February 14, 2011

Yeast Fundamentals

At its most fundamental level, bread is a magical mixture of flour, water, salt, and yeast. The one ingredient in that short list that causes fear is yeast.

There are four forms of yeast available to the average baker: fresh, instant, active dry, and wild. Fresh yeast is the most difficult to find unless you're in a large city or have a dedicated artisanal bread maker working nearby. Instant and active dry yeast are very similar. Both are dried, granulated forms of yeast that are pretty much interchangeable. Instant yeast, sometimes called rapid rise yeast, was formulated for bread machines, but works outside the machine quite well. Active dry yeast is somewhat less active than instant yeast.

Wild yeast, or sourdough, is readily available to anyone willing to grow a culture. It just isn't all that hard to do. You'll need a nonreactive container with a lid (glass, stainless steel, food-grade plastic),  flour (all-purpose, rye, or whole wheat), unsweetened pineapple juice or water, and time. The water should be pure spring water or filtered water that is left to sit at room temperature for 24 hours before using.

Step 1: Mix together 3½ tablespoons (1 oz) of flour and ¼ cup (2 oz) of pineapple juice or water. Cover loosely and let sit at room temperature for 48 hours. During the two days it sits, stir it with a wet whisk or spatula at every meal time to aerate the mixture. You probably won't notice any change, except the odor changes a bit.

Step 2: Add 3½ tablespoons (1 oz) of flour and 2 tablespoons (1 oz) of pineapple juice or water and mix. Cover loosely and let sit at room temperature, stirring as before at meal times. Sometime in the next 48 hours it should begin to get bubbly. Don't expect wild frothy bubbles unless you live in San Francisco. When it gets bubbly, move to the next step.

Step 3: Add 7 tablespoons (2 oz) of flour and 2 tablespoons (1 oz) of water (no more pineapple juice). The mixture will be a lot drier now, because the ratio of flour to water has changed from the original 1:2 to the opposite, 2:1. Do the cover and stir thing for the next 24-48 hours, during which you're looking for more signs of life, including bubbles and expansion. When you see it has expanded, you have a good seed culture started. Go to the next step.

Step 4: Measure out ½ cup of the culture and add to it 10½ tablespoons (3 oz) of flour and 2 tablespoons (1 oz) of water. Mix thoroughly, cover and stir as before, and let sit 4-24 hours, until it doubles in size. The seed culture is finished. Now to make it into a mother starter, or chef.

Mix together 2¾ cup (12 oz) flour, 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (9 oz) water, and ¾ cup (4 oz) of the seed culture, which is about half of it. Save the remainder to make a second mother with a different flour, give it to someone, or compost it. Once the ingredients are mixed together, knead for about two minutes, then place in a lightly-oiled nonreactive container. Cover loosely and let sit at room temperature 4-8 hours, until it doubles in size. It might take a little longer than 8 hours, and if it more than doubles there's no harm.

Turn it out onto a work surface and knead for a few seconds to degas the mother. Form it into a ball, return it to the container, cover tightly, and refrigerate. You now have sourdough mother.

If you start to run low, or just haven't used the mother for a couple of weeks and it smells a bit alcoholic, you'll need to refresh it. If you have 4 ounces, just use the above instructions. If you have less than 4 ounces, you'll need to build up to that amount by using 3 parts flour to 1 part mother to 1.25 parts water. As long as you have an ounce of mother you'll be just fine.

This stuff will last as long as you feed it. It's alive, you know.


  1. Thank you so much for posting the procedure of sourdough mother making. Bookmarked and printed!

  2. You're welcome. If you find you have questions, please ask. I'm
    looking forward to seeing photos of your successes on the Stumptown
    Savoury Facebook page!

  3. Just what I've been waiting for Gareth, thank you! I will get started on this after work today!

  4. I am fascinated by yeast - interesting stuff!!

  5. I am fascinated by yeast - interesting stuff!!

  6. So, letting the water (or pineapple juice) sit with the flour and following this process will make a wild yeast? Following these steps will create a wild yeast and a "mother" or sourdough starter? And the mother can be added to a sourdough recipe or do I use the mother as my dough and replenish it as needed? I apologize if this is a silly question. I've never done this before but I'm going to try. I hate to sound ignorant but I want to be sure I understand. I really appreciate your posts and advice!

  7. Following these steps will create a mother that you will feed now and
    then and that you can keep alive for as long as you wish. Some mothers
    are many decades old. You use some of the mother to make a starter
    that will be added to other ingredients to make the dough.

    It doesn't really matter what type of flour you use so long as it is
    unbleached and unbromated if white flour. I had better results
    starting the seed with whole rye flour and finishing with all-purpose.

    Remember that if you don't have natural spring water or your own well
    you should let the water sit uncovered at room temp for 24 hours so
    any chlorine will dissipate.

    If anything else is unclear just ask. I'm glad to answer questions.

  8. Very interesting. Thank you for the tips and information!

  9. Hi Gareth,

    Congratulations! You have an award waiting for you! You can pick up your award at:
    Take care,

  10. Really? You made this? It looks though came out of famous French Bakery store oven.

  11. hmmm never used pineapple juice to make a starter. I just let it sit out to get the sour yeast flavor. Interesting twist, I'll have to try that.

  12. Thank you. Yes, I made it. But it looked better than it tasted so I
    haven't posted the recipe yet.

  13. These are directions for making a mother. You use some of the mother
    to make a starter and refrigerate the rest for later use.

  14. Such a great post! I used to be afraid of yeast until a mentor of mine in college showed me how easy it was to use. Thank you for this enlightening post!

  15. Excellent information about yeast. My next post on yeast will be about re-hydration and nutrition for making a batch of wine. Not all that different from creating your own starter. No wonder beer and bread used to be made by the same people!


  16. Beer and bread are very similar. One is just a bit wetter than the other,
    takes a bit longer to produce, and makes attempted propagation of our
    species more likely.