Tag Archives: yeast

Wild Yeast 101

6 Mar

I’ve got to admit, I’ve been pretty unproductive lately in the bread-making department. I don’t think I’ve actually baked a loaf since before Christmas. I see where you think this is going. I’m  losing interest/motivation/the will to bake… well, just hang on a second, don’t go rushing to conclusions like a half price Selfridge’s Sale!

The fact is I was backpacking in Europe for three weeks. Anyone’ll tell you that youth hostels aren’t really conducive environments to home baking, or cooking full stop. I mean, I think a lot of the people I met really pushed their boundaries by tossing a jar of pesto with some penne. That’s great. I didn’t.

Getting back home and actually cooking again, like really cooking, was heavenly. The same would and could be said for baking, no doubt, but other than making a mean pizza (if I do say so myself – part of the secret is a dusting of polenta or semolina flour on the bread stone/pan) last night, I haven’t actually made any bread.


But, then there was Jim. Jim is my starter, and he is precisely 6 days and 4 hours old. Why Jim? I don’t know. I thought I should name my starter at any rate, seeing as I put in at least as much effort into feeding him as any (negligent) mother would her own baby. And true to negligent mother form, I picked the first monicker that came to mind, a name that I don’t even particularly like. Jim. But it sort of stuck regardless.

So yeah, I’ve finally kicked off my starter, and wow, it really is like a tiny slice of motherhood, less the crying, teething, crapping et. al. What’s not to love? Every single morning when I come downstairs to find that it’s still bubbling away, I feel a little burst of pride. The only awkward thing is I’m going to have to get my brother to babysit Jim while I’m away in France later this month. He’s been tending to his own starter now for a few months, so at least he won’t accidentally chuck Jim in the bin. Nevertheless, it’s always going to be hard to entrust my culture to someone else!


Anyway, Jim started off as a mixture of 100g dechlorinated, tepid water (if you have mains water, just let it sit, or simply use bottled water) and 100g flour (25g wheatgerm, 50g wholemeal, 25g plain). I’ve been working off Wild Yeast Blog’s great step-by-step guide, but subbed in a little wheatgerm just to give Jim a healthy kick start. Apparently the wild yeast in question is found in the unrefined wholemeal flours and wheat products. As for my feeding process, just check out the blog for a rough guideline.. But don’t worry: I haven’t been religiously using 1:1:1 ratios of starter to water to flour – sure, I approximate the weight with scales, but as long as the quantities aren’t wildly out, then you’re probably good to go.

For what it’s worth, my starter’s been incredibly well-behaved. We’ve had no false starts. What can sometimes happen, apparently, is that within a couple of days the starter can enthusiastically double in size, suggesting a miracle growth. It doesn’t actually mean that the starter’s ready to bake with, though, or even that the yeast is necessarily activated. It’s bacteria called Leuconostoc that’re responsible, providing the sudden rise and the subsequent collapse, making the starter appear to die. Which would put me in a bad mood for a good hour at any rate.


Other than an initial burp of alcohol on Day 2, Jim has been a pleasure. In fact, I reckon he’s almost ready to bake with. My starter’s moving on up in the world! By tomorrow, I think I’ll only be feeding him plain white flour. Oh my, how they grow.

So call me a crazy starter lady, but I genuinely like caring for my colony. Plus, I think it’s already helping me to understand the dynamics of yeast a bit better, if my pizza dough was anything to go by.

Anyway, leave a comment if you want to share your own experiences with starters, or want to test my limited knowledge with a question or two!


The Yurt

23 Jul

Holland is a flat country. Perhaps this was because some omnipotent being baked it in a Dutch oven before attaching it to continental Europe. My bread had a similar experience.

I’m up to my usual tricks, toying with a round-ish white loaf, desperately seeking some degree of perfection. Today’s bread employs the usual long-rise dough, this time too wet to hold a shape independently of a mould, but not so sloppy that it resembles a pancake batter.

Wet dough, while it is crumb’s best friend, unfortunately has an enemy in surface tension. So this time I resolved to stick the unruly mixture into a glorified hot bowl. I prefer to call it an improvisational Dutch oven. If you try this, obviously make sure that whatever you use (be it an all-metal casserole pot or an ovenproof bowl) can withstand 250°C plus.

Seriously, let’s not turn this into car-crash baking. No one wants that.

Anyway, this bread didn’t get off to the best start. I think I might have inadvertently overcooked the yeast. As in, I think I might have, you know, killed it. Or at least severely hampered its development.

You see, after added my usual cocktail of boiled water and cool water to the flour, I found that the mixture lacked moisture. So I par-boiled a little more water, and added that. Suffice to say that it might have been a little over-zealously par-boiled.

On top of that, I dissolved my yeast in the water before combining it with the dry ingredients. This isn’t my usual etiquette around fast-action yeast (I know, I know, don’t judge me – I finally bought some fresh yesterday), but I wanted to somehow protect it a little from the salt content of the flour. And anyway, I’d read about someone flippantly trying this, with pretty enviable results. Experimentation is key, after all.

This particular experiment, it would appear, was about as successful as my former physic teacher’s attempts to obtain an accurate figure for acceleration due to gravity. His results tended to hover around 20 metres per second squared. It should have been about 9.8, so, as the French would say, figure-toi!

(The dough barely rose at all.)

Still, I was pretty keen to try out my Dutch oven idea (even though, as I say, I simply used a deep white bowl). But here’s the rub: I wanted my dough to undergo a second prove in its destined shape, as per usual. Obviously, though, the bowl’s core temperature was hovering somewhere in the vague region between 250°C and the fiery pits of hell. Which simply won’t do for a fussy and tentative lump of dough looking to quietly heave itself up for the second time.

Ultimately, I had to forego my beloved second proof and instead grudgingly slide the whole shebang into the oven.

The rise was underwhelming, as you might have guessed from the previous Holland references. Additionally the crust was inferior to the wonderfully caramelised crunchy variety I’m used to. This is probably because my “Dutch oven” refused entry to water vapour like a bouncer who’d had a bad day. I also read that sitting your dough in too much oil can soften the crust. So bear that in mind.

And the crumb? I’ve seen better, I’ve seen worse. It did feature some satisfyingly irregular air holes, but still bore an irritatingly elastic, springy texture, which is pleasant but a little too chewy and moist for my liking.

Shape-wise, however, it was almost disconcertingly regular and perfect. In fact, when he laid eyes on it, my brother called it a teepee. On revision, I think it looks more like a Mongolian yurt, or the Teletubbies’ eco-house. The latter is particularly resonant, thanks to my impatiently prodding the top of the loaf, resulting in a rabbit hole slap bang in the centre. Luckily no miniature Pos or Tinky Winkys emerged from my loaf . Let’s be grateful for small mercies.

Regardless, it made for a decent sandwich. Yesterday, the sun made a surprise guest appearance on the Overcast Summer Show, so my brother and I packed a picnic and took to the beach. Peering out across the sky-blue Atlantic, my slightly disappointing bread hugging home-made hummus and salad, I developed a new appreciation for this particular baked creation. That’s the wonderful thing about experimenting with bread. It’s consistently very, very edible.

But I think I’m going to have to crank it up a gear. Someone fetch me my proverbial reading glasses and notepad, I’m going to do some hardcore research.

And yes, that includes the much-anticipated (poolish, I think) starter!

In the meantime, feast your eyes on the recipe for this domed wonder.


500g strong white flour, sieved

c. 200g wholemeal flour

1/2 tsp fast-action yeast (from one of those 7g sachets)

hand-hot water

1 and 1/2 tsp salt


– Combine salt and flours in a bowl

– Dissolve yeast in warm water (be conservative about the amount of water used, to guarantee that all of the yeast will be used)

– Make a well in the centre of the flour. Pour in the yeast solution and combine. Add more water if necessary. Aim for a slightly sloppy consistency, though not so wet that it’s a soup.

– Knead for about 10 mins, or until smooth. I tend to gather all of the dough into my hands and pull at it, but there are numerous kneading techniques, which I’ll explore in another post.

– Place in an oiled bowl, cover with clingfilm, and chill in the fridge for about 24 hours

– Next day, once the dough has doubled in volume (if you’re luckier than I was), remove from the fridge. Pre-heat the oven along with your Dutch oven, if you’re being fancy and proper about this, or a deep ovenproof bowl. Use the highest temperature possible – for me, that equates to 250°C, with the fan on.

– Once the oven has hit full temperature, put a baking tray on the base, and pour in a little water. Carefully remove the Dutch oven and dust with flour. Place the dough into it and sprinkle with polenta or semolina. (At this point I would also recommend sprinkling the top of the dough with cold water to enhance the humidity around it, and hence the crust).

– Bake in the oven for approximately 40 minutes. Ovens are eccentric, so this depends very much on your personal oven situation. Make sure to check it after half an hour, though.

– Leave to cool. This includes resisting a good poke.

My next white bread may take a wee bit longer to work up to, but no fear – it’ll be worth it (fingers crossed), and in the meantime I have an Indian bread recipe up my sleeve which is not wholly unrelated to my mission. Think of it as a (delicious) filler.

À La Prochaine!

If Bread Were Dynamite…

18 Jul

The day before yesterday I gave my hybrid starter a go. In English, I made an incredibly wet dough, bunged it in the fridge overnight for a chilly prove, and next day I added more flour to lend it some much-needed surface tension (it barely had enough to rise the night before: it groaned itself upwards a little but swiftly resigned itself instead to bubbling as proof of… well, proof).

In any case, as before, following the first prove, and adding the extra flour, I shaped the dough and gave it some privacy for its second prove on a sheet of oiled greaseproof paper. The dough looked a little lethargic if I’m honest, so when I returned from the gym to see this an hour or so later, I reeled in disbelief:

It went from this:


to this:


Needless to say, it had exploded. If there’s one thing I’m learning – other than how to treat burn wounds – no two loaves are alike. Never a dull moment, eh?

It was messy, too, though. It was like the new Spiderman flick. No, really: the focus is on this monstrous lizard wreaking havoc in an otherwise functional and pedestrian city, and of course Peter Parker as he saves the day. But the real nightmare involved with a rampant giant lizard, or indeed an excitable wodge of dough, is the resulting clean-up operation.

The dough really bonded with the greaseproof paper, and believe me it took some doing to tear the two apart. My irritated wrangling paid off for the most part, but I couldn’t help noticing a sliver of paper while chewing on a slice post-bake. Hopefully I was alone in that experience. The fusion of stationery and food should be left to fortune cookies. They’re the experts.

Anyway, I reshaped the dough as gently as I could, hoping against hope that the crumb wouldn’t suffer too much at my hand. I mean, I couldn’t very well bake bread’s answer to a giant reptile, even though the crumb may well have been a sight for sore eyes.


Apparently undeterred, the loaf rose spectacularly in the oven. Half an hour’s baking at full whack was enough to slightly char one side of it, but I’m resigned to this as a side effect of a stupid oven. It’s what’s inside that counts, after all.

For all its showiness, however, the bread ultimately let me down. Once cooled, it was my brother who eagerly sliced into it. The intersection revealed an underwhelming crumb, reminiscent of the Funeral Bread. Moreover the flavour wasn’t as nutty or as full-bodied as my previous sloppy dough, probably because the more recent addition of flour didn’t have time to truly meet and greet the yeast. The shape, however, was a marked improvement.

This compromise between surface tension and crumb is so tricky! But I won’t say impossible, nothing’s impossible. Perhaps a good starter’s the answer, but I have yet to actually start one. I need to do some research first, but I’ll get there.

For the time being, I’m thinking a good supportive container (like a mould, à la Jim Lahey’s no knead bread – http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/08/dining/081mrex.html) coupled with sloppy dough. Except I’m still planning on kneading the dough. Perhaps that’s the answer to my surface-tension related prayers. Or perhaps a therapist is. Who knows?

Anyway, in the meantime sink your teeth into the recipe for the above hyperactive bread. As usual, it’s solidly based on a basic French bread dough, and only one variable’s been fully played with. I’d attach a warning, but I think it’s just a misguided dough with a penchant for greaseproof paper. Perfectly innocent.



400g strong white flour and a good deal extra

c. 200g wholemeal flour

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp dried yeast

tepid water


Sift the 400g flour, and combine with the salt and yeast. Make a well in the centre.

– Add enough of the water to form a wet dough, bordering on batter consistency.

– Knead (I had to effectively stir it, in the bowl, with my hands) until you feel the dough starting to strengthen and fuse.

– Place the dough into an oiled bowl, cover with clingfilm and put in the fridge. Leave for at least 12 hours.

– Once the mixture is peppered with little air bubbles, remove from the fridge and work in the wholemeal flour, and enough of the extra flour so that it forms a dough that is just stiff enough to sit up on its own, and not so sticky that you’re afraid to touch it. Basically, it’s dough’s answer to a teenager.

– Shape into a long oval, leave to prove for a second time, and (all going well) pop into a pre-heated oven at top temperature (mine reaches 250°C). Bake for approx 30 mins (perhaps 5 or so minutes more) with a smouldering pan of water at the base of the oven to crisp up the crust.

Et voilà! Tune in next time for yet another yeasty tragicomedy, folks.