Monday, January 7, 2008

Meditations on yeast

I love making bread. My love of kneading started when I was a preteen, helping my mother make cardamom bread at Xmas. Mom wasn't a big fan of spending her days off slaving over a meal in the kitchen, so she was more than happy to pawn the task of mixing and kneading the bread off to me. I used to worry that the packets of yeast that sat in the back of the cupboards had expired - a worthy concern considering my mother bought a 3 pack of instant yeast maybe every other year or so. I also spent an exorbitant amount of time fretting over the temperature of the water - was it too hot? Too cold? What if I killed off whatever yeast had managed to live for an entire year while smashed underneath a giant container of taco seasoning? And the proofing... how was I supposed to know when the dough had doubled in size? Should I eyeball it or follow the recommended time on the recipe? And so on.

Of course, I figured out after a while that yeast isn't as finicky as I initially thought, and now I buy my yeast in bulk and just store it in the freezer - I don't look at expiration dates. Making yeasted dough is no biggie. And over the years I've gotten more relaxed about proofing, and kneading and all that other bread lingo. But when I brought home a bread making book from a book sale with detailed instructions on how to make sourdough bread without using ANY packaged yeast, I was dubious. I felt that old self-doubt creeping back - there was no way I was going to be able to make bread only with flour, water and a pinch of salt. Impossible. It would never rise.

Basic sourdough starter (the modern liquid levain style starter - there are also heavier starters that were used by the French for a zillion years, but they are more labor intensive) is made like so: You take some water, mix it up with some all purpose flour and a little rye flour, let it sit for 8 hours, then you mix it again, and then wait another 8 hours and mix it again, then add more flour and water, and wait another 8 hours. You do this for anywhere between 4 and 10 days. And lo and behold, somewhere in this process, the wild yeasts that were previously dormant in the flour come to life, and one morning you walk into the kitchen to discover that your levain has doubled in size, smells like a ripe apple and is as sour as a lime. I would never have believed it was possible until it happened right before my eyes, after about 6 days.

One I had the starter ready, I made myself french baguettes. Since wild yeast rises slower, it requires several rises and an overnight stay in the fridge. But let me tell you, when I pulled the loaves out of the oven, I felt like I had performed a miracle in my very own kitchen. I mixed regular old flour and water together and somehow got beautiful, crusty loaves of fantastic sourdough bread!

It's amazing how far away Americans have gotten from their food that the basic, ancient process of bread-making is completely foreign to the vast majority of the population. If I were to poll 100 people right now, how many of them would know how to make bread without commercial yeast? Maybe 1 or 2?