starter.
- Soak a handful the fruit in enough warm water (not hot) to cover it with a teaspoon of sugar added to activate the yeast.
- Mix flour with the warm water in a jar to make a fairly runny paste. The mixture should be thick enough to hold to the spoon well, but not so thick the spoon leaves an impression in the batter. Use whole wheat flour, fresh ground is best. Commercial flour (even whole wheat) has had all the wheat germ oil and most of the nutrients removed so it has a long shelf life. I find wild yeasts just sit and pout in white flour so don’t even bother with them.
- Cover the jar with cheesecloth or paper towel. You want the mixture to be able to breathe, but you don’t want any bugs or dust to get in.
- Sit your covered jar in a warm place, I like the top of the refrigerator, stirring once or twice a day. Within a week you should see some sort of action. At this point, add 1 more cup of warm water and enough flour to make your paste. The mix may look and smell horrible when it starts, but just be patient with it.
- Continue to stir daily. Once a week, remove all but 1 cup of the mixture and add your cup of water and flour to keep it going. You will know when it’s ready to use as the mixture will smell good and yeasty. The juniper berry mix almost has a fruity smell when it’s ready.
- Keep your starter in the refrigerator and replenish it once every couple of weeks if you aren’t using it.
To use your starter: Take one cup of the starter and add your other ingredients. Replenish your starter with one cup of warm water and flour to make your paste. Leave in a warm place for a few days, stirring every day to allow it to replenish.
Some tips on making sourdough bread:
Cut down the amount of salt in your recipes, wild yeast doesn’t tolerate salt as well as the store-bought strain. Besides, the flavor of the yeast makes over salting unnecessary.
If you are using raw milk in your bread, scald it (heat until it just begins to bubble on the edges and forms a skin), to kill enzymes that will destroy your yeast.
Sourdough bread takes a longer time to rise, sometimes three or four times longer than regular yeast bread. Plan accordingly.
All this may sound time consuming and a lot of bother. Consider it as learning an important skill that you may need someday. Besides, once you’ve tasted a thick, crusty slice of wild yeast sourdough… you may never go back!