In every family and group of friends, I believe there is one person everyone else turns to when they have questions about food and cooking. In my circles, that person is often me. I love fielding such questions and recipe requests – I take it as a supreme compliment and it feels good to know that my friends and family (and even some strangers, via the blog) have confidence that I will be able to help them out in the kitchen. It’s also a great excuse to have a chat with people I might not communicate with as much as I’d like. By way of food questions, I also get news of babies becoming children, moves and new houses, and all sorts of other small talk that I miss having with faraway friends. So I’m grateful and humbled to be your friendly neighborhood (or not) food guru.
One such question I received recently involved yeast:
I made some fresh bread recently, and I was very pleased with the result. However, I was a little put out by the buck fifty I had to drop on a tiny cube of Flieschman’s active yeast. I know that you can keep yeast cultures living for an extended period of time. do you have any techniques to share with me on that? Is it possible to keep a culture in a mason jar in the back of my fridge and take from it when I want to bake a loaf of bread? Seems like it would be a lot simpler, and would require less planning than a trip to the store each time I want to bake a loaf.
Yeast is such a multifaceted topic, a primer seemed to be in order.
First of all, there are several types of yeast available. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say there are several forms in which bakers today can purchase Saccharomyces cerevisiae for baking. (We aren’t going to get into brewing yeasts here, as that is an entirely different question, one which my friend here may be more qualified to answer as he is himself – or was, when we first met – a noted homebrewer.)
The form of commercial yeast I use most often, and therefore am most familiar with, is Active Dry.
In Paris, I buy this little canister – sold at many North African butchers – and store it in the freezer, where it keeps at least a year. In the States, I used to buy it at Costco. I find the canister or larger bag to be much more convenient to use than those tiny, weirdly-proportioned packets. I mean, suppose your recipe calls for some amount other than two-and-a-quarter teaspoons of yeast?
The yeast itself looks like a bunch of tiny pellets, and in my most recent experience, testing recipe after recipe for hamburger buns, I’ve found that it helps to dissolve this yeast in a little warm water before adding it to the rest of the ingredients.
Fresh yeast, or cake yeast, is sold in cubes or blocks. It has a funny, squeaky-crumbly texture and only lives for a few weeks in the fridge. I’m pretty sure freezing would kill it, as the yeast cells in fresh yeast are live, while in dry yeast they are dormant. I have much less experience with the fresh stuff, having only worked with it in croissant and danish dough for a year. For those doughs, I dissolved the yeast in some sugar – it was endlessly fascinating the way it just liquefied – and I recall using quite a lot of it, as compared to a similar recipe that called for dry yeast.
There’s also instant yeast, which is very similar to dry yeast. It is supposed to have more active cells than active dry (just to be confusing) and is sometimes labeled “Rapid Rise.” You could use a little less Instant yeast than active dry, but honestly, I rarely make the conversion, because I have a secret: it doesn’t really matter how much yeast you put in your dough.
WHAT?!? I can hear the collective gasps from here. But it’s true. Put a lot of yeast, and your bread will rise quickly. Put less, and it will still rise, just more slowly. There are limits, of course. Too much yeast, and too fast a rise, and the resulting bread will lack flavor complexity at best, or be unpalatably yeasty at worst. Too little, and, well, you’ll be waiting a long time.
But all this is kind of preliminary to the question, which was more about growing and keeping yeast cultures. The short answer is no, not like one keeps liquid yeast cultures for beer brewing. The long answer is yes, you can keep a yeast culture, in the form of a starter, but it will not work the same way in recipes as commercial yeast will. In short, doughs made with natural starter will take longer to rise, but they will have more complex flavor and a springier texture. You can also bake using a mixture of starter and commercial yeast, which offers a nice balance of efficiency, flavor, and texture.*
Getting a natural starter going is not at all difficult. All you need to do is mix some flour and water in a container (significantly larger than the amount of flour-water mixture in it) to a thick pancake batter-like consistency. Cover it loosely, and let it sit somewhere warmish, like the top of the fridge, for a few days. If you’ve caught some natural yeasts, you’ll see that the mixture has gotten bubbly. It will grow for a while, then collapse. You’ll be able to see this by residue left on the sides of the container. Once it’s collapsed, it needs to be fed. Feed it equal weights flour and water once a day for a few days, discarding about half of what’s there before each feeding. After a while it will start to develop its own unique flavors based on the specific variety of natural yeasts found in your kitchen.
If the trapping-natural-yeasts isn’t working for you, you can also try to get it going by putting a few grapes or other fruits in the mix to harness the yeasts growing there. Or you could even start with some old dough – the next time you make bread, just reserve a little bit of the dough and feed it as though it were starter. It will start out as a commercial yeast starter, but it will gain character over time.
Starters do require some maintenance. Depending on how often you use it, you’ll either want to keep it at room temperature or in the fridge. If you use it often – once a week or more – keeping it out is the way to go. Your starter will be much happier and more active at room temperature, but it does need to be fed at least every two days. You can feed it up to twice a day, about eight hours apart, if you’re trying to bulk it up, but the ideal is once a day. The cycle goes something like this:
Here’s my starter in the morning. Feeding time. I pour off about half of it, then add equal parts by weight flour and water.
I cover it loosely with plastic wrap, and leave it alone to digest. A few hours later, it looks like this:
All bubbly and happy. You can see it’s grown up to the top of the bowl.
Later that evening, it’s settled down a bit. I could feed it again now, but I’ll wait until the morning.
The bowl in which your starter resides will get gunky. I change mine every few weeks or so, moving the starter to a clean bowl and giving the old one a good soak. Now is a good time to note that if your starter starts growing any fuzzy stuff, or turns funny colors like pink or orange, it’s gone bad. Throw it out and start over. Your nose will also learn how it smells when the starter is good – fruity, bready, slightly sour – and when it’s gone off, your nose will tell you that, too.
You can also keep your starter in the fridge. It won’t be as active, so it only needs feeding every week or so. (I’ve gotten away with an appalling amount of starter abuse, letting it go two or three weeks in the deeper recesses of my fridge, but it doesn’t seem too much the worse for wear. Right now it smells like apples, which is delightful.) You’ll need to take it out and feed it and bring it up to room temperature before using it. To return to the original question, re: planning, I expect that this method requires at least as much planning ahead as a trip to the store, if not more.
I hope this has answered your query, and if any of you out there in Internet-land have follow-up questions, I’ll do my best to answer them in the comments. So have at it!
In case you’re wondering if I have my own food guru, to whom I turn when I need recipes or advice, the answer is yes. But I’m not sharing her email.
*For some marvelously informative posts on the subject of working with a natural starter, check out this one and this one from Chocolate & Zucchini, where Clotilde has also developed a number of lovely recipes with her starter.
Originally published on Croque-Camille.