There is a saying that wheat is the staff of life. Yeast goes hand in hand with this important grain, working in tandem with the gluten protein to create light, flavorful breads. There are breads made without yeast, but by far, the most popular breads throughout the ages have used yeast to help create a light, airy framework for the bread.
Yeast has been a staple in kitchens and bakeries for centuries. In Egypt, excavation has uncovered massive bread bakeries to feed the workers who built the pyramids and other structures. Historic structures across the world include ovens for bread baking and adaptations of pans linked together to make the baking process more efficient. Biblical accounts talk of bread — both leavened and unleavened.
The leaven that is referred to in the Bible was a soft, doughlike medium. A small portion was used to “start” or leaven each new batch of bread dough. The yeast they used wasn’t Fleishmann’s or Red Star, but it served the same purpose and was readily available. In fact, it still is.
It is a good thing that this leaven was so available because there were no yeast venders along the Nile, Oregon Trail or out on the American prairies. Nevertheless, yeast bread has long been a staple.
The yeasts used in leavening originated from wild spores that float everywhere through the air when the right mixture and conditions are available. It grows spontaneously and reproduces itself.
The yeast used for thousands of years is often referred to as wild yeast. Today we call it sourdough starter, but the name can be misleading because not all products made from wild yeast have the sourdough flavor.
Natural selection has been a part of this process. When people found a strain that produced a flavor of bread that they liked, they perpetuated it and saved it to use again and again. Since there is no guarantee to what sort of flavor will come from spontaneous starts, most people either purchase sourdough starter or get a trusted start from a neighbor.
It may have seemed almost magical to earlier centuries, but after the invention of the microscope in the late 1860s, science discovered that yeast is a living organism. With this understanding, the process of yeast strain selection began to change. During the 20th Century, the commercial bread making industry needed a dependable product that would rise quickly to meet the exacting and specialized needs of the baking industry. This led to the yeasts we purchase at the grocery store for making bread.
Some sources claim that older sourdough starts that make bread rise slowly contain several friendly bacteria that help neutralize certain components in the wheat, making it more digestible and less likely to cause allergies. The faster processes in use today don’t have time or the genetics to accomplish this, they claim. Other sources disagree. In any case, old fashioned yeast starters were important to generations of our ancestors.
The family crock of yeast starter became a matter of pride and value among our pioneer ancestors. They carefully preserved and nurtured their starts to keep the exact strain. If you have a healthy start of yeast that you want to keep, continue to feed it and keep it in a closed jar. Sometimes you will need to divide your start for a backup batch or to share. In the interest of safety, always put the new start into a sterile jar with a lid.
The advantage of using yeast is that it reduces or eliminates the need for baking powder and baking soda. It can be used in pancakes, bread, breadsticks, waffles, scones, rolls and more.
Yeast starter can be kept at room temperature if it is used often. Keeping it at room temperature will start the rising process in rolls, waffles or pancakes immediately. If it is used less often, it is best to keep it in the refrigerator, however, when it has been chilled in the refrigerator, it needs some time to get to room temperature so it can grow. Room temperature yeast needs to be renewed or “fed” frequently — daily or every other day — by adding equal parts of water and flour to the yeast jar to give it a new base to grow on.
In the refrigerator it will keep for much longer and may not need to be fed more than once a week. The flavor of refrigerated starter tends to be less sour than room temperature starts. Starts grow quickly when they are fed. Don’t fill containers more than half full as the mixture will expand to double its size as it grows. As it is renewed, it grows and swells to a peak level and then somewhat subsides.
When you are baking, measure out the amount of starter called for in the recipe. For bread, two cups of starter is equal to a tablespoon of dry yeast, or one store-bought packet. Three cups of starter is equivalent to 1 1/2 tablespoons of dry yeast — the amount needed to make a batch of bread requiring seven cups of flour. This may deplete your supply if you are using a quart jar, but adding equal parts of flour and water to what remains on the side of the jar will renew it and the yeast will grow into a new batch.
Sourdough starter can be frozen. Take a portion at peak rise and put it into a freezer bag or glass jar and put it in the freezer. When you need it, bring it to room temperature and feed it to activate it.
It can also be dried. Spread a very thin layer on a cookie sheet or waxed paper and let it air dry on a windowsill or in direct sunlight. It dries more quickly in an oven. Turn the oven to its lowest setting. Preheat, and then turn it off. Put the thin layer of yeast in the oven. When it has dried, scrape the flakes into a sealable container and store it in a cool, dark place.
It is actually possible to create your own starter of the more common flavor of packaged yeasts by putting a bit of commercial yeast into a jar and adding equal parts warm water and flour to trigger growth. This is the same process used to develop the yeast when making the “sponge” mixture that is used in starting some older bread recipes.
The resulting starter can be stored and used in the same way as sourdough starters are used. The flavor will probably be a little different than the packaged parent yeast, but will be milder than sourdough.
(Yield: About 12 medium pancakes)
1 1/4 cup unsifted flour
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups milk
1/2 cup sourdough yeast starter
1 teaspoon soda, dissolved in a small amount of water
Mix together flour, sugar, salt, milk and yeast starter. Cover and let stand overnight. In the morning, mix egg and soda mixture into sourdough mixture. Bake on a hot griddle as you would regular pancakes.