Help, I’m out of yeast!

Anyone who knows me know that I bake––in case the posts about ancient bread and slew of baked goods on Instagram didn’t give me a way. The recent pandemic has inspired many people, and quite possibly everyone, to start baking, creating a shock to the flour supply chain and sold many stores entirely out of yeast. I have primarily baked using a sourdough starter for a few years now, but since I have had several conversations with people in the past two days, I thought I would collect that advice here.

Commercially-available yeast, at least in the United States, is most common either as active-dry or instant yeast (active dry technically needs proofing to activate the yeast, instant has more living cultures straight from the packet), in a shelf-stable dry version developed by Fleischmann’s during World War Two. Both types are baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) harvested from a strain first isolated in the 19th century by Louis Pasteur and protected from other yeasts and bacteria like lactobacillus that occur naturally in the environment in order to produce a regular, reliable product.

The creation of commercial yeast makes baking easy, but people have been baking without it for thousands of years, so there are plenty of options for anyone who wants to keep baking. Here are four tried and true replacements for commercial yeast:

1. Make unleavened flatbreads. Passover might have just passed, but you can make matzah anytime, and the best soft varieties are just an an unleavened flatbread. Similarly, you could go with Indian Roti or flour tortillas pretty easily.

2. Make soda bread. Yesterday I declared beer bread a waste of good beer, but every once in a while it goes very well with some honey or maple butter, and there is a whole world of soda breads that you can try. These breads using baking powder and/or baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) as its leavening agent. Too much of the leavening agent can leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth and most simply aren’t to my taste, but they are an easy workaround if you don’t have yeast. Try this one for a cheddar cheese enriched soda bread from King Arthur Flour.

3. Harvest yeast from raisins. Seriously. A few years back I came across a story about a baker in France recreating the bread distributed to French soldiers during World War One. His scratch yeast came from raisins, which makes sense given both ancient precedent (Pliny the Elder mentions creating levain from millet kneaded with grape must, NH 18.26) and that the original baker’s yeast was identified on the skin of grapes. This technique is easily recreated at home; I promise that your bread will not taste like raisins unless you actually add raisins to the dough, at which point you are on your own.

4. Just make a sourdough starter. As Instagram culture and social media in general fuels all manner of anxieties surrounding people’s body and lifestyles, so too does it drive attitudes around sourdough. There are hundreds of videos about making the rustic Tartine country loaf. I know, I’ve watched them, and I still regularly fail to create the perfect loaf. My oven sucks, I don’t have the ideal dutch oven, I am notoriously ambivalent to precisely-weighing my ingredients* and yet my sourdough starters (I actually have two) still make spectacular breads without a hint of commercial yeast. My easy go-to bread is a simple sandwich loaf enriched with just a little bit of sugar and milk.

*This only holds true for breads; cookies and cakes require much more precision.

In short, the idea that you have to be “ready” for a sourdough starter is a myth, and with a little bit of care to adjust for different ratio of flour to water you can make any recipe. I’ve been known to tag Instagram posts with #sourdougheverything.

(To do this, prime the starter with water and flour to get it going ahead of time, and then add this to the recipe, adding extra flour a little at a time to reach the right dough consistency. The amount of flour will vary based on a number of factors, including how wet your starter is, how much of it you use, and the type of flour you’re using. You will need to allow more time, up to 1.5 or 2x, depending on the temperature and the starter’s activity, over what the recipe calls for with commercial yeast.)

Much as with harvesting yeast from the skin of grapes, natural leavening has been around for millenia, cultivating strains of yeast from the environment and the flour itself. The process is actually very easy––all you need is time. There are numerous guides available online and if you’re worried about harmful bacteria, use one with citrus which inhibits the growth of those strains until the good stuff can take over (grapefruit juice is the most common; I used lime).

Once the starter gets going, it is actually quite easy to maintain. I have been using two sets of the same strain cultivated in my kitchen for year, sometimes going as long as a few weeks between feedings. I keep my starters in Tupperware in the fridge taking out a small portion and building it up in preparation for each bake. When the base gets low, usually about once a week at my rate, I refresh it using a 1 cup of water and roughly 1.5 cups of flour and letting it feed for a few hours until it becomes fluffy and doubles or so in volume before it goes back into the fridge. Here are more detailed instructions.

I might be a sourdough heretic in some respects, and my instructions do not bring the starter quite to its most active the way that the instructions that call for three or four feedings in the day or so right before baking, but it is an easy way to manage a starter without discarding any of it.

Happy baking!

Archestratus’ Gastronomy

Perhaps the most famous food writer in antitquity was the fourth-century Sicilian Archestratus, who wrote a verse poem about food that sources variously call Gastronomy (Γαστρονομία), Luxury (Ἡδυπαθεία), Deipnology (Δειπνολογία) or Cookery (῾Ὀψοποιία, Athenaeus 1.7). Although it is frequently Gastronomy in modern descriptions the title Hedupatheia, is attested earlier. In general, Archestratus was a proponent of fresh food cooked when it is at its best. Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae preserves the only extant fragments of this poem. The two below (from Athenaeus 3.77, OS Fr. 5 and 6) are the rare fragments about bread.

Fragment 5

First, Moschus my friend, I will recall the gifts of fair-haired Demeter
and take these into your heart.
Take these the best and greatest of all:
[The flour] of fruitful barley sifted clean grown entirely
From famed Eresus on the sea-girt knoll Lesbos,
lighter than ethereal snow. Indeed if the gods eat
barley groats, this is where Hermes buys it for them from the market.
And suitable is [bread] in seven-gated Thebes,
And in Thasos and in many other poleis, but olive pits
These would seem, you can clearly judge [in comparison].
Seek [σοι ὑπαρχέτω] the rounded Thessalian roll [κόλλιξ]
Kneaded by the fair hand of a woman, the one they call
Krimnites [possibly barley], but others call the Chondrinos loaf.
Then, from Tegea, I commend the son of the finest wheat flour
Baked in the Fire [the ἐγκρυφίας]. But famed Athens sends
to market the best made loaves for men.
And in grape-bearing Erythrae from an earthen cook vessel,
comes a loaf, bright and risen, that brings cheer at mealtime.

πρῶτα μὲν οὖν δώρων μεμνήσομαι ἠυκόμοιο
Δήμετρος, φίλε Μόσχε, σὺ δ᾽ ἐν φρεσὶ βάλλεο σῇσιν.
ἔστι γὰρ οὖν τὰ κράτιστα λαβεὶν βέλτιστά τε πάντα,
εὐκάρπου κριθῆς καθαρῶς ἠσσημένα πάντα,
ἐν Λέσβῳ κλεινῇς Ἐρέσου περικύμονι μαστῷ,
λευκότερ᾽ αἰθερίας χιόνος. θεοὶ εἴπερ ἔδουσιν
ἄλφιτ᾽, ἐκεῖθεν ἰὼν Ἑρμῆς αὐτοῖς ἀγοράζει.
ἐστὶ δὲ κἀν Θήβαις ταῖς ἑπταπύλοις ἐπιεικῆ
κἀν Θάσῳ ἔν τ᾽ ἄλλαις πόλεσίν τισιν, ἀλλὰ γίγαρτα
φαίνονται πρὸς ἐκεῖνα, σαφεῖ τάδ᾽ ἐπίστασο δόξῃ.
στογγυλοδίνητος δὲ τετριμμένος εὖ κατὰ χεῖρα
κόλλιξ Θεσσαλικός σοι ὑπαρχέτω, ὅν καλέουσι
κεῖνοι κριμνίταν, οἱ δ᾽ ἄλλοι χόνδρινον ἄρτον.
εἶτα τὸν ἐκ Τεγέας σεμιδάλεος υἱὸν ἐπαινῶ
ἐγκρυφίαν. τὸν δ᾽ εἰς ἀγορὰν ποιεύμενον ἄρτον
αἱ κλειναὶ παρέχουσι βροτοῖς κάλλιστον Ἀθῆναι.
ἐν δὲ φερεσταφύλοις Ἐρυθραῖς ἐκ κλιβάνου ἐλθὼν
λευκὸς ἁβραῖς θάλλων ὥραις τέρψει παρὰ δεῖπνον.

Fragment 6

Have in your home a Phoenician or Lydian man
Who has knowledge of grain and every day
Develops all sorts of forms at your orders.

ἔστω δή σοι ἀνὴρ Φοῖνιξ ἢ Λυδὸς ἐν οἴκῳ,
ὅστις ἐπιστήμων ἔσται σίτοιο κατ᾽ ἧμαρ
παντοίας ἰδέας τεύχειν, ὡς ἂν σὺ κελεύῃς.

Additional bibliography on Archestratus:

  • Dalby, A., “Archestratos: where and when?” in Food in Antiquity, ed. J. Wilkins, D. Harvey, and M. Dobson (Exeter University Press: 1995), 400–12.
  • Olson, S.D. and A. Sens, Archestratos of Gela: Greek culture and cuisine in the fourth century BCE (Oxford University Press: 2000).

Sourdough or, Lois and Her Adventures in the Underground Market

“In every wheel of cheese, there’s revolution, alliance, betrayal…Can you feel it?”

I told him the truth: I could not.

“Nope. You’re honest, I appreciate that. Of course you can’t. I couldn’t, not at first. We’re blind to it. But this is their world, not ours, and their stories are greater.”

Her job working in robotics at a company called General Dexterity in the Bay Area crushes Lois. It pays well by most standards, though less so by San Fransisco standards, but the preternaturally motivated and motivating CEO pushes his employees to finish projects related to the development of robotic arms and the cheerily obsessive corporate culture encourages them to forgo everything but work. Many people sleep in the office. One group, including Lois, takes to the latest fad diet, a grey nutritional paste called Slurry. She nearly burns out.

Then she discovers a small restaurant that delivers her two rejuvenating foods: a spicy soup and sourdough bread to sop it up with. Only two men work at the restaurant where this food is produced, the brothers Beoreg and Chaiman. The brothers are Mazg, a hidden European ethnic group with a proud culinary history (part Jewish, part Roma in structure), and when they are forced to leave San Francisco they deliver a gift to their “Number one eater”: a portion of their sourdough starter, instructions for care, and a promise to write.

Lois earned her title for a reason, ordering the same food multiple times a week. She doesn’t cook, let alone bake, but feels an obligation to the Beoreg who she has spoken to on the phone so many times, so she makes a loaf of bread. It emerges from the oven warm and delicious and with a misshapen face on its crust. So she makes more, selling some and trying out for a spot at one of the area Farmer’s Market. Before long bread-baking takes over her life and Lois finds herself ready to quit General Dexterity and try to make a living making bread, with a trusty robotic arm to help stir the dough. But like Alice entering into wonderland, Lois’ adventures have just begun.

Sourdough is a comic novel that treats three serious issues bluntly but each with a light narrative touch. Two of these appear in recurring scenes.

In the one, Lois attends the “Lois Club”, founded by her grandmother, where every Lois has a distinguishing adjective. Lois is wounded to find out that she is “boring” Lois. Bread baking changes this, giving her a distinguishing characteristic, posing the question which is more fitting: “bread” Lois or “interesting” Lois.

In the other, Lois falls in love with her Beo, the chef who won her heart through her stomach.

The third topic is tension between tradition and innovation. This is the most well-developed theme, a function of its development through the main narrative arc, both in the San Fransisco food scene and the General Dexterity corporate goals.

Sloan talks about bread and food bacteria with loving care and more than one scene features characters waxing poetic about microbiology. Moreover, he makes it clear that while Lois has potential she still knows very little about baking, and the reader is introduced to the topic through her eager and inexperienced eyes.

Despite these virtues and legitimately funny episodes, though, his treatment of Lois’ sourdough starter left me cold. This is not an ordinary starter, but a magical one that requires almost no effort to produce the most wonderful bread provided only that the baker feeds and serenades it. The peculiar traits of this starter are fundamental to the plot, meaning that it transcends a simple sense of wonder at this thing that Lois wrought (and that she did not actually work for). Instead, it provokes envy in other bakers whose own starters do not measure up, ironically undermining the otherwise loving portrait of baking bread.

Overall, I appreciated the sentiment that baking bread makes a person inherently interesting as someone who bakes bread and I understand both the catharsis and the mania that comes with baking bread. Sourdough was not among my favorite reads of the year, but it is a light, clever novel that filled a different niche than my usual fare.

ΔΔΔ

I am currently making my way through American Prometheus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I am riveted so far, though I somewhat mistrust its tendency to psychoanalyze Oppenheimer as a young man.

The Bagel, Maria Balinska

Sometimes when Amazon reviewers give low marks to a book the comments indicate that a book is not good. Sometimes the comments reveal that the Person Angry on the Internet didn’t actually read the same book that the author wrote. Sometimes the reader understood the book but is just angry that it isn’t the book he or she wanted. The last scenario is true of Maria Balinska’s The Bagel, which the reviewer lamented was principally a history of Jewish labor history, rather than a history of the eating of bagels. This is a valid observation, though Balinska does her best to lay out what evidence there is for how bagels were consumed, too.

Balinska starts with an overview of what she considers to be related breads from China to Italy, all wheat breads (distinct from rye, barley, oat, etc) made into dense loaves that go stale quickly, are usually eaten by dipping in tea or other hot liquids, and are baked into rings. One of the closest relatives to the bagel is the pretzel, with the three holes taking on religious significance. Balinska traces the bagel from medieval Poland, where it diverged emerged from a Polish wheat ring bread owarzanek, a luxury in a region that mostly produced rye flour, but one that was a Sunday food because it was associated with purity. The bagel separated from the Christian version by being boiled when the Polish monarchy issued restrictions against Jewish bakers making owarzanek.

The story crosses the Atlantic in the 1880s with the waves of Jewish immigrants and is wrapped around the labor politics, food safety standards, and anti-immigrant sentiments in the subsequent decades. Despite the complaint lodged in the Amazon review, this was the most interesting and strongest part of the book and one that I want to use should I ever find myself teaching the second half of US history. The stories about the conditions in these bakeries make me thankful for food safety standards, and the labor upheavals mirror the more well-known industries. The 1905 Supreme Court Case Lochner v New York, which ruled that the government could not limit the hours people worked, was brought by a bakery. At the NY bagel baker’s union’s height, Balinska argues that it was the shape and density of the dough, which defied mechanization, that gave the union power.

Balinska concludes the story by recounting how mechanization and big business in the form of Lender’s Bagels led to the Jewish bread conquering the United States. Frozen bagels made them last longer (fresh bagels earlier had a tendency to go stale in a matter of hours) and they became a readily available convenience food for homes and hotels alike.

The Bagel is an engaging read, though Balinska’s specific narrative is how special Jewish food in Poland became ubiquitous in America gives short shrift to the story of bagels in Montreal and tends to be somewhat reductive in order to trace this narrative. For instance, the existence of Bagel traditions in Florida, Buffalo, and those in New York run by organized crime are only accounted for in terms of the challenge they presented to the proliferation of New York style bagels. Being more comprehensive is impossible in a book so short, but what does appear hints at a larger, richer, and more complex story out there. The Bagel was published in 2008 and I was left wondering if, like other consumable products, there is an addendum to the big business, moderate quality climax–one where there has emerged a decentralized, artisanal bagel movement.

On Baking: I have a bowl

My current apartment has 480 square inches of counter space, twenty four by twenty inches, most of which is covered a utensil basket, drying rack, and coffee grinder. To give a bit of perspective, the sink, including edges, is 552 square inches. This arrangement is problematic for cooking, but even more so for baking, which usually requires prolonged kneading.

I have a bowl. This bowl holds eight or more quarts, though, to be honest, I do not really know how large it is. The exact size isn’t actually important. It is large and fits comfortably in my lap when I sit on the floor. As a result, I have compensated for my lack of counter space with this bowl. Almost everything I make I knead in this bowl, seated on my living room floor with my iPad playing something or another on Netflix; kneading, particularly with limited motion, usually takes about an episode of a half-hour show like “Attack on Titan” or “Parks and Rec” (recent go-tos). From there I sit and I knead. From time to time I add flour from the bag at my side and after a while I cut off a slice to see if it passes the window-pane test by stretching until it forms a complete, translucent membrane. If the dough tears I adjust the water or flour levels and continue kneading.

Netflix works well for kneading because I don’t look at the dough. Almost exclusively, I knead toward a texture and a stickiness until the point of giving the dough the window-pane test. In the meantime, bread dough serves as an oversized stress ball with the promise of something delicious to come.

Another virtue of baking is that it requires patience. Bread is one of those things that cannot be rushed. It is possible to bake the bread before it has fully risen, but that cuts only a little time off the total process. The rest of the time is spent waiting. I’m not a particularly patient person, but the rewards of baking are worthwhile. It is cliche to say that the world moves too quickly and reminders to slow down are necessary parts of life, but it is nonetheless true. Baking plays this role for me and the periods when the dough rises work well for various chores and for reading (though not work), while kneading causes a practically meditative state.

Four things I like about baking, from most to least important:

  1. Eating. Everything I bake I can eat and I do love to eat good bread products, including bagels, pizza, brioche, challah, stuffed crescent rolls, cinnamon rolls (to name a few). Without question, this is the top reason to bake bread.
  2. Sharing. One of my favorite things to do when I bake is to make about twice as much as I am going to eat myself, and then to give the rest away to other people who like to eat.
  3. Making. It is deeply rewarding to make something, from start to finish and get to see the final product.
  4. The whole stress-ball thing. Seriously, it is relaxing to knead dough.

Assorted links

  1. How the aroma of freshly baked bread makes us kinder to strangers– A story in the telegraph about a study demonstrating that fresh baked bread (as well as other pleasant smells) make people kinder to strangers. I know (from experience) that at least one person gets hostile at the smell, though.
  2. Barack Obama and the paradox behind his African-American support base– a story in the Guardian about Obama’s record for the African-American community. It touches upon the issue of whether equality means getting someone elected to office as the final point on the checklist or whether it means changing hearts and minds. It suggests that for many people the former holds true, while the latter has actually taken a step back under Obama’s presidency.
  3. Should Science Majors Pay Less for College Than Arts Majors– An essay in the Atlantic that discusses some of the pitfalls of the proposed Florida legislation that would make liberal arts degrees more expensive than STEM degrees. The article also pointed out that one of the motivators of this may be that Florida lags behind national averages in terms of those degrees.
  4. Driver who drove on pavement to avoid a schoolbus told to wear an “idiot” sign– A woman in Cleveland was filmed by a bus driver driving onto the sidewalk to avoid stopping for the bus unloading children. She is thought to have done this regularly. In addition to a suspended licence, the woman has been told to stand at an intersection with a sign reading “only an idiot drives on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus.”
  5. Ancient Fears: The Return of the Flood Saga– An essay in the New Yorker talking about some of the discussion in the wake of hurricane Sandy as paralleling much of the language in the ancient flood sagas.