“Ok Bread Geek,” you may be saying to yourself, “just what is all this Natural Yeast nonsense about?”
Well friend, there is enough information behind the answer to that question to bury a person, but I’ll do my very best to keep things light-weight.
First off, some of you are wondering if Natural Yeast is the same as Sourdough. It is.
The reason I do not call it Sourdough is that if kept properly, it does not have to taste sour at all. I also call it Natural Yeast because my method in keeping a starter tends to differ from standard Sourdough countertop methods, which require more attention, and I don’t want people getting confused. Back to Natural Yeast.
Let’s start with my Bread Geek Definition of Natural Yeast:
Natural Yeast: A mixture of flour and water that houses an entire ecosystem of beneficial bacteria and yeasts.
What are these microorganisms, and why do I need them?
These organisms are EVERYWHERE. It is a simple (though morbid) fact that every living thing houses all the bacteria necessary to break down/decompose that organism when it dies. In unpleasant cases, before it dies. An apple left untouched will eventually decompose with help from micro-organisms on its skin. The same applies to wheat and other grains.
All grains are seeds. A seed is a defensible fortress against digestion. If a seed successfully protects itself from foraging mammals (humans included), it wins the grand prize of getting to grow a plant.
You and I need an “insider” to help us break down the fortress and get to the good stuff (vitamins/minerals/amino acids) without getting hurt. The yeasts and bacteria that live on the skin of that grain do just that. Remember, they are specialized in that exact line of work.
So we feed them, give them a nice home in a jar in the kitchen, and encourage them to “colonize” and reproduce. This is done either by taking some “starter” from a friend and growing it in your own home, or mixing flour and water (sometimes organic apple peels and grapes too) and setting it on the counter to ferment. Here is a video on that. Once you’ve got your starter bubbling,
They live in a perfect little symbiotic relationship where they produce perfect living conditions for each other, but not for pathogenic or dangerous bacteria/yeasts. The acidic liquid produced by their feeding frenzy (aka The Hooch) kills anything bad that tries to get in.
Inside your dough, they break down sugars, enzymes, and all kinds of nastiness, producing CO2 as they go, which leavens the dough on the counter and the bread in the oven.
Inside your stomach and intestines they colonize your delicate lining, protecting it from bad bacteria, feasting on more wheat and continuing to break it down, stabilizing blood sugar and helping your body fight off bad bacteria.
Woah, woah, woah… I’m getting Geeky aren’t I? Sorry. Back to simple.
Essentially, we harness nature to protect us from…well…. nature. We feed the micro-organisms in the starter, and they feed us. I like to call it the Starter Circle of Love. My husband calls it hippie gibberish. We are both right ;).
Thus concludes the very,very,very,very brief answer to “What is a starter?” for more info, you can read The Anatomy of a Starter in The Art of Baking With Natural Yeast, and “Getting to Know You” in Beyond Basics With Natural Yeast. You can also browse the blog for more posts and info, and follow me on Facebook to ask questions and interact with other home bakers.
Already have a starter? Not sure what to do next? Check out this great post: Natural Yeast Bread Recipe for Beginners.