Or…

Reader Jen offers a stellar idea for those who are intimidated by the prospect of growing their own starters from scratch: use packaged yeast to initiate your starter. Now why didn’t I think of that?

There are all sorts of ways to get starters, well, started. One of the most common is to introduce a little packaged yeast to a 50-50 (by weight) mixture of water and flour. You let it sit about three hours and boom, you’ve got a starter. It’s what’s known in baking circles as a “poolish” starter. Normally you use one of these right away, but in truth once one of these things is going you can just keep it and feed it like you would a home grown starter. It will work just as well.

Genius! Thank you, Jen.

If there’s one small drawback to this method is that it’s not as immediately flavorful as a regular slow-grow starter. That’s because it takes time for other flavor-creating microbes — local wild yeasts and strains of lactic acid bacteria — to move in and establish themselves. They’re the secret ingredients that give well-tended home starters their unique character. They will, in time, get established. Probably over a period of weeks if you use the starter a lot, months if you use it less. But in the short term your starter will have a little less flavor than it otherwise might.

Here I should take a moment to bust a myth. Home-grown starters are not, at least not primarily, cultures of wild yeast strains that live in your neighborhood. They’re cultures of wild yeast strains that live in Kansas. Or North Dakota, or wherever the wheat that went into your flour was grown. Wild yeast covers the outsides of wheat berries in the same way it covers the outsides of grapes you buy in the supermarket (that white film? Bingo.). And even though the outer husk of the berry (the bran) gets stripped off the wheat before it’s ground, plenty of Kansa yeast makes its way into the final grind before it’s bagged and shipped.

Which means that every time you feed your starter, you’re re-introducing millions, really billions, of Kansas yeast cells into your starter. That’s not a bad thing, however, since every starter — especially an old and well-used one — is a diverse neighborhood. With time the critters that live on your end of the block will find a way to cohabitate with their Great Plains relatives, giving your starter its own special character.

Reader Jen offers a stellar idea for those who are intimidated by the prospect of growing their own starters from scratch: use packaged yeast to initiate your starter. Now why didn’t I think of that? 

There are all sorts of ways to get starters, well, started. One of the most common is to introduce a little packaged yeast to a 50-50 (by weight) mixture of water and flour. You let it sit about three hours and boom, you’ve got a starter. It’s what’s known in baking circles as a “poolish” starter. Normally you use one of these right away, but in truth once one of these things is going you can just keep it and feed it like you would a home grown starter. It will work just as well. 

Oh, and to find a recipe for a poolish starter, just look in the menus to the left under bread: starters and preferments.

10 thoughts on “Or…”

  1. You can even use a beer to initiate your starter, don’t you. Not a pasteurized one, of course

    1. Never tried that, Guada! I guess I probably drank the beer first!

      But it would make an interesting experiment for sure.

      Cheers and thanks,

      Joe

  2. Thanks for the shout-out, Joe 🙂

    I was just about to add a link to your poolish recipe from way back when, so that people can easily refer to it (especially the very tiny amount of yeast). But I figured I should leave that to you in case the omission was deliberate!

    1. Yes, I got onto something else and forgot to do that. Ever the keen eye…thank you.

      (And I’ll respond to your email tomorrow!)

      – Joe

  3. Funny thing that I’ve read just the other days on a Romanian culinary blog about a similar technique: make a poolish, put it inside the fridge overnight, next morning use half of it for making bread, feed the remaining half with flour and water, put it back in the fridge and use it again next week, repeating the feeding and cold storing. The author suggested that the process can go on indefinitely, but as far as I know, commercial yeast will eventually die because the starter would become too acidic.

    Now, you suggest keeping and feeding like you would a home grown starter, meaning you keep it at room temp for at least a week until it gets strong and can be stored at fridge temp (at least this is what I assume you meant), which is a different thing entirely, because the (sourdough) starter would be “born” even without the use of commercial yeast. But what do you think about the theory I mentioned on the first paragraph? I never read about it before.

    1. Hey Florin!

      Once the starter has begun it should go on indefinitely. You wouldn’t want to keep it at room temperature for a week for sure. You’d need to feed it too often. The refrigerator is the best place for it if you’re not using it, as the cold temperature will slow down the yeast activity and keep it semi-dormant. When you’re ready to use it you just take it out, maybe the night before, and refresh it. But I’m sure you know all of this already.

      Regarding your other point, about the commercial yeast dying out, I’m skeptical. The culture should keep active as long as you keep feeding it. Over time it’s true that the commercial yeast will eventually be replaced by other wild yeasts (from the flour and from the environment), but it should be more of a transition than a sudden stop. But that would make an interesting experiment. I may just try it to see how it works!

      Thanks for the great comment, Florin!

      – Joe

    1. Everything’s great, Catherine, thanks for asking. I hope all’s well with you and yours!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  4. Joe! Such a joy to see you writing again (though due to rather dire circumstances)! I wish health and safety to you and your family, and lots of fun from baking and writing.

    Since those days when I browsed this site daily, I have had a kid and a rather challenging job so there is very little time for elaborate baking projects, but I return for some simple recipes here and there, and send links to people who ask advice on specific baking techniques or recipes.

    We have a social distancing orders here in Latvia, too, and I’ve been in self-isolation for almost two weeks after returning from vacation, so finally time to tackle some long forgotten recipes, including getting a bread starter! What I do is use wholemeal flour for starter, assuming that if it gets going from wild yeasts attached to outer parts of grain, then there is more of them in whole flour. Let’s see how it will turn out this time!

    1. Antuanete!

      How lovely to be in contact once again. Congratulations on the young one! And thank you for your well wishes. We’re all just fine and, like you, doing our best to remain occupied and content through this rather unusual period in history!

      The method you describe is common here too, and may be a little faster than the white flour version, since yeast are more abundant on the bran than they are in the endosperm. Definitely proceed! And let me know how things turn out!

      All the best to you and your family!

      – Joe

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