Everybody was getting into bread making even before the COVID-19 crisis: the people left over from the ’70s who swore by their bread machines, the Northern California tech bros who needed a creative outlet that was challenging AF, hippies and homesteaders who knew that homegrown is always superior, the sourdough starter weirdos who would wax rhapsodic about their mother as though it were a pet, and the people who because of allergies or sensitivities had to eat modified versions of the staff of life. And then there was this guy. Now, in this supremely weird and disconcerting moment, people who are none of these things have discovered that it’s soothing and calming and even meditative to form something deeply elemental from your hands and a few ingredients.
I came to bread making as a combination of a few of the stereotypes above. I aspire (in a fantasy life, to be clear) to homesteading and to be a person who nerds out over the process of baking and the maintenance of starters. Mostly, though, I bake bread because my husband Tim is allergic to most commercial yeasts. After a few full-blown allergic reactions as an adult, he gave up anything that could conceivably have yeast added to it. Even so, certain foodstuffs still have to be thoroughly interrogated, like canned soup, which surprisingly often has yeast extract added for flavor. Burritos are also particularly risky. After I witnessed an especially severe attack brought on by leftover pizza when we were newly dating—Tim broke out in hives and had trouble breathing—I took up the task of checking the labels and trying to find alternatives.
We stumbled upon a California-style sourdough made by Today’s Temptations, a bakery not too far from where we live in Chicago. The label proclaimed “No Yeast Added.” We tried a loaf, and Tim had no issues. We were stoked to have BLT&As not in wrap form for once. And we got to thinking: could all sourdoughs be safe for him?
Naturally, Tim grew curious about making his own sourdough. We talked to friends and family about it. His cousin Mandy brought some gorgeous loaves to Thanksgiving one year, and she gifted us our first sourdough starter. We didn’t know that Chicago water would kill it after six months.
A few months later, our friend, the lovely honky tonk dancer and bread expert Mary Valentin, gave us some of her starter to experiment with, and we’ve managed to keep that one alive in our fridge. Tim kept tinkering and practicing and perfecting the texture and taste of his bread recipe. We learned that filtered water and unbleached flour are best for a healthy, robust starter. We also learned that there are innumerable modifications and additions you can make to sourdough. Do you like the taste of rye? Add rye flour! Want a boule? Bake it in a Dutch oven! I deeply believe the sourdough tastes better if someone gives you the starter, and then you return the favor by passing it along to someone else. It’s the Circle of Starter!
If you have to make your own, though, there are tons of resources for sourdough starters online. We like how empowering and demystifying this one is, and many friends swear by this recipe from King Arthur Flour.
Taking care of the sourdough starter, once you have it, is fairly simple. If you keep it in the fridge, the starter will only need to be fed once a week. Every time you feed it, pour off any of the alcohol that’s accumulated and then remove the lid (if you’re using a Mason jar with lid) and leave a fabric square on top instead so nothing inadvertently gets dropped in there. This allows the yeast to become more active without getting contaminated by anything in the kitchen. It should sit out for an hour to allow the yeast to come up to room temperature and begin to get active before you feed it or try to make anything.
To feed the starter, mix equal parts starter, water, and flour in a mixing bowl. Pour it into a clean container and leave it out covered with your fabric square for another hour. Put it back in the fridge with a tight fitting lid and forget about it until the next time you want to make something or when it’s time to feed it.
We were happy with sourdough for a long time, but then we wanted to branch out into some sweeter bread recipes, and sourdough was not gonna work.
In the book Baking Sourdough Bread by Göran Söderin and George Strachal, we read about breads that could be made with a natural yeast made from organic raisins. We were intrigued. I would not have guessed that raisins could harbor yeasts. It seemed almost like magic or alchemy.
I found three types of organic raisins at my neighborhood co-op, and we got to work making different starters and breads. Experimenting with the raisins and the resulting flavors of bread has been quite fun. We’ve tried Flame, Thompson, and Golden Sultana varieties.
As a general rule, the sweeter the raisin the sweeter the bread will be. We found that the Flame variety had a touch of sweetness without being cloying, similar to some brands of commercial wheat bread. The Golden Sultana raisins were by far the sweetest: the bread they ultimately made would be a great base for raisin bread or French toast, but it was too sweet to really be good for sandwiches. The Thompson raisins made the mildest tasting loaf, which was best for sandwiches or toast.
I deeply enjoy the process of watching the raisins get progressively gross-looking. The twice-per-day agitation gives me something simple to remember to do in isolation, and looking at all the bubbles on the surface of the raisins also reminds me that life is everywhere, carrying on. The bread you will get out of this process is not as light and airy as commercial yeasted breads. It’s more dense and chewy and closer in texture to sourdough than anything else. It’s like bread of olden days, bread of the prairie, bread of self sufficiency. I also find it fascinating to see the change from raisins in water to a liquid yeast. This could be a fun project for kids or anyone with a kid-like curiosity. It does require time, but we all have plenty of that at the moment.
I was curious about the science behind natural yeasts and why they don’t adversely impact Tim. Is it because the yeast used in commercial applications is predominately one type, Saccharomyces cerevisiae? There are many, many, many varieties of yeasts roaming around in the world but this specific breed has emerged as the one most commonly used in baker’s and brewer’s yeasts. Maybe Tim can’t tolerate it specifically. Another possibility is that the wild yeasts we’re cultivating at home are weaker, so they are somehow less irritating to Tim. It takes far longer for our sourdough and raisin breads to rise in general than when we bake bread from commercial yeast—on average four times longer—which leads me to believe those wild yeasts are not as strong or potent as the commercial yeasts.
I reached out via email to some experts and a few university medical schools with research facilities dedicated to allergies to see if there has been any study on why wild yeasts would be more tolerable to someone like Tim but have yet to hear back. What I learned from reading on my own is that there has not been much research on yeast allergies in general. And in fact, whether or not a yeast allergy is even a thing has been debated since the 1980s. Interestingly, the few studies that I was able to find focused on reactions to the yeast in beer, wine, and cider, not bread. Tim is also sensitive to most beers and wines but the reaction is more of the “this gives me a terrible headache” than the “this gives me hives” variety. But this article got me thinking that maybe because these wild yeasts exist in Tim’s environment all the time, that’s why he’s able to eat them without having a reaction. Maybe we should start brewing beer, and making wine to test this theory.
But if the commercial yeast shortage gets truly dire, we now know we can create life from organic raisins and water. I am like a tiny, insignificant kitchen goddess who can make bread for people from four ingredients if I need to.
- 1 cup starter
- 1 cup filtered water
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2 to 3 cups unbleached flour
Combine the starter and water in a mixing bowl. Combine salt with the first cup of flour and then mix well with the wet ingredients. Add in additional flour by the quarter cupful and watch for the consistency to change. You’re looking for the dough to start to pull away from the bowl and become more solid and less sticky.
Once you reach the desired consistency, place the dough on a floured surface and knead aggressively. (As my mother-in-law says, “How else are you gonna get your aggressions out?”) The flour you spread on the kneading surface will get absorbed by your dough. Knead until the dough bounces back only slightly after being poked, then place the dough in a greased loaf pan (we use vegetable shortening) and cover with a warm damp towel.
Now you wait. For hours. This recipe has a lot of reflection time—ahem—baked in. The dough needs to double in size in the pan. It should take around four to six hours, but this can vary.
Bake the bread at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 60 minutes. Look for that nice brown color and rely on your sense of smell to give you hints to the doneness.
Note: If you choose to bake it in a boule shape in a cast iron Dutch oven or in something other than a loaf pan, the baking time will vary.
- Organic raisins
- Filtered water
Place two handfuls of organic raisins in a jar, or enough to cover the bottom of the jar. We like to use pint-size Mason jars. Add in enough filtered water to fill up about ⅔ of the jar. After tightly sealing the jar with the lid and band, shake vigorously for a few seconds.
Leave the jar out where it will stay a little warm (our counter is above our radiator in the kitchen and that seems like the right temp) for seven days. Shake the jar vigorously twice per day to agitate. You’ll see the mixture start to become cloudy and bubble. The raisins are going to get pretty gross looking, but the bubbles and murkiness are good. They’ll also start to distend the jar lid and hiss, and the mixture might even overflow when you shake the jar. Don’t be alarmed. This is also good. Your personal yeast colony is growing in there!
After seven days, strain the yeast water from the raisins. Discard the raisins (we add ours to the compost pile). Our pint jars yield about one cup of yeast water.
- 1 cup organic raisin yeast water
- 1 tsp. salt
- ½ cup filtered water
- 2½ cups unbleached flour, plus more for kneading (roughly another ½ cup)
Combine all the ingredients in a mixing bowl, incorporating the flour gradually as you keep an eye on the texture. Knead according to the directions for sourdough and let the dough rise in the pan.
After the bread has doubled in size in the pan (this should take about eight hours), bake the bread at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 60 minutes, or until your senses tell you it’s done.