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Capturing, Baking, and Brewing with Wild Yeasts
About Wild Yeasts
Did you know that you don't need to go to the store to purchase packages of yeast to bake bread or brew wine, mead, beer or cider -- different strains of yeast spores are in the air all around us, and you can take advantage of these spores in the air to leaven your bread or use in fermentation. In fact, the best sourdough recipes call for fermented sourdough starters made with captured wild spores. However, as with everything in life, some strains are better than others for certain purposes, so you want to find, capture, and encourage the right kinds of yeasts to grow. Once you get a good strain, you will want to make sure to label and preserve it for future use!
There a a number of ways to capture wild yeasts. If you live near a bakery, that warm, satisfying smell is yeast (my family used to pass by a ginger ale brewery on the way back from church when I was a child, and I always wanted to lean out the car window and inhale as deeply as I could), and there will be no problem encouraging the right strain to grow. The same principle applies if you live near a brewery, since spores will be plentiful in the air. Otherwise, you will have to put a little more effort in to capturing a good strain, but once captured, yeasts are easy to maintain.
To capture the wild yeasts in the air from a nearby brewery or bakery, simply mix equal amounts of wheat flour and water, with a tiny pinch of sugar, in a glass or ceramic bowl, and leave out on the counter or windowsill and keep the bowl warm. Cover this mixture of flour and water loosely with cheesecloth to keep out insects, dirt, and the cat. Within an hour or so, you should start to see tiny bubbles. Keep the flour/water mixture warm, and each day, feed your mixture with a quarter-cup of flour and water mixed together. Once you get enough, divide this mixture in half, and bake half the mixture into bread, or try fermenting a small batch of home-made beer, wine, cider, ginger ale or mead to see if this is a strain you want to keep. If so, keep feeding the reserved mixture until you have enough to divide again, then bake bread or use your mixture in fermentation as needed. If the mixture is really good, you can label it and keep it in the refrigerator to retard its growth. Otherwise, throw the undesirable mixture on the compost pile and start again!
If you do not live near a brewery or bakery, you will need another source of wild spores. A good place to find wild spores is on the skins of blueberries or grapes. Look for the berries or grapes that have a fine whitish coat -- that white coat is yeast. Put your flour/water mixture into a jar, and throw in a couple of berries, cover loosely, keep warm, and let sit overnight. Take out the berries (so they don't ferment) and feed the flour and water mixture until you have enough to bake some bread or try a sample fermentation. Again, try the bread or ferment a small batch to make sure this is a strain you want to keep.
More About Wild Yeasts
Sourdough starter is a collection of wild yeasts.
Maintaining your wild yeast mixture for baking or fermentation is ridiculously easy: simply continue to feed the mixture with equal parts of flour and water daily. If you get more mixture than you can bake, you can either give part of it to a friend, or keep your mixture in the refrigerator or cool place to slow down the process. Keep your mixture loosely covered to keep it clean.
In addition to baking bread, wild yeasts can also be used to ferment liquids to make wine, beer, mead, ginger ale or cider. As with any wild yeast, some wild strains are suitable for the purpose, and some are not. It will take experimentation to determine which wild yeasts will serve your purpose. Once you find a wild strain you like, be sure to label it and maintain it carefully. Otherwise, that great beer wild yeast may get used for bread, and you may not care for the results!
Don't forget that you can experiment further with your mixtures, such as brewing beer with wild yeasts, and then baking some bread with the beer you have brewed. You might just come up with something fabulous from your experiments with wild yeasts!