Until the mid-1800s, people made their own yeasts to use in baking bread. In 1868, Charles and Max Fleischmann created a compressed yeast cake and began selling it commercially. This was certainly easier than making your own!
INFORMATION BELOW FROM 1800s COOKBOOKS
ON YEASTGood yeast is indispensable to good bread. Every housekeeper should make sure by her own personal attention, that the yeast is properly made and the jar well scalded. A jar having a close cover is best. Bottles will burst, and you cannot be perfectly sure that a jug is cleansed from every particle of old yeast. To scald the jar, put it into a kettle of boiling water. This must be done every time you make yeast. Stone ware is liable to be cracked by the pouring of boiling water into it.
FRESH YEASTAll yeast is better and more powerful for being fresh. It is better to make it frequently, (the trouble being little), than to risk its becoming sour by endeavoring to keep it too long. When sour, it becomes weak and watery, tastes and smells disagreeably, and will never make light bread, besides being very unwholesome. The acidity may be somewhat corrected by stirring in some dissolved pearlash, saleratus, or soda immediately before the yeast is used, but it is better to have it good and fresh, without the necessity of any corrective. Yeast should always be kept in a cool place.
Sweet cakes, buns, rusks, &c., require stronger and fresher yeast than bread; the sugar will otherwise retard their rising.
YEAST AIDSYeast, in order to grow, requires something on which to feed, and the food that produces the most rapid growth is that which contains carbohydrate. Certain of the carbohydrates, however, prove to be better food and produce more rapid growth than others, and these, which are known as yeast aids, are usually added as ingredients in the making of bread. The ones that are most commonly used are sugar and potato water. Sugar is almost always added, but it should be limited in quantity because a dough mixture that is made heavy with sugar will rise very slowly. Potato water has been found to be a very satisfactory aid because the starch of the potato is utilized readily by the yeast. If this aid is to be used, the water in which potatoes are boiled may be saved, and when the ingredients required for the making of bread are mixed, it may be added as a part or all of the liquid required. If it is desired to increase the amount of starch in the potato water, a boiled potato or two may be mashed and added to it.
POTATO YEASTPare half a dozen middle-sized potatoes and boil them in a quart of soft water mixed with a handful of hops, till quite soft. Then mash the potatoes smooth, not leaving in a single lump. Mix with them a handful of wheat flour. Set a sieve over the pan in which you have the flour and mashed potatoes, and strain into them the hop-water in which they were boiled. Then stir the mixture very hard, and afterwards pass it through a colander to clear it of lumps. Let it stand till it is nearly cold, then stir in four tablespoons of strong yeast and let it stand to ferment. When the foam has sunk down in the middle, (which will not be for several hours), it is done working. Then put it into a stone jug and cork it. Set it in a cool place.
BRAN YEASTMix a pint of wheat bran and a handful of hops with a quart of water. Boil them together about twenty minutes. Then strain it through a sieve into a pan. When the liquid becomes only milk-warm, stir into it four tablespoons of brewer’s yeast, and two of brown sugar, or four of molasses. Put it into a wooden bowl, cover it, and set it near the fire for four or five hours. Then bottle it, and cork it tightly next day.
BAKER’S YEASTTo a gallon of soft water put two quarts of wheat bran, one quart of ground malt, (which may be obtained from a brewery), and two handfuls of hops. Boil them together for half an hour. Then strain through a sieve and let it stand till it is cold. After which put to it two large teacups* of molasses and half a pint of strong yeast. Pour it into a stone jug and let it stand uncorked till next morning. Then pour off the thin liquid from the top and cork the jug tightly. When you are going to use the yeast, if it has been made two or three days, stir in a little pearlash* dissolved in warm water, allowing a lump the size of a hickory-nut to a pint of yeast. This will correct any tendency to sourness, and make the yeast more brisk.
*teacup – same as a jill or gill; four ounces in the U.S. and five ounces in the U.K.
*pearlash – the white powder that remains when potash is baked in a kiln.
PUMPKIN YEASTPare a fine ripe pumpkin and cut it into pieces. Put them into a kettle with a large handful of hops, and as much water as will cover them. Boil them till the pumpkin is soft enough to pass through a colander. Having done this, put the pulp into a stone jar, adding half a pint of good strong yeast to set it into a fermentation. The yeast must be well stirred into the pumpkin. Leave the jar uncovered till next day, then secure it lightly with a cork. If pumpkin yeast is well made and of a proper consistence, neither too thick nor too thin, it will keep longer than any other.
CIDER YEASTTake cider from sour apples before it ferments. Scald it, skim thoroughly, and pour, while hot, upon flour enough to make a stiff batter. When cool, add yeast of any kind, and let it rise, stirring it down as often as it tries to run over for several days. Then put it in a cool place (where it will not freeze), and you will have something equal to the best hop yeast. It will keep until May without any further labor.
Image from Deposit Photos
Aren’t You Glad We Don’t Have to Make Our Own Yeast Today?
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For a long time, I had been confused about the subject of yeast. The only yeast I knew about was the little packet of active dry yeast or rapid rise yeast that I would sprinkle into my dough. But then I started collecting 19th century cookbooks and found recipes that called for “one gill of fresh yeast” among the other ingredients.
Once I finally figured out what a gill was, though, (about a half a cup,) I was even more confused. I would have to use how many little instant yeast packets to equal a whole half a cup?!
After doing some more research on period cooking, though, I found several recipes for how to make homemade yeast that helped to solve the mystery a bit. Most involve the use of hops or potatoes added to boiling water and flour. The problem with all of those recipes, though, is that they all call for adding “a bit of good fresh yeast” to the mixture – which was exactly what I didn’t have!
And then, just a couple weeks ago, I read a book that cleared up more of the mystery for me (and solved my problem of how to make my own yeast.) The book is The Vintage Remedies Guide to Bread, written by Jessie Hawkins of the Vintage Remedies School of Natural Health. This book is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the subjects of bread, grains, gluten, modern vs. traditional bread, etc. (Update: The book is out of print now, but you can still sometimes find used copies.)
A Brief History of Homemade Yeast
Once of the most helpful bits of information I found by reading this book was the section on the history of bread and yeast. I learned that modern baker’s yeast, as we know it today, didn’t even exist until 1868. Before then, bread and other baked goods were leavened by other types of wild yeast (or with massive quantities of eggs.)
In addition to the recipes for making yeast with hops or potatoes, I also saw several references to using “emptins” in old recipes as a leavening agent. These “emptins” or “emptyings” were just as their name implies – the emptyings of leftover dough and batter added to a crock or jar.
Descriptions I’ve read about emptyings seem to be pretty similar to the flour-water mixture for a sourdough starter with scraps of extra dough added to feed the starter. The main difference I’ve seen is that several instructions for how to make emptyings call for using milk rather than water.
I’m not at all an expert on the history of yeast, and this is a topic I’ve only just begun to learn about, but my guess is that “emptyings” and “sourdough” may be related or at least similar. In all of the 19th century recipes I’ve seen and in the entire database of the Historic American Cookbook Project, I have yet to find one recipe that uses the word “sourdough,” but I have seen several recipes that refer to using a sourdough-type leavening.
(Update: I’ve learned from talking with the interpreters at Old Sturbridge Village that one reason why sourdough yeast isn’t mentioned in old cookbooks could be because it wasn’t a preferred flavor for bread at the time, or at least not in the New England area. Since the flavor of sourdough can vary depending on where you live, it’s possible that that’s one reason why it was more popular in the West in places like California. Early 19th century taste might have preferred bread made with yeast that was made from hard cider, beer, or some of the other homemade recipes using potatoes, hops, etc. so that might explain why sourdough isn’t mentioned in cookbooks of the period.)
Making a Sourdough Starter
Once I realized that I could use a sourdough starter for the “homemade yeast” required in so many old recipes, I was immediately interested in learning how to make my own. Making my own sourdough starter had always seemed to intimidating to me, though, which, of course, is why I had been procrastinating starting one for so long.
When I read The Vintage Remedies Guide to Bread, though, the process seemed a bit more simple and less intimidating. After all, people have been making sourdough starters for a long, long time without any complicated instructions for how to do it. So, I figured I might as well give it a try. Though I’ve seen many different sourdough starter recipes online, I decided to go with the simplest method of using only flour and water.
Here’s what I did:
Materials and Ingredients
- Quart-Sized Wide-Mouth Mason Jars – I’d definitely recommend getting wide-mouthed ones. They make stirring the starter so much easier.
- Water – For best results, the water should be filtered water or spring water. Chlorine will kill the good bacteria the starter needs to survive.
- Flour – I used an organic unbleached all-purpose flour. (Many people say that using whole wheat flour can give an “off” flavor to the starter.)
- Cheesecloth for covering the jar. (Fruit flies love hovering around sourdough starters, so you want something that will keep them out but still allow air into the jar.)
Method for Making Homemade Yeast with a Sourdough Starter
I probably tried baking with mine a bit earlier than most instructions for making sourdough would tell you to do. I was too impatient and too excited to wait, though, so I just went ahead and baked with it. And it worked! My bread rose well enough – maybe not as well as it would have risen if I had waited a little longer, but it was still a perfectly edible loaf of bread.
So, when in doubt, I’d say just try to bake with it and see what happens. The end result might not be perfect the first time, but it will probably still be pretty good 🙂
Bubbles starting to form after the first couple of days.
Once your starter is established, you can probably get away with feeding it a little bit less. I haven’t been feeding mine every single day, and it’s still surviving fine. I’ve been using it quite a bit in different baking experiments, so I’ve kept my starter out on the counter, but if you aren’t planning to bake more than once a week, it’s best to keep it in the fridge so you don’t have to feed it as often and so it doesn’t grow to massive proportions and overflow the jar. If you keep it in the fridge, though, you just have to plan ahead and take it out the day before you want to bake and feed it to make sure it’s active enough.
I’m loving being able to try so many “new” old recipes now that call for cups of homemade yeast. I’ve even branched out now and tried making a cake with my sourdough starter (and it was absolutely delicious! 🙂 )
I was fully expecting my first experiment with sourdough to be a failure, and I was prepared to try it over again several times before I had any success, so I was incredibly surprised and happy when my starter seemed to work right the first time around!
Update 10/22/13: My sourdough starter is still working well, and I’ve been using it regularly to make bread and pancakes.
Update 10/17/16: My starter is still active and working well over three years later!
Update 4/09/20: A couple of years ago (I don’t remember the exact date) my starter developed a bit of an off smell (a little like nail polish remover) probably because I hadn’t fed it often enough and it was summertime so it was more active with the warmer weather and required more regular feeding. Rather than trying to save it, I decided to use my backup sourdough starter (which was actually part of the original starter, so in a sense I’m still using the same starter even though the backup was in the freezer for awhile.) Once the backup starter thawed from the freezer, I started regular feeding (I usually feed mine four days a week) and it’s been going strong for me for the past couple of years.
You can also try my favorite sourdough bread recipe:
And, since the flavor of homemade yeast can vary depending on where you live and the particular strains of wild yeast in that area, if you decide that you don’t care for the flavor of your homemade yeast, you can also find traditional sourdough starters online to use for your homemade baking.
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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.
Making your own yeast for baking bread is easy. It’s how people baked for generations, and now that commercial yeast is getting hard to find on grocery shelves, it’s a great way to keep making wonderful homemade bread in your own kitchen!
There’s a shelf in my cookbook cupboard that’s reserved for dingy, dog-eared, beat-up volumes. It’s my 1800’s shelf, and that’s where I keep cookbooks that were printed before most of my great-grandparents were born. They’re worn and a little brittle, but I find myself turning to them as often as the modern volumes that sit on the shelves below them – especially in times like these.
The bread section in most of them is robust, usually containing many different recipes for homemade bread, with different characteristics and qualities. Of course, they all call for yeast, but not the powdered commercial yeast that we rely on today. Homemakers back then kept their yeast in a corked jug in the cool cellar, and when they ran out, they made a new batch. And we can too.
While in modern times, we’ve come to think of homemade yeast starters as “sourdough”, bread made this way doesn’t actually need to taste sour. What we think of as “sourdough bread” is really just one way of using homemade yeast to create a particular style of loaf. If you think you hate sourdough, don’t rule out baking with homemade yeast. Chances are, you can create a loaf you’ll really love.
Yeast is something that’s present in the air around us, and it’s technically classified as a fungus. So while baker’s yeast might be in short supply, the critical ingredient for creating light bread that rises well is already all around us – we just need to capture and culture it.
Keep in mind that this starter will take about 4-5 days before you’re able to bake the first loaf, so you’ll want to start this before you need to start baking with it.
What you’ll need to make a yeast starter
- Flour (preferably whole wheat or rye)
- Water (non-chlorinated)
- A few peels from an organic apple (optional)
While technically, all you need for getting yeast starter going is flour and water, my favorite yeast starters are the ones I’ve made using a few peels from an organic apple. The natural yeasts on the apple peel work so beautifully to jump-start what I always find to be a particularly starter.
When it comes to flour, white flour can work just fine in a pinch (we all have to work with what we have right now), but whole wheat is better because it contains more nutrients to feed the yeast. If you happen to have rye flour, try using half rye and half whole wheat – that’s really a winning combination! The key here is, use what you have, and it’s going to come out just fine.
Do keep in mind that this starter will take about 4-5 days before you’re able to bake the first loaf, so you’ll want to start this before you need to start baking with it.
In a pint jar, or similar container, place a few peels from an organic apple, then add 1/3 cup of flour, and 1/3 cup of water. Mix it up well – it should be about the consistency of pancake batter. (Add a little flour if it’s too thin, or water if it’s too thick.)
Cover the bowl loosely, and leave it at room temperature. A slightly warm place is good, since that helps to speed up the process, but I’ve found that keeping the starter out of continual direct sunlight is beneficial. Leave your starter to sit quietly until the next day.
Starting the next day, add 2 tablespoons of flour and 2 tablespoons of water twice each day, in the morning and again in the evening – giving the mixture a good stir when you do. Adding fresh flour and water feeds the yeast, and helps it to become more active and robust. In a couple of days, you’ll notice bubbles starting to form in your yeast. That process of creating little air bubbles is exactly what makes your bread rise, so this is what you want to see! You may want to start putting a little plate under your jar of starter, in case it starts to rise more vigorously. At some point you’ll walk away, and next time you look at it, it will be bubbling up so wildly you’ll be amazed! It’s not unusual for a jar to flow right over when it rises more than you expect.
When the jar starts getting full (around day 4), I like to pour off half of it into a fresh container, fishing out the apple peels as I do. The starter in the new jar is what I’ll keep going. The apple peels have done their job, and they go into the compost, along with the last scraping of starter from the first jar. Keep feeding your starter in the same way for another day or two. By about day five, it should be ready to use. When it’s consistently rising very actively each time you feed it, you’re good to go!
Using your homemade yeast to bake bread
You won’t be able to directly substitute homemade yeast starter for the rapid-rise yeast that we’re used to buying in the store – you’ll need to use a recipe created for slower rising yeast. You can use this starter in any sourdough bread recipe (like this whole wheat sourdough loaf), or if you happen to have an old 1800’s cookbook kicking around, this starter will be your ticket to making ALL those lovely vintage bread recipes.
You’ll only need part of your starter for each loaf that you bake, so you can keep it going indefinitely. Keep it active and ready to use, by feeding it once a day. If you’re taking a little time off from baking, you can keep it in the fridge and feed it just once a week. Bring it up to room temperature two days before you want to bake, and feed it twice daily for a couple of days, to get it back to full, active vigor.
There are a lot of sourdough starter recipes out there that require getting out your kitchen scale, precisely weighing flour and water, and carefully counting days for irregular feeding schedules. I’ve made a lot of those over the years, and lots of them are great. There’s no harm in getting our your kitchen scale and if you feel like going that route – go for it! But please know that good, reliable, delicious bread can be EASY. No scale needed.
I keep coming back to this method for making yeast, because it’s simple, and always results in a starter that I’ve found to be reliable, and nearly fool-proof. I think especially right now, simple is good.
Do you have any questions about getting started with baking, using homemade yeast? Drop me a line in the comments below and I’ll help however I can!
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When I cut the loaf tonight,even the texture was amazing. They certainly knew how to do things in the good old days.
Bread Recipe with Hop Yeast (courtesy of Mavis)
Hop Yeast starter
1 organic potato – unpeeled (scrubbed), 1 tablespoon hops and water to cover well. Boil until cooked. Cool.
Mix 1 tablespoon flour and 1 tablespoon sugar to a smooth paste using a little of the cooled liquid. Tip this mixture into a saucepan containing the cooled hop/potato mixture. Mash everything and pour into the bottle in which you have put 4 organic sultanas. Set in a warm place to work.
I use a 1.25 litre plastic lemonade or tonic water screw top bottle. It takes the pressure better than a glass bottle.
Hop and potato yeast – to feed plant
Boil a medium potato in about 3 cups water until tender. Place a small handful of hops in a mixing bowl. Pour over the boiling potato water. Allow to cool. Hops should have sunk to the bottom.
When cool, add liquid only to 1 tablespoon flour and 1 tablespoon sugar. Mix together and top up the starter. Fill the bottle to no more than ¾. Screw the lid down firmly.
Mixture is ready to bake when you undo the bottle and the ‘starter’ rushes out.
To make Hop-Potato Yeast Bread (basic recipe)
Put 1 cup flour in a mixing bowl. Pour in about 1 – 1 ½ cups of bubbling starter. Mix, then leave overnight in a warm place (I sit mine in a cupboard on top of the hot water cylinder).
Next morning – add about 1 pint water (warm) alternately with extra 4 to 5 cups flour to make a soft dough.
If not using bread-mix flour, add a small handful of salt. Mix to a soft-firm dough, leave to rise.
Knock back and put in bread tins. When risen, cook 30 to 40 minutes (20 minutes on High 200 degrees C, and 10 to 20 minutes on 180 degrees C.
Oil can be added, any kind of flour can be used.
Recipe for hop yeast bread – Sally Wise
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