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For a long time, I had been confused about the subject of yeast. The only yeast I knew about was the little packet of active dry yeast or rapid rise yeast that I would sprinkle into my dough. But then I started collecting 19th century cookbooks and found recipes that called for “one gill of fresh yeast” among the other ingredients.
Once I finally figured out what a gill was, though, (about a half a cup,) I was even more confused. I would have to use how many little instant yeast packets to equal a whole half a cup?!
After doing some more research on period cooking, though, I found several recipes for how to make homemade yeast that helped to solve the mystery a bit. Most involve the use of hops or potatoes added to boiling water and flour. The problem with all of those recipes, though, is that they all call for adding “a bit of good fresh yeast” to the mixture – which was exactly what I didn’t have!
And then, just a couple weeks ago, I read a book that cleared up more of the mystery for me (and solved my problem of how to make my own yeast.) The book is The Vintage Remedies Guide to Bread, written by Jessie Hawkins of the Vintage Remedies School of Natural Health. This book is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the subjects of bread, grains, gluten, modern vs. traditional bread, etc. (Update: The book is out of print now, but you can still sometimes find used copies.)
A Brief History of Homemade Yeast
Once of the most helpful bits of information I found by reading this book was the section on the history of bread and yeast. I learned that modern baker’s yeast, as we know it today, didn’t even exist until 1868. Before then, bread and other baked goods were leavened by other types of wild yeast (or with massive quantities of eggs.)
Even once baker’s yeast became available, though, it was too expensive for some to afford and it was a gradual process for housewives and bakers to get used to this “new-fangled” way of making bread, so many cookbooks published after 1868 still include recipes that call for homemade yeast.
In addition to the recipes for making yeast with hops or potatoes, I also saw several references to using “emptins” in old recipes as a leavening agent. These “emptins” or “emptyings” were just as their name implies – the emptyings of leftover dough and batter added to a crock or jar.
Descriptions I’ve read about emptyings seem to be pretty similar to the flour-water mixture for a sourdough starter with scraps of extra dough added to feed the starter. The main difference I’ve seen is that several instructions for how to make emptyings call for using milk rather than water.
I’m not at all an expert on the history of yeast, and this is a topic I’ve only just begun to learn about, but my guess is that “emptyings” and “sourdough” may be related or at least similar. In all of the 19th century recipes I’ve seen and in the entire database of the Historic American Cookbook Project, I have yet to find one recipe that uses the word “sourdough,” but I have seen several recipes that refer to using a sourdough-type leavening.
(Update: I’ve learned from talking with the interpreters at Old Sturbridge Village that one reason why sourdough yeast isn’t mentioned in old cookbooks could be because it wasn’t a preferred flavor for bread at the time, or at least not in the New England area. Since the flavor of sourdough can vary depending on where you live, it’s possible that that’s one reason why it was more popular in the West in places like California. Early 19th century taste might have preferred bread made with yeast that was made from hard cider, beer, or some of the other homemade recipes using potatoes, hops, etc. so that might explain why sourdough isn’t mentioned in cookbooks of the period.)
Making a Sourdough Starter
Once I realized that I could use a sourdough starter for the “homemade yeast” required in so many old recipes, I was immediately interested in learning how to make my own. Making my own sourdough starter had always seemed to intimidating to me, though, which, of course, is why I had been procrastinating starting one for so long.
When I read The Vintage Remedies Guide to Bread, though, the process seemed a bit more simple and less intimidating. After all, people have been making sourdough starters for a long, long time without any complicated instructions for how to do it. So, I figured I might as well give it a try. Though I’ve seen many different sourdough starter recipes online, I decided to go with the simplest method of using only flour and water.
Here’s what I did:
Materials and Ingredients
- Quart-Sized Wide-Mouth Mason Jars – I’d definitely recommend getting wide-mouthed ones. They make stirring the starter so much easier.
- Water – For best results, the water should be filtered water or spring water. Chlorine will kill the good bacteria the starter needs to survive.
- Flour – I used an organic unbleached all-purpose flour. (Many people say that using whole wheat flour can give an “off” flavor to the starter.)
- Cheesecloth for covering the jar. (Fruit flies love hovering around sourdough starters, so you want something that will keep them out but still allow air into the jar.)
Method for Making Homemade Yeast with a Sourdough Starter
- Day 1: Put about 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water into the mason jar. (These measurements don’t have to be exact.) Mix them thoroughly together. The mixture should feel like a thick pancake batter. You don’t want something as thick as biscuit dough, but you don’t want something really thin and runny either. You should feel a bit of resistance when you stir it. If it’s too thick or thin, you can add more water or flour as needed. The consistency seems to be more important than the actual measurements. Once you’ve mixed the flour and water, cover the jar with cheese cloth.
- Day 2: About 24 hours later (it doesn’t have to be exact), feed the starter by giving it around another 1/2 cup of flour and as much water as it needs to reach the same thick batter consistency as the first day you mixed. The starter might have a few bubbles in it by this point. Stir and cover again.
- Day 3: By now, if not sooner, the starter should be looking quite a bit more bubbly, and the top might look almost frothy. Feed again the same as on Day 2, stir, and cover again.
- Day 4 and following: Keep feeding the starter about every 24 hours. It should look actively bubbly. By now, it might be ready to bake with. A lot really depends on the climate of where you live, the temperature inside your house, and the type of starter you have – each region has it’s own unique strains of bacteria so starters in different regions might act differently.
I probably tried baking with mine a bit earlier than most instructions for making sourdough would tell you to do. I was too impatient and too excited to wait, though, so I just went ahead and baked with it. And it worked! My bread rose well enough – maybe not as well as it would have risen if I had waited a little longer, but it was still a perfectly edible loaf of bread.
So, when in doubt, I’d say just try to bake with it and see what happens. The end result might not be perfect the first time, but it will probably still be pretty good 🙂
Once your starter is established, you can probably get away with feeding it a little bit less. I haven’t been feeding mine every single day, and it’s still surviving fine. I’ve been using it quite a bit in different baking experiments, so I’ve kept my starter out on the counter, but if you aren’t planning to bake more than once a week, it’s best to keep it in the fridge so you don’t have to feed it as often and so it doesn’t grow to massive proportions and overflow the jar. If you keep it in the fridge, though, you just have to plan ahead and take it out the day before you want to bake and feed it to make sure it’s active enough.
I’m loving being able to try so many “new” old recipes now that call for cups of homemade yeast. I’ve even branched out now and tried making a cake with my sourdough starter (and it was absolutely delicious! 🙂 )
I was fully expecting my first experiment with sourdough to be a failure, and I was prepared to try it over again several times before I had any success, so I was incredibly surprised and happy when my starter seemed to work right the first time around!
Update 10/22/13: My sourdough starter is still working well, and I’ve been using it regularly to make bread and pancakes.
Update 10/17/16: My starter is still active and working well over three years later!
Update 4/09/20: A couple of years ago (I don’t remember the exact date) my starter developed a bit of an off smell (a little like nail polish remover) probably because I hadn’t fed it often enough and it was summertime so it was more active with the warmer weather and required more regular feeding. Rather than trying to save it, I decided to use my backup sourdough starter (which was actually part of the original starter, so in a sense I’m still using the same starter even though the backup was in the freezer for awhile.) Once the backup starter thawed from the freezer, I started regular feeding (I usually feed mine four days a week) and it’s been going strong for me for the past couple of years.
For more information about maintaining your starter and for sourdough troubleshooting tips, check out my other sourdough posts.
- How Often Should You Feed a Sourdough Starter?
- How to Use Less Flour for Feeding a Sourdough Starter
- Tips for Using and Maintaining a Sourdough Starter – Part 1
- Tips for Using and Maintaining a Sourdough Starter – Part 2
- How to Make A Backup Sourdough Starter
You can also try my favorite sourdough bread recipe:
And, since the flavor of homemade yeast can vary depending on where you live and the particular strains of wild yeast in that area, if you decide that you don’t care for the flavor of your homemade yeast, you can also find traditional sourdough starters online to use for your homemade baking.
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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.
Wednesday 18th of January 2023
Ok, crazy question. I just read the Vintage Remedies book. I don't even know how I found it or this blog. Couldn't one just whip up some bread (using flour, water and a little salt) and let that sit for a few days and it would ferment to some degree that started wouldn't be needed?
Thursday 4th of May 2023
@MH, I just wanted to chime in and say that I do this all the time with my starter I made like this. Doesn’t need a few days though. Just about 6 hours for the first rise and 2 for the second rise. Then bake it!
Monday 23rd of January 2023
@Lori Elliott, thanks for the response, ha ha. I probably sound crazy. I'll let you know the results IF I ever attempt it!
Wednesday 18th of January 2023
That's a really interesting question. I honestly have no idea if that would work because I've never tried it and I haven't read about anyone trying it either. I know that a typical sourdough starter probably has more water in proportion to the flour than a typical bread dough would have, so that could possibly have an effect on the fermentation and the capturing of wild yeast from the air. But I'm just guessing. I also know that it can take several days to get a starter going to the point where it is active enough to be used for bread making, so maybe one reason why you don't hear about people making bread like you mentioned is simply because the amount of time it would take isn't practical for most people. It would certainly be an interesting experiment, though, if you wanted to try it.
Tuesday 24th of May 2022
Have you published a book with the information and recipe above? I’d like a copy as I have experimented with bread baking for many years but haven’t made a starter dough. Any information you can give is a great help.
Tuesday 24th of May 2022
I haven't ever published any books specifically about sourdough baking, but you can find all of the articles that I've written about sourdough baking on this page: https://www.ourheritageofhealth.com/category/sourdough/
I also have a Pinterest board that is dedicated to sourdough tips and recipes, so there might be some helpful information that you can find there too: https://www.pinterest.com/heritagehealth3/sourdough-recipes-and-tips/
Ross M Roll
Monday 23rd of May 2022
I've been at reading this for several days and I still don't have a recipe for baking the bread, but also don't know what to feed the starter. Maybe just tree leaves or pebbles or some such thing.
Monday 23rd of May 2022
This recipe is just for making the sourdough starter. You would need a separate recipe for baking bread. Any recipe that calls for sourdough yeast should work. Or you can use the recipe I linked to at the end of the article: https://www.ourheritageofhealth.com/easy-homemade-sourdough-bread-recipe-from-1869/
I recommend using all-purpose flour to feed the starter.
Sunday 30th of January 2022
I read somewhere that some people soak some grapes and apple slices in water overnight. Then they use the water from that to put in with the flour. Does it give it a different flavor or more "oomph" to get started?
Thanks for the feedback.
Monday 31st of January 2022
I've heard of people using things like grapes before, but that's a method that I've never tried personally. The way I learned how to make a sourdough starter was just with water and flour, and since it's been working well for me for years now I haven't felt the need to try any other methods. From what I've read, I think the idea behind using fruit like that is to try to capture some of the wild yeasts that might be on the fruit. I know that people used to make yeast from the residue left behind in the bottom of the barrel after making hard cider, so I wonder if maybe that might be where the idea of using apple slices comes form. I'm not exactly sure what effect it would have on the flavor, but it's possible that it could change it a bit. I've never tasted bread made with that kind of yeast, but I know that different types of yeast can make bread taste a little bit different. And as for whether or not grape or apple water would give it any extra oomph, I'm really not sure. It might, but I really don't know how much of a difference it would make since I haven't tried it myself.
Thursday 16th of April 2020
At the end of the post, you state "Once the backup starter thawed from the freezer,..". Can you freeze it? and How long does it last in a frozen state? You would only thaw it before starting using it?
Thursday 16th of April 2020
For the backup starter, what I do is take a few spoonfuls of my regular sourdough starter and add some flour to it to thicken it up. Then I put it in a mason jar in the freezer to keep it preserved in a way that doesn't require me to keep on feeding it. Then, if my regular sourdough starter died and I needed to use the backup, I would take the backup out of the freezer, let it thaw, and then feed it for a couple of days until it becomes active enough to bake with. I don't keep my regular sourdough starter in the freezer, though. (Although there have been a few times where I was going to be away on vacation where I left it in the fridge while I was gone so that I wouldn't need to keep feeding it.) And as far as how long the backup starter would last in the freezer, I don't really know for sure. I've used one that was in the freezer for several months and it worked fine for me, but so far I haven't tried using one that had been in the freezer for years. I would think that eventually the yeast would die out if you left it in the freezer for a really long time, but I can't say for sure from personal experience.