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Stalking the Wild Yeast

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Stalking the Wild Yeast

Dennison | Jun 21, 2004 12:02 PM

Haven’t posted in ages, but the recent thread on wild yeast has roused me temporarily from my slumber. I’ve been working with wild yeasts for a few months now in various forms, among them sourdough breads, honey wine, and lactofermented chutneys and sauerkraut. Here are some observations:

Wild yeast and the fermentation process are tremendously misunderstood and feared elements in our kitchens today, mostly because our prevailing culture prizes conformity of taste and consistently of performance above all else. We are taught to fear nature, unless we can control it absolutely and make it do our bidding to enable production on our dictated schedule. Fermenting anything yourself relying on wild cultures is madness, we are taught, better to follow the accepted rules of sanitation and buy laboratory-bred yeast that produces ensured results. We need to remember though that it’s been less than a hundred years since we’ve been trained in this new mindset. Every indigenous tribal culture has always worked with fermented products in ways that reflect a partnership approach with nature. The wise have always known of the benefit of “live” foods and many traditional food combinations throughout the world reflect the benefits to digestion of fermented products – this is why we still eat sauerkraut with sausages, relish with hot dogs, pickles with hamburgers, and rye (traditionally sourdough) bread with pastrami and corned beef. Kimchi, natto and miso are the Asian equivalents. Even the Catholic Church administered a bit of yeast (wine) plus some fresh flour and water (wafer) to the faithful on a weekly basis, an interesting coincidence, perhaps?

Most people today no longer realize that certain foods were served for a specific reason, and our culture fosters the belief that taste is king and anything “good for you” is stamped with the kiss of death, as “health food”. One example is the modern practice of serving canned pineapple at the end of Chinese meals these days – which is a travesty. The original intent was to provide the bromelain enzyme to aid in digestion of proteins. Canned pineapple, however, is superheated to kill bacteria, so is absolutely no use to digestion – in fact, since it’s packed in syrup, it actually inhibits proper digestion. No worries though, since there are plenty of over-the-counter pharmaceuticals to address the resulting stomachache.

Every culture has legends about how the gods gifted mankind with the yeast to make wine and bread. Every local region had their specialty, brewed, bubbled or baked with their local wild yeast cultures. Travelers who enjoyed the local bread may have asked the baker for some of the sourdough starter to take home. After a few months of use back home, the local yeasts gradually contributed to the starter and it adopted local characteristics. This was not considered a problem at all, in fact, such sharing contributes to diversity in flavors and forms the basis for true culture. With industrialized food, however, came the desire for every batch of bread to taste the same no matter which branch factory baked it. In addition, profit motives required the shortest, most consistent rise time possible. Standardized yeast was the result. Results were guaranteed – in a few short hours your loaf of bread was oven-ready and it would be perfectly tasteless unless additives aplenty were used.

Well, my last few months of experimentation have confirmed that wild yeasts can be used to create deliciously complex and entirely safe food that contributes to good health. Working with them is a partnership that requires adjustments as you go – recipes often cannot be followed precisely since all local cultures will behave differently. This is true cooking, IMHO, that requires understanding of your ingredients and modifications on the fly rather than simple mechanical recipe-following by rote. Trust in nature and trust in your own ability to partner with it to produce nourishing food that isn’t prepackaged.

Vital resources include “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Katz, “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon, and many of the bread baking books already mentioned in the other thread. Another I like a lot is Dan Leader’s “Bread Alone”.

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