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  • Writer's pictureMcKenna

Commercial vs Wild Yeasts

A critical ingredient in any baker’s cabinet.

I consider yeast the miracle worker that brings life to bread, pastries, and really, most baked goods. I remember when I first started to learn about yeast. I was devouring season after season of The Great British Baking Show (I’m sure I’m not alone in this) and was determined to recreate some of the recipes from bread week - it was always my favorite. Reading through the recipes, I began to learn the stages of bread-baking and noticed that yeast was always required.

I hadn’t thought much of the ingredient because I knew that if I wanted my bread to rise, I needed yeast… but then, I began to question this mysterious powder. While I love baking, I’ve always approached it with the desire to create something as nourishing and natural as possible and my instinct told me there was something funky about yeast.

First, I always found it in a flimsy package on the shelf next to syrups, gums, and other man-made mystery items. Frankly, I had no idea where it even lived in the grocery store. After aimlessly wandering, I eventually found it on the shelf and took a long, hard stare at it. I wondered, what even is yeast... Yes. I had no idea how to describe this thing. I hated that I didn’t know the answer, nor did I know if there was another alternative, so I did some digging…

What is yeast?

Essentially, yeast is an organism. More specifically, a fungus. A tiny, little, fungus that wants to live, like you and me, and make really good food too. It survives off of sugar, water, and air, releasing CO2 and alcohol as a byproduct - the CO2 is what creates a beautifully risen loaf.

Commercial vs Wild Yeast:

There are many types of yeast but I like to break it down into commercial vs wild. Commercial yeasts are manufactured and can be purchased in three forms: instant, active dry, and fresh. They are not considered “alive” so they can be stored for long periods of time without any fuss.

Wild yeasts, on the other hand, are cultivated over time using just flour and water. It is very much a living creature, and in order to keep anything alive, you must feed it regularly. If it’s not fed, or properly stored in a dormant stage, it will die.

What are the differences in commercial yeasts?

Active, instant, and fresh yeasts have slightly different characteristics that make them more suitable in certain situations.

Active Dry: Texture similar to that of cornmeal, active dry yeast is a dehydrated powder that is most commonly used to leaven bread. The process of creating it involves mixing wild yeasts with molasses and starch, followed by sterilization that is later dried and milled. Essentially, the fermentation of the yeasts are slowed down and eventually paused. The yeasts then get re-activated when it meets room-temp liquid + sugar. These ingredients help the yeasts “bloom” or in other words, become active - an important step specific to active dry yeast.

A key characteristic of dry yeast is that it must be mixed with water (to bloom) before joining the rest of the ingredients. This requires two separate rises, taking a bit longer.

Instant: Another type of dry yeast but created to work even faster. Using the same processing techniques as active dry yeast, it’s milled into a finer consistency, dissolving much faster. Because of this, it doesn’t require blooming beforehand and can be added to the remaining ingredients directly.

Rapid-Rise or Quick-Rise Yeast: Instant yeast is sometimes advertised as this. These varieties contain additives, and other enzymes, which allow the dough to rise faster than the others. Because of these additions, you can skip the first rise and begin shaping quickly after kneading.

Fresh Yeast: Found in the refrigerated section of a store, fresh yeast is not dehydrated and modified into a fine grain. Instead, it comes in the shape of a block, and in my opinion, looks an awful lot like tofu.

A Deeper Dive into Wild Yeast:

As I’ve mentioned, wild yeasts are very much active and alive, when they’re consistently fed. It differs from commercial yeasts in many ways but they both have the same goal of leavening bread, translation: making it rise.

These yeasts are often referred to as a sourdough starter and are what you’ll find in a traditional loaf of sourdough bread. I say traditional as some bread bakers will add commercial yeasts to their loaves to speed up the rising processes. In my humble opinion, this is not authentic sourdough. If you’re concerned about this, you can always ask the baker themselves, or look at the label if there is one.

A sourdough starter is quite miraculous if you asked me. For starters, you can make it in your home, probably right now if you wanted to… all it requires is flour, water, air, and a little time. That’s pretty cool. Wild yeasts are distinctively different from that of commercial yeasts as they are a mixture of both yeast and bacteria.

When you combine equal amounts of flour and water and then let them sit (aka ferment), you’ll begin to create a unique colony of wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria from both the flour and microorganisms floating around in your home. This is one of the reasons why I nerd out over wild yeasts! No two starters are the same. Even if you were to use the same flour and the same ratios of flour, they’ll be different. Let me explain, if you touch the flour, the jar, water, etc., your personal bacteria (we're essentially made of it) will colonize with the starter… And the bacteria found in the air you breathe? Yeah, it’s there too. Your personal starter is unique to you and if you happen to take it across the world like I did, it’ll change as it mixes with the bacteria from your new environment. It’s WILD - get it?

If you were to make a starter, you’d see that it looks a lot like bubbly goup. And in its infancy, smells pretty awful. It’s kinda like a baby… and I’m not referring to the smell, although yes, they don’t always smell great. In order to keep a baby alive, you have to feed it regularly. Love it too, of course. It’ll require attention and as you learn about the conditions it likes (temp, food, water, etc.) you’ll be able to see when it needs to be fed and when it should be left alone. With a little food and a lot of love, it’ll mature into a steadily growing creature that with the right ingredients, will produce some pretty delicious food - and before I get any questions, the baby analogy no longer applies, guys.

As with most natural processes, they take a long time. Making bread from wild yeasts is no exception. It can take an entire 24 hours to prepare a single loaf of sourdough - sometimes longer if you’d like. Time, and patience, are key when letting the ingredients ferment but with that, they provide a rich, complex, flavor that is often preferred over store-bought yeasts.

Wild yeasts, and therefore sourdough, also differ incredibly on the nutrition front. The extended fermentation time reduces things like phytic acid and lectins which can limit our body's ability to absorb critical nutrients. The fermentation process aids our body in absorbing more of the nutrients provided by high-quality, organic grains.

If you’d like to learn more about the health benefits of fermented bread or how grains affect our digestive health, check out the four-part “Getting Grounded with Grains” series I wrote with my dear friend and mentor, Holistic Nutritionist Meg De Jong. Part three, in particular, takes a deep dive into how these microorganisms affect our gut, you might be blown away by it...

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