I recently took a beehive oven bread baking class at a nearby historical society which opened my eyes up to a whole new world of possibilites. I learned how to properly bake in my own beehive at home as well as various types of leaveners. The highlight of the class however, was when the instructor gave every participant a sample of barm yeast starter to take home!
Barm is the foamy yeasty by-product of beer that is skimmed off the top in the brewing process. When combined with a slurry of flour and water, it feeds and strengthens the yeast allowing it to flourish and grow into a living culture. So, what do you do with it? Bake bread of course! Throw away your dry yeast packets. Any recipe that calls for it, barm starter can be used instead. Although using a starter does require a little more work than ripping open a packet of dry yeast, the little effort required is well worth it!
Storing Your Starter
Storing your starter properly is an important part of maintaining a healthy active yeast culture. The general rule is that it should not be stored in or come into contact with stainless steel, aluminum, copper, etc. Because the culture can be slightly acidic, it can potentially have a reaction to the bowl or utensil, damaging it and creating an off taste. I don't know if this is necessarily true, so I avoid it just to be on the safe side. I keep my starter in a ceramic crock with a tight fitting lid to prevent any flies or bugs from getting in. Glass is also an option, and I only use wooden utensils when mixing it.
As far as where to store the starter, there are two options: the refrigerator or the counter. This is a matter of personal preference, and in my opinion it comes down to how often you will use it. If you bake bread or yeast doughs on a very regular basis, or are prone to doing it on a whim, leaving it on the counter will result in an active yeast that's more readily usable. It does however, require more frequent feeding. When left in the fridge, the yeast slows down and is less active, so it requires less frequent feedings. It does however require some forethought before using and pulling out several hours before baking until it's foamy and bubbly.
I personally leave mine on my counter, because I like to have it ready to use whenever I decide I want to bake on an impulse. I also like to be able to keep an eye on the activity and make sure I know it's active and healthy...what can I say, it's my baby!
Feeding Your Starter
In order to better understand the needs your starter has in terms of food, I think you need to know what's actually going on in that little crock. As I mentioned previously, yeast is a living organism that requires food. When a mixture of flour and water is added, the yeast feeds on the sugars, releases carbon dioxide in the process (bubbles that form on top) and is what allows the bread to rise.
Because bubbles are an indication that the yeast is actively "feeding", this is how I determine when to feed my starter. When sitting on the counter, the starter is at room temperature and is more actively feeding on the sugars and as a result, should be quite bubbly. More activity means it's consuming sugars faster, and needs to be fed more frequently. If it starts to lose that bubbly look, I know the available sugars are running low and it needs to be fed. Right now, my house is hovering around 60 degrees, and I am feeding it every other day. When left in the fridge, the yeast is more dormant, meaning it is slowly feeding. In these cooler conditions, usually a weekly feeding is sufficient to keep the yeast alive.
Finding the sweet spot of the ratio of water to flour when feeding the starter is something that I played around with a lot, and at some points I was scared I killed it. I would wake up, anxiously run out to the kitchen to check on my baby, and find it drowning in a quarter inch of water. There were times I was sure it was a goner. But, I assure you it's resilient! The basic rule I have found to work best for me, is to start with a 1 : 1 ratio of water to flour. Mix it up well in a bowl or cup breaking up as many clumps as possible. Then, add more flour and mix until it is the same consistency as the starter. Once your water and flour food slurry has achieved the same consistency, pour it into the crock mixing well with a wooden spoon. I initially tried the straight 1 : 1 ratio several times, and at first seemed okay, but once it sat out all day and night it was apparent it wasn't thick enough as water pooled on the top.
If you don't regularly bake, you should "pull" from your starter a couple times a week. This keeps the culture fresh, and also keeps it from growing out of control. Remove a portion of it and either throw it away or give it to a friend to start their own! Each time you pull from it, you should replace at least the same amount in feed. For example, if you scoop out a cup whether it be for a recipe or just for maintenance, add a cups worth of food back.
How To Bake With the Starter
As I mentioned above, the starter yeast can be used in place of dry active yeast. Whether it be pizza dough, bread, doughnuts, etc, this is your new best friend. When a recipe calls for a packet of yeast ( 2 1/4 teaspoons) I use a cup of yeast starter in its place. If you need your bread to rise quicker, add more! For any other amounts called for in a recipe, you can do a conversation based on this substitution. It's important to note that because you're adding a cup of wet yeasty material as opposed to a packet of dry yeast, it will make your dough much wetter. So, you can cut back on the liquid the recipe calls for a bit, and add the appropriate amount of flour until the desired consistency of dough is achieved. Baking bread is not a science. It is largely done based on eyeballing and knowing when the consistency is right based on how the dough feels.
You may notice how your bread can turn out differently depending on how "old" it is and the last time you fed it. If you haven't pulled from it in a while, the culture is older and stronger, and you may get a quicker rise as well as a stronger tasting bread. If you recently pulled from it and/or fed, the culture is "fresher" so you may get a little slower rise with a more mild tasting bread. The starter is a living thing that takes on a life of its own depending on its environment, so it truly is fascinating how it can affect the bread making process!
Important Tips I Learned:
Although it may seem overwhelming or confusing, I assure you that caring for a yeast starter is not difficult at all. It requires food like any other living thing, and the key is to feed it regularly the amount it needs to stay active and healthy. Simply keeping an eye on it and popping off the lid of your crock everyday will tell you what's going on. Bubbly and foamy is good, it's nice and active. If it isn't bubbly, then it likely ate all of the available sugars and needs to be fed. Some people may say it's too much work and why bother when they can buy a three pack of yeast for $1.29 at the store. Sure, that's easier, but like anything else that is homemade or homegrown you get a sense of pride in making homemade bread from your homegrown yeast culture. It's a pretty cool talking point too when people ask you what that crock full of bubbliness is sitting on your counter! There certainly is a learning curve in the care and baking with a starter, but I assure you it's well worth the effort!
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