Several readers have written in to ask this question, and it’s a good one. Now that home bakers are so widely using bread starters and preferments, why bother with the packaged stuff since it delivers inferior flavor even if the rise is faster? I can think of a few reasons.
Concentrated yeast cultures — brewer’s yeast or packaged yeast — work faster and so create lighter, fluffier breads. Bakers, especially those living in cities, have known this for centuries. These urban dwellers are people who’ve historically had access to brewery leftovers as well as more finely-milled flours. That’s why in general their breads tended to be more toothsome (at least when they weren’t full of sawdust and mice) if not the most flavorful.
Country breads on the other hand had a lot of flavor, though they tended to be both darker and denser. That’s because rural bakers have almost always had to make do with both coarser, less consistent flours and naturally-occurring yeasts (bread starters or old doughs), which work slower and don’t provide the fluff that bread eaters tend to like.
Home bread bakers have see-sawed between the two for about the past 40 years. For it was in the 1960’s that the American counter-culture began to embrace natural starters, largely for political reasons. Then, making one’s own bread was considered an act of defiance, a sort of suburban hippy kid equivalent of Mahatma Ghandi’s famous salt satyagraha, a demonstration of independence from prevailing powers and a show of solidarity with the common man.
Whatever the politics, culinarily speaking it was a very good idea, as it showed bread lovers all over the States just how much bread flavor and texture had been sacrificed in the name of speed and efficiency since World War II. People loved the novelty, at least for a while, since there’s only so much that can be achieved in bread using natural starters. Both bread bakers and bread lovers, at least the non-ideological sort, soon found they couldn’t live on 9-grain alone.
So in the 80’s and 90’s a new type of bread baker emerged, one who still had a dedication to great “artisan” bread, but who used a variety of tools and techniques — taken from both the city and the country — to produce the best possible loaf. This new wave of bakers (Peter Reinhart is a notable example) employed both natural starters and packaged yeasts, creating flavorful breads with every imaginable texture.
Today good bread bakeries commonly keep large quantities of different starters — white, wheat, rye and others — slowly bubbling in their walk-in refrigerators, along with bricks of fresh packaged yeast which they use to “spike” doughs in the mixing step to give them an aggressive rise. This way the baker gets a nice full flavor from a slow-fermenting starter as well as the lighter crumb that most people tend to like. And it all happens in just a couple of hours, saving the bakeries time (and by extension, money).
Certainly there are still a lot of great bakeries out there than spend days slowly building and raising their lovely country boules. I love those breads, but am just as happy with a lightning-risen baguette. I can’t imagine a world without either of them, because like all the rest of us who live in this day and age, I’m spoiled. I want anything everything that yeast — natural or packaged — can deliver.