Yeast: The Smallest of Wonders

I mentioned in my last blog post that I wanted to try to capture some wild yeast with which to make a loaf of bread. SO very early in the morning, before the yeast bedded down for the day, I put on my camos, and got out my snares and my skinning knife, and I took to the woods.

OK, I admit it didn't take camos, a knife or a snare. Or the wilderness before dawn. It took a bowl, a cup of flour and a cup of chlorine-free water: well water. I mixed up the flour and water a bit, and set the bowl outside on the picnic table. After a while, I covered it with a towel. Had I caught any yeast? Well, my eyes aren't that good anymore, so I couldn't see any. (har har har...I crack me up.) It just so happens I DID have some yeast. Yes! Some wild, cage free, woodsy little Montana yeast!

But then, what would they be like? How would they behave? The only way to find that out was to take some of that yeasty starter and make bread, so that's what I did. I had never baked bread with this particular strain of yeast, or without using at least some commercially-prepared yeast, so I didn't know what to expect. Also, I am not much of a recipe kind of girl and I cook by smell and appearance, etc., as much as anything. My wild yeast definitely smelled different than Red Star active dry.

Hmmmm. My kitchen took on an odd, slightly tangy smell between the days of the starter perking and the long, long rise times that the bread dough needed. Sourdough starters I had made in the past had a sort of alcoholic smell to them, but this was very different. I was starting to have doubts.

Last night before bed, I shaped my bread dough into 2 loaves, covered them and left them to rise overnight. This morning, they had barely risen, it seemed, but I was losing patience so I baked them up anyway. Believe it or not I got a glorious case of oven spring and got actual, honest-to-goodness, completely delicious bread that was light (even for a whole wheat bread and that ain't no easy trick!), smelled fabulous, wonderfully sour with a crisp-chewy crust and a lovely crumb. I should have taken a picture before I gobbled it down.

I learned a few things from my first foray into this most elemental form of gathering.

  • I think I should have left the bowl uncovered out in the open air for longer. I don't think I captured a very big herd of little wild yeasties. Yes, they reproduce and you end up with more yeast than you started with, but that takes time and time adds more sourness to sourdough starter.
  • A warmer place for the starter to start and for the dough to rise would have been better. It's fine for a bread dough (especially one like this which is only flour, water, salt and yeast) to hang around for a long time: this helps to develop the gluten, due to the glutenin and gliadin having lots of time to hook up and make little baby gluten, and of course gluten is what gives bread its structure and bounce. I'm rambling. What I mean is, I think this all took rather longer than it needed to because my kitchen is chilly. I'm half freezing typing this. 
  • I think next time, I will throw just a bit of baking powder and baking soda in the dough, to give it that extra spring in the oven. What this bread did NOT need was anything else. It did not need fat or sweetener, eggs or cheese or anything else added to the dough. This was a bread that could fully stand on its own and needed no help. A little smear of good butter on the slice is different matter, of course.
  • A loaf pan was the wrong choice for this humble, earthy sort of bread. I should have just let it be a free-form loaf, baked on cookie sheet dusted with cornmeal. Or maybe baked in a shallow bowl. 
  • Leaving the crust bare when I threw the loaves in the oven was just right. I might normally have used an egg wash, or brushed the crust with cream. For this maiden loaf, though, I wanted to see what I would get in its purest, most naked form. Naked, in this case, was just beautiful. The crust was thin, crisp, with a hint of chewiness that added something extra special to the whole business.
  • There is something really.... seriously.... profoundly humbling about this process. Who was that great-great-great(to the 10th power) grandmother who figured this out? Here I am, telling you on the freaking INTERNET for sweet fancy Moses' sake, about my attempt at doing something that people have been doing since they were still hunting mammoth. Think about that. This incredibly ancient skill that some brilliant opportunist had the ingenuity to recognize and capitalize on, which changed our world and our species forever. And I can do it, too. 
  • Then there is the yeast itself. A tiny little single-celled fungus which has the transformative powers to turn something that is inedible into something that is nutritious, delicious and beautiful. A single cell that can accomplish something as grand as that. Makes me wonder what is holding ME back.