When I posted this photograph from my Treasure Trove cookbook of a recipe for homemade yeast, I got a number of requests for the recipe. I was interested in the recipe, too, but sharing it wasn’t that simple. I had to decipher its meaning, track down its origins, and uncover its mysteries first.
Way back in the yonder mists of time, at some point people discovered there was this stuff in the air that worked magic to create goodies like bread and beer. I talked about capturing wild yeast in this post. In a nutshell, get a big jar or bowl (non-metal), 1-1/2 cups of warm water and 2 cups of flour. Stir it up good then let it sit undisturbed while you “catch” natural micro-organisms from the air. You can cover it with a mesh material, but be sure that it will allow air into the container. You need the fresh air. Let it sit for three or four days–if you have bubbles on the surface, you have yeast! If the mixture isn’t bubbling after three or four days, dump it out and start over. You might succeed on the first try or you might have to make a few attempts before getting a good mixture going. Alternatively, you can use “pre-captured” yeast from the store to start your sourdough. A sourdough starter is kept in a liquid form and has to be tended (fed) regularly. (You carry on feeding a mixture started with wild yeast the same as for a mixture started with store-bought.)
When our great-grandmas were baking bread, commercial yeast wasn’t available the way it is today and they made either a liquid yeast (similar to sourdough starter) or their own dry yeast, the benefit of the dry yeast being it didn’t have to be tended. For a dry yeast similar to what we commonly use today, they made a thick starter concoction, rolled it out, and cut it out in yeast cakes of a comparable size to what is in a packet of store-bought yeast today. (Sometimes they crumbled it–then just measured it out from there, the way we use bulk yeast.) At some point, they had to start with capturing their own wild yeast, but the effort (and potential failure) of that process would have made it so it was in their best interest to carry their yeast from batch to batch using a little of the old batch to start the new and thus avoid having to capture wild yeast as much as possible. They were scrubbing laundry on washboards and they didn’t have time for that. They needed to make sure they had yeast for their bread every day. And so this recipe isn’t so much about “making” yeast as it is about “extending” yeast post-capture. (You can’t actually “make” yeast–you have to get it from nature. Or get it from someone who got it from nature for you, such as Fleischmann’s.)
Whether you begin with capturing your own yeast from the air or use some store-bought yeast, that’s your starting point from which you can carry on your yeast forever. The recipe in the Treasure Trove book assumes you have some yeast to begin with (whether you captured it wild or not). The purpose of the recipe was to carry on the yeast. In the effort of deciphering this somewhat mysterious recipe (clearly written by someone who expected everyone to understand the basic principles, which many of us don’t today), I searched down numerous homemade yeast recipes. Every recipe was different in the measurements and sometimes in the ingredients. People made what they could make where they were, and everyone developed their own process that worked for them. This led me to the conclusion that it was not only okay but in keeping with old-time practice to develop my own process based on my best understanding of the recipe I have and what is available to me where I am.
Various ingredients were used to enhance fermentation in these old recipes, such as hops, peach leaves, and potatoes. The particular recipe I’m working with here uses peach leaves and potatoes. As it happens to be February and peach leaves aren’t available to me at the moment, I had to figure out what the peach leaves were about anyway. I constantly found peach leaves used interchangeably with hops in different recipes. Hops provide fermentation, flavoring, and a preservative quality.
As a result, I decided it was okay to leave the peach leaves out, at least for now as I have no peach leaves in February. Starting with store-bought yeast, I know I have a strong yeast at hand and I shouldn’t have trouble with fermentation. The flavoring seems inconsequential (or at least something I can do without under the circumstances), and as for preservation, yeast can be stored in the refrigerator or freezer. With modern-day appliances at our disposal, we don’t have the same preservation concerns as our great-grandmas. That said, I’m going to tell you how to use the peach leaves if you have some available to you, and I intend to try it with peach leaves when I have some.
Here is the complete (and I use the term complete loosely) recipe as it appears in the book:
The instructions leave something to be desired, as do some of the measurements. How much water? In comparing this recipe with others (and this was a smallish recipe), I came to the decision that I needed 1/2 cup. I had to make decisions on a few other points as well as so many details were left out of this recipe. By the way, what is a handful of peach leaves? I would guess around 1/2 cup. A packet of yeast at the store is what I call a scant tablespoon. You can either use three packets of store-bought yeast or use three scant tablespoons of bulk yeast. (Don’t worry about the scant part. Go ahead and use a tablespoon if you want. It won’t hurt anything.) You can also start by capturing your yeast wild–get your starter concoction going then use 1/4 cup of that in this recipe in place of the dry yeast. (I’m just making my best guess here, though, as I haven’t tried that. You’ll have to experiment.)
Some of the old recipes include salt, some don’t. The one I was using didn’t, so I didn’t add it. As a side note, there are also various old recipes that used buttermilk to start yeast. I might have to give that a try sometime, too.
How to make Homemade Yeast:
1 large potato*
a handful of peach leaves–if you have them
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ginger
3 cakes yeast (3 scant tablespoons or 3 packets–don’t use rapid-rise)
2 cups cornmeal
*How many potatoes you’ll need will depend on the size of your potatoes. I used one large potato. You want to end up with one cup of mashed potatoes.
Slice the potato thinly and boil. (IF USING PEACH LEAVES–boil the peach leaves along with the potato.) Strain the potato water into a bowl and set aside. (Remove the peach leaves, if using, at this time and discard.) Mash the potato with a small amount of the potato water and measure out one cup.
Place mashed potatoes in a large bowl and add the flour, sugar, ginger, and yeast.
Pour 1/2 cup of the reserved potato water over the mixture. Stir just enough to get everything mixed together. What you should have now is something akin to a pancake batter.
NOTE: Be sure to let the potato water cool to the temperature you would use if combining water and yeast when making bread before adding it to the bowl. Water that is too hot will kill yeast. If you don’t trust yourself to the fingertip test, use a thermometer. The water should be about 110-115 degrees. Set mixture aside to rise.
While the yeast mixture is rising, spread two cups of cornmeal in a large baking pan and dry it in a low oven for about an hour. Keep an eye on it–you don’t want it to brown, just dry.
When the yeast mixture is good and bubbly and growing up in the bowl, it’s ready.
How quickly that will happen will depend on the temperature in your house. For me, this took a couple of hours. You’re not making sourdough and letting it ferment for days here. Stir it down and start working in the cornmeal.
Work in as much as it will take. I used about two cups. You want it to the point where you can roll it out, so don’t work in so much you get it too dry to roll out. I reserved about a tablespoon of the dried cornmeal to dust on top while I was rolling it out.
Roll out thinly–as with pie pastry. At this point, you can cut it into “cakes” with a cookie cutter, or you can crumble it. Crumbles dry faster–I made crumbles. How long it takes to dry will depend on the temperature and humidity in your house. It could take a day, or several days. Cover loosely–it needs air to dry. (Use cheesecloth or paper towels–something light that breathes.) As it dries, start crumbling it apart with a fork occasionally to speed it along (if you’re making crumbles).
If you’re making cakes, just leave them alone until they’re dry. You can store the dried crumbles in a jar. Dried cakes can be wrapped separately or placed between layers of waxed paper. (Crumbled, this makes one quart jar.)
Use as you would any yeast from the store! By the way, you can use it before it’s dried and make bread right away if you want.
To store, you can keep it in the freezer for up to a year. (The freezer is the best place to store any yeast.) Take out what you need and bring it to room temperature before starting your bread. When you get near the end of it, take three tablespoons (or three cakes) and make the yeast recipe all over again.
Making your own yeast, you can turn three tablespoons of yeast into a whole quart jar of yeast–and that’s just on the first batch. You can carry it on forever and never buy yeast again. Is this truly necessary today as it was for our great-grandmas? Not really. However, it’s both frugal and satisfying nonetheless. And fun. If you want to experiment, start researching old yeast recipes and you can come up with your own method! There’s no right or wrong as long as your bread rises in the end. What’s interesting to me about it is that this is something every housewife everywhere knew how to do and probably taught their daughters to do as children. The process was so commonplace, they didn’t even need the details in the directions. Today, we look back on these recipes as if deciphering ancient hieroglyphs. Our mothers and grandmothers were quite happy to throw the whole thing out the window for Fleischmann’s packets on their way to the automatic dishwashing machines, TV dinners, and linoleum. And who could blame them. They’d had it hard enough. But for us, with so many conveniences in our lives, there’s something charming about the old ways–because we can pick and choose the ones we want to keep. Try homemade yeast–it’s fun!
Oh, and for the real test?
Grandmother Bread–made with homemade yeast. Very good, tender bread. Some of the best bread I think I’ve ever made.
Notes: I didn’t find the yeast proofed up in five minutes the way store-bought yeast does when I placed it in the bowl with water and sugar as I prepared to make bread, but I went ahead with the bread and it rose. So, be not afraid! If you’re unsure whether your concoction is good or not, go ahead and make a loaf of bread right away and you’ll know! Also, the dough took longer to rise as well. I suspect this is why it didn’t proof in five minutes like I expected–it needed more time. (Maybe they were using the sponge method.) I intend to continue experimenting with this recipe, trying the peach leaves when they’re available, and also trying less water. Next time, I’ll use 1/3 cup water, which will then require less cornmeal. That might make a stronger (faster-acting) yeast mixture. I’m also going to try the sponge method with it. I’ll update this post with results as I have them. In the meantime, go forth and experiment! Let me know what works for you. This homemade yeast made excellent bread.