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Taming the Wild Yeast

Did you know that freshly baked bread just pulled from the oven makes a sort of snappy, crackly sound, as its internals continue to cook before it begins the process of cooling down?  I didn’t.  It’s rather easy to miss, and I first noticed it when I took a class on sourdough bread baking and our teacher pointed it out.  It’s a beautiful sound, marking the culmination of not only the hours it took to get from kneading the dough, letting it rise while it ferments, and shaping it into boules or batards or baguettes, but also the highest contribution of something entirely wild, and to me, somewhat mysterious – wild yeast.

Yeast lives all around us.  Some enjoy feasting on sugars from fruit or vegetables, others on grains and flour.  Our colony of wild yeast, which we have lovingly albeit somewhat arbitrarily given the name Felix, apparently likes its King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour.  He is the offspring of my bread teacher’s eight year old sourdough starter and he’s lived all over the place, from a college dormitory to a Brooklyn home, from West coast to East coast, and now he’s in our little corner of the West Village.  My friend W has taken hers to Singapore, where it’ll undoubtedly develop an entirely different flavor profile as it is gradually colonized by its Southeast Asian brethren.

Felix has become a sort of beloved pet to us, and we are slowly beginning to learn the odds and ends of his personality.  On some days, Felix is sluggish and slow to consume his daily meal of flour and water.  On others, usually on warmer days, he can barely contain himself and occasionally makes a run for it as he slowly leaks out of his mason jar glass container that sits on our kitchen countertop.  On most days he bubbles along contently, like a newly fed infant, minus the coo-ing.  It really is like having a new addition to our family, one that we eat on occasion.

So far our sourdough starter has made it into a number of delicious meals, such as pancakes and waffles, adding a deliciously mild tang to otherwise ordinary batters.  Bread, however, is where he really shines.  This is also where he has to work his hardest.  As do I.  The ingredients are always the same – flour, water, salt and Felix, but that’s where the similarity ends.  Each bread baking endeavor is a brand new adventure with wild yeast.  Depending on the humidity and ambient temperature, the time it takes the sourdough to perform its magic varies wildly.  And he never tastes exactly the same, either.  If I’ve left him in the fridge for a while, the bread tends to be more sour than if he’s recently been bubbling along happily out on our countertop, almost as if to signal his displeasure at being tucked away in our refrigerator.

Despite warnings that bread baking is filled with heartache and the occasional failure, ours has fortunately been fairly consistent in giving us delicious bread.  Unlike other forms of baking, there is an element of improvisation that is necessary with bread making.  Baking with sourdough has really taught me how to develop an intuition based on my sense of smell, touch and sight to know when the dough should sit for another hour or so or if I should hold back on the flour on a particularly humid day.  Sure, baking with mass produced dried yeast requires some degree of intuition and ability to adjust a recipe quickly, but baking with sourdough has really pushed me to understand the underlying chemistry of leavened bread.  And there’s something exciting about not knowing how exactly a batch of bread is going to taste like in the end.


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