On Yeast and Starter

7 12 2011

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.

Active dry yeast

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?

Not sprinkles.

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:

Starter before feeding

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.

Starter after breakfast

I cover it loosely with plastic wrap, and leave it alone to digest.  A few hours later, it looks like this:

Happy starter!

All bubbly and happy.  You can see it’s grown up to the top of the bowl.

Ready to eat again.

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.




16 responses

7 12 2011

A very informative post. Thanks for sharing your knowledge about yeast. How critical is the temperature of the water when a recipe says to dilute your yeast in “warm” water? Does hot water kill the yeast or cold water won’t start it? Or is it a little like the amount; both a little and a lot work, just take different times.

Question 2, what is the proportion of the “feed” to your starter after you dump out 1/2? You mention the “feed” should be equal parts water and flour but didn’t say how much compared to your starter? I know that baking requires fairly exact amounts or at least I think that is correct.

7 12 2011

Michel – Thanks for your great questions! The temperature of the water *does* matter, as yeast dies at temperatures over 120F (49C). As for the amount of feed, it should be about equal to the amount of remaining starter – but I usually eyeball it. Also, I forgot to mention that you don’t necessarily have to discard the starter, the amount poured off can be used in a recipe, too!

8 12 2011

I must admit that, if this had been written by almost anyone else, it’s very doubtful I would have read it in its entirety. But such is your fantastic ability to write in a way that engages and makes the subject easy to understand that I read with fascination, despite being one of those yeast-phobes.

Well, except for nutritional yeast, which I eat so much of that I’m clearly alive myself. Oh ho ho. Dad puns FTW!

8 12 2011
Fiona at Life on Nanchang Lu

Thanks Camille, this is great. Here are my questions!

1. Does the quality of flour used in the starter significantly affect the final flavour of the bread? (ie can I use Chinese supermarket flour, or should I shell out for imported flour?)
2. How much starter do you use in your bread? I make a simple bread at home with 3 cups of flour, 1 cup of warm water, yeast and a little sugar. How much, volume wise, would this need?

Cheers, Fiona

8 12 2011

Hannah – Your comment warms my heart. Thank you for your sincere compliment. Hooray for Dad puns!

Fiona – 1. Yes. Thank you for asking this , because another thing I forgot to mention above is that the flour should always be of the unbleached sort. I mostly use organic flour, but that’s largely because the closest thing to American all-purpose flour in France happens to be organic. You can also feed it with rye or whole wheat flour if you’re planning on making that type of bread.
2. The amount of starter is mostly up to you. The more you add, the wetter your dough will be, so it partly depends on the result you’re after. For converting recipes, check the second linked post on Chocolate & Zucchini above, Clotilde gives some great information, though it does involve some math. My shortcut version is to substitute 30 grams of starter for every 1/2 tsp. of yeast. If this ends up being a large amount of starter, I’ll reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe in order to maintain a 3:5 ratio of liquid to flour.

8 12 2011
Sweet Freak

Wow you really are a guru. Working with yeast has always intimidated me. Maybe some day soon I’ll work my way to making homemade bread!

9 12 2011

Last year I spent a couple of months learning how to capture and raise my own yeast. It was a lot of work compared to tearing open an envelope of the dry stuff. And you know what? My bread wasn’t a bit better. I’m sure that other people find that the flavor is much better with wild yeast starter, but I’m reporting my experience here to let people know that there’s no guarantee that a lot of extra effort will produce a better loaf of bread.

10 12 2011

Sweet Freak – Thanks! Yeast really isn’t scary, give it a try!

Dan – Because wild yeasts vary significantly from place to place, everyone will get slightly different results. I also find that starters really do develop quite a bit of charcter over time. This is why it’s a big deal for a bakery to have, say, a 25-year-old starter. A brand new one can’t even compete.

20 12 2011

I have had a sour dough and a sweet dough starter in my refrigerator for close to 3 years feeding it every now and again and using it to make delicious breads, pancakes and more.

We recently had a week long power outage so my fridge temp rose more then normal. I forgot about the starters and took out the sour dough bowl this week. There was black gunk around the edge and the hooch was a little on the black side and one area of the dough also was discolored dark, not pink or orange. I poured off the hooch and scraped off the darkened area. Gave it a feed of high protein flour and am keeping an eye on it for a few days to determine if it’s salvageable or not.

My question: if there were mold growing on it (the darkened spot), will it hurt to use it just the same?

20 12 2011

Jo-Anne – Sometimes the top of mine gets a little gray, which I scrape off, to no apparent deleterious effect. The black gunk is worrisome, though. As with many things, I’d say let your nose be your guide: if it smells off, don’t use it.

3 01 2012
Casey Fisher

Camille, your Mom gave me the URL to your blog.. and do I owe her now. I’ve had a great starter for years and it died in our move a few months ago. As I had gotten it from a friend I have been looking for a good way to start a new one…. and there you were.. the rest is history as I start a new starter tonight, but boy am I going to miss an old starter. Giving starter to someone is a great gift.

6 01 2012

Casey – So, so happy to have helped! I lost a starter in a move a couple of years ago, too. It’s tragic, but it’s also interesting to watch the new one develop. And I agree, it does make a great gift!

16 01 2012

I have bought Flieschman’s active yeast in the jar which I store in the refrigerator. I don’t like their cube yeast since stores don’t always store them in a cool place. Thankfully I have now found LeSaffre yeast at Amazon.com

8 02 2012

MotherLodeBeth – Thanks for the tips!

10 02 2012

I just went to a ‘starter workshop’ at a local bakery, and they gave me some of their starter to take home. Pretty excited to use it. Be prepared for a barrage of bread related questions in the coming months.

12 02 2012

Alejo – Bring it on!

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