Capturing Wild Yeast

Make your own sourdough bread from scratch and give it your home’s own unique flavor by cultivating wild yeast for the starter.

by Melissa Griffiths
PHOTO: Melissa Griffiths

Sourdough and its magical starters have a bit of a mysterious and hard to reach stigma. Most people think of sourdough as something that you have to get a master’s degree in to be able to manage. I’m here to tell you this just isn’t true. You don’t need to buy any special kits, you don’t have to travel to San Francisco, and you sure don’t have to work very hard at it. With a little time, flour and water, you’ll be on your way to fresh sourdough bread whenever the craving hits. The secret is found in capturing the wild yeast that is already in your home.

What Is Wild Yeast?

Wild yeast is an organism in the fungus family that is found just about everywhere. Yeast is on your counters, in your body, and in your bag of flour. When it’s captured—in our case, in a sourdough starter—it can be used to make bread. Wild yeast is the oldest leavening agent known to man.

Why Use Wild Yeast At Home?

Commercial yeast is easy to use, easy to find at the store and very reliable, while wild yeast can be picky and requires certain conditions to thrive. Why even bother trying your hand at catching wild yeast then? Because it’s a fun experiment and the results are ever so tasty. Your sourdough starter will be unique to your home, your area and you. Sourdough breads have deep, rich, unique flavors and the texture is perfectly chewy. Some people even feel sourdoughs are healthier because the wheat and grains used in making the loaf have been “predigested” by the yeast, making them easier for our guts to digest.

How Do You Use Wild Yeast In Baking?

A sourdough starter is how you cultivate wild yeast for baking. To make a sourdough starter, you mix equal parts water and flour together. Because yeast is everywhere, you simple need to mix the water and flour and let it sit. The yeast that already exists in the flour will start to flourish. If you’d like to try to catch yeast that is unique to your home, you can place a few layers of cheesecloth over your jar and let the yeast find the starter.

The type of flour you use doesn’t matter much. You can use all-purpose, rye (which I’ve found seems to help wild yeast flourish), whole wheat or a combination of any of those depending on your tastes—just don’t use self-rising flour.

Use a glass, ceramic or plastic container—never metal—to grow your starter. Make sure it is large enough to add to each day and that it has a lid that you can vent easily. I like to use half-gallon canning jars.

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Day 1

Mix 4 ounces of water and 4 ounces of flour together in your jar. Weighing your ingredients is most accurate, but if you don’t have a scale, use 1/2 cup water and 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour. Scrape down the sides and cover the jar with plastic wrap, the lid that is still ajar (not screwed on well) or a few layers of cheese cloth secured with a rubber band. Put your starter somewhere with a cool consistent room temperature. Wild yeast doesn’t like it too hot or too cold—between 70 and 75 degrees F is ideal. Leave it for 24 hours.

Day 2

Feed your starter with 4 ounce of water and 4 ounces of flour. Add the flour and water to your container and mix until well-combined and you’ve made a thick batter. Again, cover and place your jar where the temperature is consistent, letting it sit for 24 hours.

Day 3

Repeat the steps from Day 2. You should start seeing lots of bubbling by today. The odor of the mixture should be starting to sour. It will taste sour and vinegary, and when you stir it, it should feel thinner than before. You are on your way!

Day 4

Repeat the steps from Day 2 again. Your starter will be much like Day 3: bubbley, loose when stirred, and sour smelling.

Day 5

Repeat the steps from Day 2 one final time. Twenty-four hours after the last flour-water addition, your starter is ready to use. It should be bubbly throughout the jar, very sour smelling, and perfect for making a big batch of sourdough bread!

Using Your Sourdough Starter

Make homemade sourdough bread from homemade starter.
Melissa Griffiths

You can find all kinds of sourdough recipes online for everything from bread and bagels to pancakes and even breakfast cake. Start experimenting with published recipes to see what you like best. I’m a big fan of traditional sourdough bread for toast and sandwiches. It’s a great place to start.

If you want to make lots and lots of sourdough products, just keep your starter on your counter and continue feeding as you have been each day. If you plan on making a more moderate amount, reduce the feedings to 1 tablespoon of water and 1 tablespoon of flour per day—this is applicable to most home cooks.

If you’d like to take a break from the sourdough starter you can place your starter in the fridge. Cover it and be sure to feed it once a week. You can also freeze and dry your home caught yeast, instructions are available via by Internet search.

Troubleshooting Wild Yeast

Like with any fermentation project, which, less face it, is basically a science experiment, you may experience problems when capturing and using wild yeast. Here are some common abnormalities you might run into and what you should do about them.

  1. No Bubbles: If your starter isn’t bubbly by day three, throw it out and try it again using the cheesecloth to cover the jar instead of a lid.
  2. Mold: If your starter starts to look moldy, is tinged red or stinks, then throw it out and try again.
  3. Excess Liquid: If you get a thin layer of water on the top of your starter after the rest period, that’s OK. Just pour it off and feed it like normal. Your ratio of water to flour might be off a bit and that is where the extra liquid is coming from.

See! It wasn’t so scary after all. You’ll find catching a little wild yeast will really challenge and reward you in the kitchen. Plus, it’s a great skill set to have! Enjoy a nice crusty piece of sourdough toast with extra butter for me.


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