“With a piece of bread in your hand, you’ll find paradise under a pine tree.” – Russian Proverb.
This is one of the oldest methods of pulling yeast from the air, and it has been used for centuries by our ancestors. You might not ever buy a store-bought yeast again. I’ll run you through the whole recipe and method, and I will give you just enough history. This process will take at least 12 hours or a full day, so you won’t be able to start it and bake bread an hour later. What you get as a reward for your patience is maybe some of the best bread you will ever eat in your life. It will have a better texture and a better flavor than regular bread. I’ll provide you with that recipe at the end of this blog.
You’ll need a potato, potato peeler, small saucepan with lid, 1.5 cups water, and one teaspoon sugar, one tablespoon flour, and a Mason Jar or similar jar with a lid.
Peel the potato, making sure to remove all the skin. I usually give it a quick rinse as well to remove any dirt or dust. The cleaner it is, the better. Cube the potato just like you might for a potato salad in about 1-inch rough pieces. Place them in the saucepan with water and boil. If your water is heavily chlorinated, you may want to purchase some spring water for this process. So much fermentation comes from the quality of your initial water, and yeast hates chlorine. Place them on the stove and let them boil for about 10 minutes. You want them to be easily mashable with just a fork and a little pressure.
Remove from the heat and mash in the water until you have no large chunks. It should resemble mashed potatoes in milky water when you’re done. Here my water boiled off. That’s not a problem. I add some more water and bring it to a boil again. Stir in the teaspoon of sugar while hot, and gently place the saucepan lid on top and set aside. You’ll need it to come completely to room temperature for the next step. Once it has cooled to room temperature in your saucepan or very near to room temperature, give it a swirl and pour it into your Mason jar. Let it cool completely to room temperature with a loose lid on the jar.
What you have created at this point is a semi-pasteurized slurry of starch and sugar that yeast love. This is often referred to as a liquid broth. You want to keep it covered and sealed at this point because both yeast and bacteria will love to move in and start eating up all those sugars and breaking down the starches further. We want to let the yeast have first dibs at the slurry, so we’re letting it come down to room temperature to create the most inviting environment.
Yeast works by eating the sugar and expelling C02 and alcohol. The trace amounts of alcohol cook away, but the C02 is trapped in the dough, imparting tiny air bubbles and providing the grain and light texture to the bread. This same yeast could be used to ferment beverages, and the potato method is used by old-world vodka distillers and some even today.
For making bread yeast, we are more interested in the C02 part of the yeast feast. The bubbling created by the yeast eating the sugars and enzymatically breaking down the edges of starch strings acts as a leavening agent and causes the bread to rise. Without it, you’ll have a dense and hard cracker.
A potato in a standard bread recipe provides more nutrients for the yeast to stay healthy. This will result in fluffy bread with excellent, light grain quality. Store-bought yeast is a couple of different strains that have been isolated because of the particular way they work with dough. Yeast does impart flavor, as well. So bread dough yeast provides a very narrow and specific flavor range. Yeast is a fungus, but don’t think of it as a mushroom. There are approximately 1500 single-cell organisms called yeast. The kind used in brewing and baking is from a group called saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is Latin for sugar-eating yeast.
In the United States, naturally occurring airborne yeasts were used almost exclusively until commercial yeast was marketed at the Centennial Exposition in 1876 in Philadelphia, where Charles L. Fleischmann exhibited the product and a process to use it as well as serving the resultant baked bread. You can imagine the smell of baking bread can sell anyone on about anything, and the faster use of a premade yeast made it highly adoptable and preferable to this longer method. But this widescale commercial adoption caused us to lose a little bit of flavor and a lot of independence.
The fact is that yeasts are one of the most common organisms in existence. If you want to make cider, simply smash the apples, as millions of yeast are on the apple’s skin when it is fresh from the tree. Yeast is wafting through the air. They’re on the surface of any fruit you pick, from apples to grapes to berries. All we are doing with this method is attracting the yeast that loves to eat sugar.
Here I have to mention that we are also attracting bacteria and other yeast, even sometimes harmful bacteria and harmful yeast like Candida, which can cause infections in humans. With any yeast, you want to create the perfect environment to let your yeast thrive before other yeast or bacteria can move in and compete for the sugar resources. All of the yeast is probably killed off in the cooking process as it begins to die at 140 degrees. However, it only takes a little exposure to the room temperature bread for yeast to settle on the bread and start eating the sugars again. This is why too old of bread will mold from the outside to the inside. You could simply dissolve a piece of homemade bread in water, and you have created a slurry for new yeast to grow.
That’s a lot of science and history to absorb, so let’s return to the wild yeast we are cultivating from the air with a potato. Once it has reached room temperature in the Mason jar, you should see significant separation. The potato is at the bottom, and the milky water is on the top. You will get a slight boiled potato smell from it. If it has a sourdough smell to it, that’s okay. It just means that lactic acid bacteria are in your mix as well. This is what gives sourdough its flavor. Your finished bread will have a sourdough flavor as a result.
At this point, set the jar with the lid off next to an open window or outside in a shaded area with a light breeze for ten minutes. Repeat this open-air exposure 2 or 3 times over 6 hours. Replace the lid loosely each time and return it to your cool spot in the kitchen.
After one day, you should see bubbling at the top of your liquid. It should have a bready, yeasty, or sourdough smell starting to develop. It’s okay if you can’t detect that scent yet. If you don’t have either the bubbling or the bready smell developing, repeat the open-air process for another 10 minutes. If you have any colored mold of any kind, throw it out and start over. Some say to just clear this off and let the yeast growth continue, but I don’t trust molds, so it’s best to start over. The yeast, however, tends to be faster to grow than mold. Once you see bubbling occurring around the surface of the liquid, add the tablespoon of flour. Don’t use any metal utensils at this point so as not to inhibit or dull yeast growth. I just place the tablespoon of flour on top, tighten the lid and shake it until mixed. Each time you place the potato starter in your quiet, cool place in your kitchen, make sure that the cap is loose, and the C02 gasses can escape.
The addition of the flour encourages yeast growth specific to the consumption of the sugars derived from the starches in the flour. So, again, you’re creating an environment that is best suited to saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast. Technically, you could use the potato starter as soon as you see the bubbling, but you will have better results if you let the yeast grow and reproduce. It will work faster when you innoculate your dough with millions or billions of yeast than it will if you do it with a hundred thousand yeast cells.
When you have significant bubbling occurring, or you can see globules floating to the surface on the C02 and dropping back down when the gasses are released on the surface, you’re ready to bake bread. This is what I wait for. Congratulations. You have successfully pulled yeast out of the air and created a colony of millions of single-cell organisms. If you aren’t ready to bake bread, you can treat this as a starter and add another tablespoon of flour. It will keep on your counter for about a day with no problem and a few days if you put it in your refrigerator. Because you are using wild yeast, however, you want to use it when the specific yeast we want is most active, and that’s right now. If you wait too long, you run the risk of the yeast living its full lifecycle and dying off and other bacterias taking hold. That can impart off or sour flavors and result in little to no rising of your dough. Here is the best bread recipe you will ever bake.
My Bread Recipe
To use a potato yeast starter, you simply need to pour off the starchy water at the top and use it in place of the water in any bread recipe. I like to use the whole starter, though, as I think the potato lends a smooth and fluffy texture to the bread. When you do this, though, you have to have a good understanding of bread dough. Make sure it isn’t too sticky and not too dense. You can adjust this by adding and working in 1 tablespoon of flour if it is too sticky. Then, repeat with one tablespoon of flour until your dough isn’t too sticky or too wet.
This will make two delicious loaves– One for you and one for a friend. Add two tablespoons of sugar to 6 1/2 cups of bread flour. Add two teaspoons salt. Next, add one and ½ cups potato water to the dry ingredients. To this, you will add ½ cup milk, as well. Then, add four tablespoons of butter. I measure this out by simply eyeballing it. A little extra butter won’t hurt your mix.
Mix the dough until all the ingredients are combined. Knead in the bowl until a stiff dough is formed. Remember, if it is too sticky, just add and work in flour 1 tablespoon at a time until you have a firm dough that isn’t visibly wet on the surface. Conversely, if your dough is much too dry and won’t come together nicely for you, just add in a tablespoon of water or milk at a time until you get a nice dough ball that feels moist but isn’t sticky or dry.
Knead until smooth and elastic. This will take about 5-8 minutes. Place in a greased bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel, and allow it to rise in a warm area of your kitchen– but not in direct sunlight. Your dough should double in size.
When it has, turn it onto a lightly floured surface and punch it down. Pinch and shape into two equal loaves and place in butter greased loaf pans. Cover and allow them to rise again until they double in size. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. When the loaves have doubled in their pans, place in the preheated oven and bake for 35-40 minutes.
After 35 to 40 minutes, when the tops are a lovely golden, remove your loaves from the oven. When they are baked completely, I like to turn them onto a wire rack and brush the top with some melted butter. If you can’t wait and cut them while hot, be sure to set the loaf on your cutting board with the cut side down so the moisture won’t escape.
Enjoy! That’s all there is to it. If you know how to bake bread and pull yeast out of the air with a potato, any disaster can befall you, and you will have the basic ability to make bread. There are countless variations to both the potato yeast starter and the basic bread recipe. I would love to hear how your loaves turn out and if you have any additions or alterations to the recipe, like using honey instead of sugar, leave them in the comments below. Keep building your skills…