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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?
- 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.