The Alchemy of Yeast

The more I learn about baking, the more I am fascinated by the science involved. In particular, the uses and effects of yeast, both wild and instant, are mind-blowing. This is an amazing ingredient. You can make bread without it, but using yeast creates wild chemical reactions and delicious final baked products. The idea that a basic human foodstuff is created by relying on a microorganism to eat and release gas blows my mind.

Yeast, and its partner in crime, gluten, get a bad rap these days. People hear “yeast,” and think sickness, mold, or an unwelcome intrusion. But I am mesmerized by yeast and its fermented cousin, sourdough. I “birthed” my own sourdough starter this past February by allowing the naturally occurring yeasts in the air and the flour to eat, grow, and multiply. Little Tammy 3, as I call her, continues to grow and ferment in the fridge, sustained by a diet of King Arthur Rye Flour, tap water, and the occasional leftover stiff starter from making sourdough boules. She smells a bit like sweet beer, and is soft and velvety. I continue to be amazed by her power to create delicious bread. She has a funky edge, getting more aggressive as she matures and builds on her wild roots. Hence, her name, Tammy 3, after the inimitable Ron Swanson’s ex-wife Tammy 2.

Yeast is wild and unpredictable. Sourdough starter is a living creature that has to be nurtured and cared for, much like a pet. On my last vacation had me staying with relatives and away from home for ten days. Tammy 3 came with us, packed carefully in a cooler bag so that I could feed her every couple days. She also helped us produce a delicious sourdough loaf baked in a cast iron skillet. When we finally arrived back home after riding in the car for eight hours, she was the first item I unpacked. Yeast demands that kind of attention to get the kind of results that make mouths water.

I am still learning the ins-and-outs of yeast and sourdough. I am fascinated by all the ways people have manipulated the chemical reactions of yeast, water, and flour to produce breads of such diversity and flavor. From dinner rolls to brioche, challah to baguette, cinnamon rolls to pretzels, yeast has the power to please. Give her a chance.

Chocolate Babka, with Valrhona 85% Cacao Dark Bitter Fudge ribbon & Cocoa Streusel. Best served slightly warmed with a healthy slather of Kerrygold Irish Salted Butter.

For more on the power of yeast, and the alchemy of bread baking in general, check out the Netflix series, Cooked, with Michael Pollan. Episode 3, “Air,” is focused on breadmaking, but the whole series is inspiring.