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How to Make Homemade Yeast

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 How to make homemade yeast | ourheritageofhealth.com

 

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.

“Emptyings”

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 🙂

How to make homemade yeast

Bubbles starting to form after the first couple of days.

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.

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.

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ana

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?

Lori Elliott

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.

Jane Dough

Friday 10th of April 2020

Now that it's #CoronaTime, I think a lot of people are trying to make their own bread at home. Actually my local stores are out of yeast! Amazon wants a ton of money and I have to wait. And so I turn to you, dear internet, for DIY yeast. What a great blog post from the past at the top of my google search results list. And it looks like you just recently updated it (yesterday!). Thanks for this lesson (and the reference to the books where you found the info).

Jean

Friday 24th of April 2020

Thank you Lori. Jane--I love your comment. I am getting a little low on the yeast I have I didn't know until this week that yeast was another baking product that was stripped from the shelves and then when I started to look around I found the prices had been increased. Someone on a FB page mentioned making your own, so I looked around. I came across this page, which seemed the simplest with a lot of information. If it works, this will supplement store bought bread (or maybe replace it altogether). And I really do love the ability of keeping a back up in the freezer. Making your own yeast can also be a home-teaching science project.

Lori Elliott

Friday 10th of April 2020

I'm so glad to hear that the post has been helpful - when I first wrote it years ago I certainly had no idea that there would come a time when people wouldn't be able to find yeast in the store! I just updated it yesterday when I received an email from someone wondering how my starter was doing :)

Leffy

Thursday 12th of December 2019

On the first day, i feed my starter a lot of flour, so it became dense. The next morning i realise that it has risen a lot and bubble appears in the starter. In the noon, it just seem to be flatted out, went back to it's normal size. Is that a problem that i should be aware of?

Lori Elliott

Friday 13th of December 2019

Hmmm, it's possible that it was a bit too much flour for it. You could try feeding it again and see if it rises and bubbles after feeding. If it rises again, then it's probably fine. If it stays flat after feeding, though, and especially if it says flat like that after a couple of feedings, then it might have died (in which case you'd have to start over again, unfortunately.) Sometimes the first couple of days are the hardest, but once you get a starter established, they're usually pretty resilient.

robert

Thursday 3rd of October 2019

just wanted to say a big thank you for this was very well explained i as a father am going to make this in the next week or so and continue using it for many years to come and will split it up and pass it along to my children so Thank You

Lori Elliott

Friday 4th of October 2019

You're very welcome, and I'm so glad to hear that it was helpful to you. That's such a great idea to pass it along to your children!

Andy Moon

Sunday 22nd of September 2019

Thank you, Lori!

I have been feeding my current batch daily, using a large serving spoon and putting 2 1/2 heaping spoonfuls into the jar and stirring it in. No "hooch", and it is bubbling. I want to try a loaf today so I just fed the starter and I'll check to see if I can catch it right at that point where it is active. I can watch and see bubbles growing on the surface. I did have to spoon some of the starter out as the jar was getting full - so I may be getting the hang of it - a couple of days I didn't even add water as the consistency was less thick - I re-read your article and I think I was keeping the mix too liquid - now it is thick, somewhere between pancake batter and wet dough - that seems to be part of the trick. Thanks again!

Lori Elliott

Monday 30th of September 2019

I'm so glad to hear that it seems to be working better for you this time around! From what you described, it sounds like you're on the right track with your starter, and I hope it continues to go well for you!

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