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On the Trail of Homemade Yeast

Feb
21


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.

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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.

And, also for your pleasure and experimentation, there were a couple of other homemade yeast recipes in the Treasure Trove book. Here they are:


Enjoy!


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Posted by Suzanne McMinn on February 21, 2010  

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  1. 2-21
    1:50
    am

    I’m afraid that instead of “catching” natural micro-organisms from the air, all I would be “catching” is a stray cat hair or two.

  2. 2-21
    3:35
    am

    I’m guessing that you probably want to use fresh ginger, not powdered. I’ve made ginger beer with “fresh-caught” wild yeast, and my recipe said that it had to be fresh ginger. Something to add to your list of things to experiment with, anyways.

  3. 2-21
    5:04
    am

    That sounds fairly simple really. I had sourdough starter way back when the kids were little. It made the best cinnamon rolls. If you store your yeast in the freezer it will keep way past its expiration.

  4. 2-21
    5:23
    am

    That’s really cool! Homemade bread is on my list for sometime soon (I’ve done it before, but the loaf pans all stayed in MI when I moved, thus new ones need to be procured) and if it becomes a part of regular rotation, I may have to give this a shot. Thanks for sharing all of your homework with us!

  5. 2-21
    5:49
    am

    The slow rising gives the flavors more time to develop. I’ve played around a lot with different yeasts – commercial and home cultured, with and without sourdoughs of all sorts. Quick-rising yeast gives you bread on a tight schedule, but I’d rather schedule around the slower style and get all the flavor I can from my bread calories.

    I just can’t decide whether I like the playing around with recipes part or the eating part better.

  6. 2-21
    6:53
    am

    You know, I just think that this post is the best thing since sliced bread! Heh.

  7. 2-21
    7:00
    am

    Being a modern girl, it never occurred to me that you couldn’t always forever go to the store and just purchase yeast! This is very exciting! Can’t wait to try it, and I might just do that this morning.

  8. 2-21
    7:35
    am

    YOU ARE A WINNER! ! !
    THANKS FROM ALL OF YOUR INTERESTED BLOGGERS.

  9. 2-21
    8:06
    am

    Even if I didn’t have to, from 3 TBL to a quart of yeast???? That’s a lot of bread to make with a quart of yeast!!! For me to buy bulk yeast, it’s quite a trip, I WILL be making yeast! Thank you Suzanne for deciphering and muddling through this for us!

    My family thinks it’s so great that I’ve adapted to using old time methods in the kitchen….they think it’s just great that I have homemade bread and jam, wait till they know I’m using homemade yeast to make that bread, and I always tell them….Suzanne taught me. Some know you’re online, some think it’s an old lady up the street :lol:

  10. 2-21
    8:40
    am

    Fascinating stuff, Suzanne. A history and cooking lesson all in one.
    That bread looks good enough to eat! I’d like mine toasted and slathered with homemade orange marmalade please. Mmmmmmm :hungry:

  11. 2-21
    8:58
    am

    What a great idea! I’m going to try this today if I have time but I do need to makes some Grandmother’s bread today for sure. I just wanted to ask if you’d seen the lady on Youtube who makes Sour Dough Starter with a bunch of grapes instead of yeast? If you haven’t seen it I think if you click on this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=00iusKzpIv0 it will take you there. I thought it was very interesting. If this doesn’t work you could just type into Youtube Sour Dough Starter With Grapes and it will take you right there. :hungry2:

  12. 2-21
    10:50
    am

    I am going to go into the kitchen and try this right now. But I have a question too. I will make it using 1/3 cup of potato water, but when I make the bread, how much of this yeast to use?

  13. 2-21
    10:52
    am

    Sharon, I used the same amount of yeast that I usually use (as called for in the recipe). Remember that it takes longer to rise!

  14. 2-21
    10:53
    am

    I have been keeping my bulk yeast in the fridge, but now it is headed to the freezer. I wasn’t sure and didn’t know who to ask. I was afraid freezing might kill the yeast, so it is good to know.
    Thanks for all your research, Suzanne. I have some of those old cookbooks and sometimes the details can be mighty lacking!

    Grace in CA

  15. 2-21
    11:10
    am

    I’m right there with princessvanessa

  16. 2-21
    11:38
    am

    oh my, this is very likely the neatest post I’ve ever read. Until just now I never ever thought about where yeast came from or how. It just was. Which is odd, for how much I use it and how much I normally pay attention to where things come from.

    Capturing “wild yeast”. I love it! I look forward to giving this a try and to seeing how you progress on it as well!

    Thanks!

  17. 2-21
    11:43
    am

    I’m going to try this today. Thanks for all the good information. As I have a peach tree in my yard, can’t wait to see what happens when you add the leaves.

  18. 2-21
    11:45
    am

    How wonderful! I’ve played with sourdough but never thought of making my own (regular) yeast. Duh! Does anyone know what role the ginger plays in the process?

  19. 2-21
    1:25
    pm

    Very interesting!! I had no idea that yeast was produced from the micro-organisms in the air. Pretty cool!!! Just thought Fleischmanns or Red Star made it (somehow).

  20. 2-21
    6:34
    pm

    How interesting and exciting, to make our own yeast for your grandmother bread recipe. Now all we need to have is a slice of that farmhouse cheddar, is it ready yet?

  21. 2-21
    9:22
    pm

    So what’s up with the peach leaves? why?

  22. 2-21
    10:45
    pm

    I just loved this post :snoopy: (was wondering recently what women did before yeast was available in grocery stores)! I bought some organic yeast (I’m supposing they mean the other ingredients aside from the yeast itself) and it is somewhat expensive compared to the regular kind. Using organic ingredients and then making an entire quart of yeast would be HIGHLY economical compared to buying yeast a packet at a time. I’m also grateful for you including the tip about keeping the yeast inside the freezer…I had no clue. Also, do you have any idea why the recipes called for peach leaves specifically?

  23. 2-22
    7:15
    am

    I’ve made home-made sourdough starter in the past but until now, never knew how to make a reliable home-made yeast in solid form. Thanks so much for doing the homework for us. I’m curious: What do you think peach leaves contribute to the yeast-making process? Could it be they harbor a specific organism that made the yeast really active? ANYWAY, can’t wait to try this recipe!

  24. 2-22
    7:19
    am

    In the many old recipes I combed through, I found peach leaves often used interchangeably with hops, so I think they serve the same purpose as hops–fermentation, flavoring, and preservation.

  25. 2-22
    2:13
    pm

    First, I don’t think a cake of this yeast = 1 Tbs of store-bought yeast because your cake in the end has a lot less yeast. It’s mostly cornmeal. Thus why the bread takes longer to rise–it simply has less yeast in it. How many cakes of yeast do you end up with? How many loaves of bread will you make? Compare that to how many you would make with 3 Tbs of yeast, but only if you used, say, 1 tsp of yeast in each loaf of bread. [Related, I don’t think a cake of this = a cake of yeast as can be bought. Unless those cakes also have lots of cornmeal in them, but I think they are solid fresh yeast. Changes in language?]

    Not that you won’t end up with more in this method, since you are essentially making a sourdough starter so you’ll have more starter/yeast than when you started. I’m just curious if it’s really all that much more, since you started with purchased yeast.

    Also, this sounds exactly like making sourdough starter, except instead of keeping it fresh, you add a bunch of cornmeal and dry it. You could do the same with any SDS, right? And I think you can dry SDS as is, too, but then you should refresh it, not use it like yeast?

  26. 2-23
    10:25
    am

    I made this yeast yesterday and also used it to make the Grandmother bread. The yeast turned out perfect. I did make a modification to the yeast recipe though. After it was dried, (I crumbled it with my fingers as it dried), I put it in my Magic Bullet blender and blended it until it was all ground up. Then I made the grandmother bread with it. I had read somewhere on the web that home bread bakers don’t use enough yeast in their recipes so I used 2 tablespoons of the just made yeast in the Grandmother Bread recipe. The bread did take longer to proof and rise, but the wait was worth it. It was beautiful and was very tender and delicious!

  27. 5-23
    12:14
    am

    Thanks for sharing your work Suzanne. What a great site you have! For yeast some people also use cumin instead of ginger as is done in the West. Cumin was a more readily available herb than ginger root. I set the yeast in water or whey with 2T. of 9-grains mix my husband calls chicken feed, ha ha! 2T. brown sugar instead of white with 1 c. flour spread over it and walk away. When the yeast starts proofing to where you can work it is when the flour cracks on top showing the yeast has started to rise which is usually around 2 hrs. or less in a moderately heated kitchen with stove pilots on, then add salt and the rest of the flour and liquid. I also add 1T. oil (optional but keeps bread moist) … I use my leftover whey from cheese instead of water or 1/2 whey and 1/2 water and the yeast responds much quicker and bread tastes buttery. (The molasses in br.sugar gives the yeast longer feed time and makes a stronger dough, it’s a trick I use.) Rising time will always vary depending on the weather or if I use the oven pilot as warmth to rise my breads in the oven with a bit of steam rising from a cast iron pan in the bottom if rushed. The 9grain mix makes your grandma bread even more nutritional as does the molasses. My hubby sure likes it either way.

  28. 3-21
    1:51
    pm

    Thank you for the yeast recipe. I made it today and it’s now air drying. I can’t wait to try it out!

  29. 6-27
    10:34
    am

    Any updates on the homemade yeast, Suzanne? Have you tried it anymore?

    You asked if this was really necessary for us today as it was for our grandmothers. It has become very necessary for me, just simply based on cost, but also like you, there are weeks when I don’t get out of the house so if I don’t have yeast, we get tired of biscuits and quick breads!

  30. 11-10
    12:07
    pm

    :dancingmonster: OK. There must be a major issue down here in regards to baking! I made this recipe last night and tried to use it this morning. Absolute fail. My yeast hasn’t proved and its been almost an hour. I think there may be an issue with the water. Its very hard down here. Or could it be because we are below sea level here. Any thoughts?

  31. 11-10
    1:40
    pm

    StuckinMiami, I visited my cousin in Florida one time (Orlando area) and I had a lot of trouble baking yeast breads. There is definitely an issue at sea level, based on my experience. I don’t know what it is, and since I was only visiting, didn’t go on to research it. I would suggest you find some bakers in your area and ask questions about it. If you find an answer, I’d love to hear about it so I’ll know the next time I’m down there!

  32. 11-12
    6:32
    am

    :woof: I’ve been experimenting. I sacrificed a package of yeast to see if there may be an issue with the water straight from tap. The yeast did not bloom as much as it did with water that has been previously boiled. But it did bloom.
    Next I tried it with distilled drinking water. Similar results as from my boiled water. OK. 1st issue down, use either distilled or boiled (not boiling) water. Heat and then allow to cool.
    Third, I checked temperatures. As you know too high of heat will kill yeast. So I boiled my potato 3 hours or so before hand, this allowed it to cool to room temperature.
    Next the cornmeal was dried out at the same time. I spread it out on another cookie sheet that wasn’t hot, so that its cooling can be more controlled. The potato water was covered and set off to the side for later reheating and then allowing it to cool to the correct temperature.
    Voila!! I figured out my mistakes! I had a feeling that I was rushing in my excitement to get this made and ended up killing my poor unfortunate yeast with too hot potatoes and cornmeal.
    This may look like a lot of extra steps but it really isn’t. I’m a little anal retentive when it comes to cooking. I wasn’t born with talent as my mother and brothers were. Where they seem to know it instinctively, I have to analyze and figure out the correct technique. My mother told me that half of cooking is the technique.

  33. 5-1
    2:41
    pm

    I was so excited to make this. I ended up making cakes. I had a good idea–I thought–why not put the moist cakes in my food dehydrator to dry, on the lower (95 degrees F) setting. They took about 16 hours to dry this way, but it worked great! The stuff that had crumbled to the bottom or broke apart, I put into my spice grinder and made a powder. The cakes are in freezer and powder is in fridge. When I use, I bring out two cakes, let them come to room temperature, and then add water.
    I noticed they didn’t proof even after a long wait, but it still made great pizza dough, though it didn’t rise much at all. Still , the flavor was great. I’m going to try to allow a longer soak in 1/3 cup water first and allow a longer rise period. Thank you for this!

  34. 4-25
    7:37
    pm

    Help, It was all going great. My yeast looked just like your pictures.It took only a day and a half to dry. I put it in the food processor to crumble and then in the mason jar to store. kept some out to make bagels. Was in no rush to make them. But after almost two hrs my yeast never proofed. I made sure the water was the right temp. So I went ahead a tried to make bagels anyway, after an additional two hours in a oven with a pot of boiling water they never rose. I dumped the dough. I tried the next day and again my yeast never proofed. I am not sure what went wrong. I really want to use my yeast and not have to purchase it. Please help

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