Feed Me!

juniper berries on the branchI go through these phases when I’m first intensely into bread baking and then I get lazy and settle for commercially made loaves. If I could produce really great bread I probably wouldn’t ever buy from the grocery store but my bread is… less than stellar.

I keep trying, though.

Recently I got the urge to bake again, and not only that but to make my own starter from scratch. By this I don’t mean buying dried sourdough starter from Amazon (150 year old! carried by pioneers over the Oregon Trail!) and feeding it up till it’s strong enough to use for bread making. I mean stalking wild yeast and capturing it for my own nefarious bread-making purposes. 

I lay the blame for this on Dr. Sudeep Agarwala (yeast geneticist and Program Director at Ginkgo Bioworks) who provides instructions on Twitter for capturing and taming wild yeast to make starter.

Stalking wild yeast doesn’t have to be a big deal. In fact, you don’t even have to go outside to do it because yeast is pretty much everywhere. Anyone into baking would have lots of great yeast hanging around her kitchen. Really, all you’d have to do would be to sneak in and entice those feral yeasts into a jar of flour water.  

The thought of using yeast from my kitchen, however, was mildly off-putting. Who knows what weird micro-organisms lurk there? Besides, I like the idea of yeast that comes from the land where I live, and so I went stalking outside.

That white coating on berries? It’s yeast. I don’t know why yeast likes the outsides of berries, grapes, and grains, but I’m so glad it does because otherwise none of us would be drinking wine or beer.  Or eating leavened bread as opposed to crackers.

At any rate, the yeast on fruits and grains is involved with fermentation that results in yummy stuff to drink and eat. It’s pretty amazing, when you think about it. And challenging.  That’s why I decided to stalk wild berries that grow on my land, because I wanted to make my own distinctive starter, something that was special to me.

All I needed was some wild fruit with yeast on it.

Yeah. Berries growing on my land in March, with snow still on the ground. Here in my part of New Mexico, even in warm weather there isn’t enough natural water to support the lush growth of most berries. Which is why I decided to harvest juniper berries that were still on the trees near my house.  They were last year’s crop and somewhat shriveled, but they were still covered with yeast. 

juniper berriesJuniper berries around here are small things — maybe 3/8” on the average. But they’ve got yeast on them, and only a little bit of yeast is necessary to get things going. Also, the flour itself has yeast in it. Like I said, yeast is everywhere. That’s why I put a folded piece of cloth over the top of the jar. Juniper yeast + flour yeast = enough yeast, thank you very much. Although come to think of it, there’s probably yeast in the cloth…

At any rate, after adding the handful of berries to the flour-water mixture, I watched the proto-dough carefully for bubbles, a sign that the yeast was multiplying. Bubbles… I’m trying not to think of them as yeast farts, but I fear that’s what they are.

Patience is called for. Those bubbles don’t happen immediately, or even soonish. The yeast has to notice that there’s more to existence than hanging around on fruit skin, and it has to venture off into the new environment of warmth, moisture, and yummy flour.  Once there it has to make whoopie and multiply.

wild yeast starter 24 hoursAnd yay! 24 hours later, that’s exactly what I had in the jar. Happy yeast that had multiplied very nicely. Except that the proto-starter that resulted smelled bad. When I say bad, what I mean is that when I walked into the kitchen I smelled upchuck. Barf. Vomit. What the heck?

The instructions don’t mention awful stench. However, I didn’t have to live with it — the next step in the process calls for just a pinch of the bubbly stuff, added to more flour-water paste, and another 24 or more hours of letting the yeast make whoopie. The original batch went into my compost pile, the one surrounded by a fence so the dogs don’t get into it. Because the last thing I wanted was dog breath that smelled like upchuck.

Step 2 24 hoursThe next day — today — the second stage proto-starter had bubbles and it smelled okay… but oops! That’s where Dr. Agarwala’s instructions ended! Oh noooo!

So I poked around online and discovered I could/should repeat the steps a couple more times, except the directions say “feed your starter”, which to me means using all of what I’ve made so far and adding more flour and water to it as opposed to taking a pinch of the old and adding to new. So that’s what I’m doing.

Stay tuned for updates. Pray for me.


Audrey from Little House of Horrors

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