How to make your own yeast for baking

As more people burn away their blues while trapped at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, yeast is reported to be harder to find on the supermarket shelves. There’s no shame in times like these going to carbohydrates for comfort. But what should you do if an important ingredient to satisfy that desire becomes just as elusive as a roll of toilet paper?

Although bakery yeast is declining in stores, more and more recipes are popping up to make it at home on Twitter. If baking is your way to take the moment to learn something new or to become more self-sufficient, coming up with your own yeast could be the next survival skill to hone in on.

Baker’s yeast is really just a fungus that likes to eat sugar just like me. So whether it is in the store or not, in reality “there is never a shortage of yeast”, biological engineer Sudeep Agarwala tweeted. “Yeast is everywhere!” he adds.

Chances are you already have what you need at home to get started. The edge asked Stephen Jones, director of the Bread Lab at Washington State University, for simple instructions. What you’re actually going to do is catch wild yeast and bacteria already in the air or in the flour to make a ‘sourdough starter’. This is what bakers have relied on for generations before commercial yeast became available less than 100 years ago.

“Sourdough” is often used to refer to bread made with a wild yeast starter rather than store-bought yeast; following the instructions for this starter does not necessarily mean that the bread you make with it will taste sour. But since you harvest wild yeast and bacteria (the bacteria provide some acidity) that are naturally present in your kitchen, your bread will have a flavor that is unique to wherever you are in the world. That’s why Jones says, “There’s a little more beauty in starting your own starter.”

What you need: Jones says that while some of the recipes you’ll find online are things like fruit or juice, you really just need flour and water. White flour works fine, but whole wheat is best because it contains more micronutrients like zinc and iron for the yeast and bacteria. You also need time; it will take a few days for your starter to be ready, so it’s best to plan ahead.

Step 1: Mix equal parts of flour and water in a small bowl. You can start with about a quarter cup of each. Stir well. Water activates the enzyme amylase, which breaks down starch into simple sugars that the yeast and bacteria can eat.

Step 2: Loosely cover the bowl with a lid or towel and let the mixture sit on your counter at room temperature. Keeping it in a place that is slightly warm but not too hot will speed up the process of the yeast and bacteria that colonize your batter.

Step 3: Add one to two tablespoons of flour and water twice a day, morning and evening. By doing this, you are actually feeding the yeast. Your starter will begin to bubble in about three to five days. This is a good thing: the way yeast raises bread is by producing gas, like what you see in the bubbles. After day five, your starter should have at least doubled in volume and is ready to use. As a rule of thumb, a little of the starter should float in a glass of water when it’s done.

Keep in mind that you can’t just trade store-bought yeast with the same amount of starter you made. You want to find recipes to bake with a sourdough starter; There are a few on the Bread Lab’s website. If you don’t use it right away, you can keep feeding it daily or put it in the fridge and feed it once a week.

If you feel completely intimidated, you can rest easy knowing that people have been making bread this way for thousands of years. There is very little risk of your starter getting confused, Jones said. It may smell a little “cheesy” around day three or four, but as long as it’s not slimy or smells rotten (this is rare, Jones says), you’re safe. There is also some flexibility, so none of the measurements Jones gives need be exact, and don’t worry if you forget to ‘feed’ the starter one morning. “We have enough pressure now,” said Jones. “Take the pressure off yourself and relax and enjoy.”

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