How To Make a Wild Yeast Starter

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How To Make a Wild Yeast Starter

Having a wild yeast starter (also known as a sourdough starter) in your possession can lead to a whole new wold of fascinating flavors and food experiences. Everything from breads, pancakes, quick breads to pizza crusts can be made with wild yeasted dough, which has no need for commercial bread yeasts. Think of it as your magic little dough friend that's actually alive, waiting to morph into and enhance whatever you introduce it to.

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A Little Sourdough History

Back in the good old days, from at least as early as Egyptian times to the late 1800s, all bread was wild yeasted. The term wild yeasted is interchangeable with sourdough. It's meant to describe a mixture of flour and water that has been set aside to accumulate naturally occurring yeasts and bacterias to allow the bread ferment, which causes it to rise, or leaven. When people made bread in early times they used a little of the dough from the last batch to start fermenting the dough of the next batch.

Using yeast to rise bread has been depicted in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Someone probably left a water and flour mixture out a little too long and it gave the bread a more fluffy texture with more flavor complexity. We have been spending at least the last 5000 years still trying to perfect our breads. In early times no one knew how or why bread was leavened. It wasn't until the 17th century that the microscope was invented and we could finally see what was happening on the cellular level. In the mid 1800's there was fierce debate on the cause of leavening, some claiming that it was due to a breakdown of cells, others claiming it was due to living organisms.

It wasn't until 1857 that Louis Pasteur solved the mystery by determining that the white powder on grape skins called bloom was actually yeast spores that caused wine to ferment. This proved that fermentation was caused by a living organism. After all these years we finally knew what caused our bread to rise and everyone let out a collective “eeeeww”. This sparked fear into the minds of many people and a movement was started to move away from sour breads because they were likened to decaying matter.

Bread bakers then began making breads from leftover yeast from beer brewing. To this day, bread yeast is the same as beer yeast. Bread yeast is actually called Saccharomyces cervisiae. Cervisiae translates to “of beer” in latin. But all of this yeast making was starting to get tiring. What if there was an easier way to just make the yeast?

In the late 1800's Austrian chemists figured out how to make what we know today as commercial bread yeast. This changed everything because now you could just add yeast to bread as an easily measurable ingredient. The advantages to this is that many aspects of bread such as flavor, rise and lightness could be easily controlled and calculated, leading to more consistent bread that was easier and cheaper to make. This also ushered in what I call “the dark ages of bread”. Wild yeasted bread began to be shunned by the higher class because bread made from commercial yeast had a less complex, cleaner flavor and was thus associated with higher quality. This led to a downturn in the production of wild yeasted breads much in the same way that whole wheat breads were originally more popular amongst the lower classes.

Wild Yeast Explained

Why does wild yeasted bread have such a complex flavor compared to bread leavened with commercial yeast? I thought you'd never ask! When flour and water are left out for several days, naturally occurring yeast in the air and the flour, usually saccharomyces exiguus and bacteria, mostly lactobacillus and acetobacillus feed off the sugars released by the enzymes in the dough. Lactobacillus and acetobacillus create the sour flavor in the form of lactic and acetic acids. Around the San Francisco Bay Area, a naturally occurring bacteria called lacobacillus san francisco is responsible for the sourdough flavor. This is due to the terroir, or environmental factors that allow the bacteria to thrive in San Francisco's local climate. It is said that the wild yeast strain for San Francisco's climate (saccharomyces exiguus) thrives in very acidic environments where normal bakers yeast (saccharomyces cervisiae) would not be able to sustain itself. This is due to lactobacillus san francisco's affinity for maltose which wouldn't exist in a dough populated with Saccharomyces cervisiae.

It used to be thought that these particular strains of microbes were only present in the San Francisco Bay Area which enabled the idea that San Francisco sourdough could only be produced in that region. Recently this theory has been debunked and now it's common knowledge that these, and other microbes are more commonly present and affect sourdoughs throughout many different regions of the world. What we know about wild yeasted breads is probably just merely scratching the surface because there are probably hundreds or thousands of flavor compounds generated during the wild fermentation of dough.

Now let's make our wild yeast starter shall we?

Starter Explained

Note that a 100% sourdough bread will not be as light and airy as a bread made with commercial yeasts. This is because we're leavening our bread with wild airborne yeasts that aren't specifically engineered for bread baking like commercial bread yeasts are. Some bakers add a small amount of commercial yeast to their starter to give their sourdough breads an extra boost (blasphemy! This is called spiking) but I recommend allowing nature to be the bread's guide. The flavor of a 100% wild yeasted bead is worth it.

There are several ways to make a wild yeast starter, varying in complexity, that all have the same simple goal: to allow natural airborne yeasts and bacterias to infiltrate your starter mixture, call it home and generate several complex flavor compounds in beautiful loving harmony. In order for this to happen the right yeasts and bacterias need to populate your starter. The wrong bacterias will make your starter smell rotten and putrid. In this case your starter becomes a health hazard and needs to live out the rest of it's rebellious life in the garbage. In a wild yeast starter the natural airborne yeast and bacterias get to the point of where they populate the starter so they have the upper hand and no other harmful yeasts or bacterias can establish themselves. This usually takes about 7 or 8 days depending on several environmental factors. The longer your starter is going into the 7 or 8 day process of becoming populated, the more resistant it is to contamination. Note that this behavior is similar to other fermented foods such as beer, kraut, etc.

In an effort to reliably make wild yeast starters, many various methods have been devised; some that are as complex as making bread itself. These methods include adding berries or plums to the starter (the white powdery substance on the top of blueberries and plums is yeast bloom which supposedly helps starters get going), adding sultanas (which also supposedly have beneficial yeasts or sugars), adding juices, adding milk, adding small amounts of baker's yeast and even replacing large amounts of starter on a daily basis.

Wild yeast starter method variations don't significantly affect the final outcome of your bread texture-wise and flavor-wise so it's a good idea to just keep it simple. I've found that as long as you relax, let the yeast and bacterias do the work and attend to your starter as described below, you'll have no need for complex, confusing starter regimens. This will allow you to focus more on the baking aspect of your bread so it turns out as awesome as it can be.

Keep in mind that wild yeast starters don't have a 100% success rate. Sometimes you'll do everything right and it will get infected with foreign bacteria or it will never get started by the yeast. Remember, we're doing a wild fermentation so we're dependent on what nature gives us.

This is a very easy sourdough starter method that should provide reliable, consistent results. You can use any type flour for a sourdough starter but many bakers report that the best flavor comes from whole wheat flour, rye flour or a combination of the two.

Making Your Starter

Making wild yeast starter

½ cup bread flour, whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour or rye flour
½ cup + 2 Tablespoons water

Place flour and water in a very clean large bowl or jar and stir until well incorporated. It's important to use glass or stainless steel bowls. non-stainless steel bowls can react with the lactic and acetic acids present in the mixture. Plastic bowls can also produce off flavors due to foods that have been stored in them in the past. Cover the bowl with a cheesecloth secured by a rubber band. In the morning, mix in about 2 Tablespoons flour and 2 Tablespoons water. In the evening give the mixture another stir. Organic flour is preferred because it has the least amount of pesticide residue, which may affect the ability of your starter to get going. If your water is heavily treated, use filtered or bottled water to help promote maximum yeast and bacteria activity. In between stirrings it's normal for the mixture to separate and for a small layer of water to be on the top.

The mixture should start to show bubbles within about 4 to 7 days depending on temperature, humidity and other environmental factors. During these first several days, the starter may inhabit certain yeasts and/or bacterias that are not preferred. They should only be there for a couple days, as the rising of the yeasts and bacterias that we want will overpower them and they will diminish. After the starter shows bubbles for an additional 2 to 3 days it will have generated enough yeast to make it suitable for using. Feel free to taste your mixture after mixing each day to get a feel for how it's doing. If the mixture begins to smell putrid you can attempt to 'rescue' your starter. Do this by discarding 1 cup of the starter and mixing in 1 cup of fresh flour and 1 cup of water, then proceed with the normal feeding schedule.

Using Your Starter

Once the mixture gets to this state it's important to use some of it within a few days and replenish it with the amount of water equal to what you removed, plus an equal amount of flour. For example, if you removed 1 cup of the mixture, add 1 cup of water, 1 cup of flour and mix until smooth.

Maintaining Your Starter

In wild yeast starter the acids build up twice as fast as the yeast. This usually doesn't turn into an issue because the yeast and bacterias regulate themselves if you regularly feed the starter. The Boudin Bakery sourdough starter has supposedly been going for over a hundred years. If the yeast starter runs out of food it will start to smell and taste putrid.

If you bake bread about once a month or so, you also have the option of storing your starter covered with an air tight lid in the refrigerator. The benefit of this is that to maintain your starter you only need to remove it from the refrigerator once per week, feed it by stirring in 3 Tablespoons of flour and 3 Tablespoons water and allow it to wake up for about 4 hours before either using it or placing it back into the refrigerator again. If you use your starter to bake bread remember to replenish the 1 cup you removed with 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water.

Summary of Making a Sourdough Starter and Sponge

Make your starter

Day 1
Mix 1 cup water and 1 cup flour. Cover with cheesecloth.
Day 2
Add 2 Tablespoons flour and 2 Tablespoons water stirring twice daily. Cover with cheesecloth.
Day 3
Add 2 Tablespoons flour and 2 Tablespoons water stirring twice daily. Cover with cheesecloth.
Day 4
Add 2 Tablespoons flour and 2 Tablespoons water stirring twice daily. Cover with cheesecloth.
Day 5
Add 2 Tablespoons flour and 2 Tablespoons water stirring twice daily. Cover with cheesecloth.
Day 6
Add 2 Tablespoons flour and 2 Tablespoons water stirring twice daily. Cover with cheesecloth.
Day 7
Add 2 Tablespoons flour and 2 Tablespoons water stirring twice daily. Cover with cheesecloth.
Day 8
Proceed to making your sponge.

Make your sponge

Now you will use the starter to make your sponge.

1 cup sourdough starter
1 cup water
1 cup whole wheat flour, bread flour or all-purpose flour

Mix together starter, water and flour. Allow it to sit from 4 to 12 hours until it increases in size between 50% and 100%. Alternatively, you can place the sponge in the refrigerator overnight which will generate a more flavorful loaf. In this case, the sponge will need to be removed in the morning so it will be able to double from it's original size. The level of rise be checked by using a kitchen utensil such as a knife as a dipstick, dipping into the mixture once at the beginning and taking subsequent measurements until the dough has gotten to it's proper size. I already posted this picture above but this measuring method is shown below.

Measure the rise of the sponge

The point to making a sponge is to give your starter a large amount of food so it gets a running start before it ends up in your final dough. This will allow your final dough to leaven as effectively as possible. After your starter has reached sufficient size It is now ready to use in your bread recipe's final dough.

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Ironically, 100 years later, I still did not know that living organisms caused bread to rise. Very informative article, thank you

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I am going to give this a try. It looks great.

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Definitely a must-try right here! Perfect for bread loafs that my family oh so loves! Thank you for sharing!

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I used to make sourdough bread all the time when I was a kid. Everybody is out of yeast now so I’m going to try again. Thanks for the great article.

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Hi! I followed your method and so far, it's going well. The starter smells like bread or liquor and it's been bubbling since day 3.5. It's now day 5. My concern at the moment is that my starter doesn't seem to rise very much after feeding. The most it ever rose was about 25%. Is this normal?

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Hmmm this is interesting I'm going to give this a go. When I lived in the States I made sourdough all the time, but the recipe I was using (which was French) said to use warm water and keep the starter warm. It looks as though here you are using cold water and there's nothing about temp. I've got Bazile Kamir's "Une Journee du Pain" and he's all about keeping it warm too. I live in a cold house in the UK where the kitchen (unless the oven is on) is the coldest place in the house. I'm wondering if this might work as I absolutely love sourdough bread and have tons of French recipes where I need a levain. I used to make my sour dough in a jar with the lid left kind of loose on top but cheese cloth makes more sense as the wild yeasts can get to the starter. Thanks for this, I'll let you know what happens.

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Volume VI, No. 3, Spring 1979


MAKING AND USING YEAST FOR BREADby Patsy Watts, Photography by Mary SchmalstigGenerally when one mentions yeast, aromatic loaves of fresh homemade light bread come to mind. And so they should. Aside from acting as a leavening agent in bakery products, yeast is also the ingredient responsible for the tantalizing aroma that arises during baking.Though probably today the most commonly known and used are store-boughten packages of dried yeast, there are several other different kinds. The recipes that follow show two examples of different ways to make yeast--dry yeast cakes made from hops and an everlasting yeast "starter"--and also how the yeasts are used in making bread.The dry yeast cakes are made in part by boiling the blossoms of the hop vine. These flowers contain a fragrant yellowish oil called lupulin. The use of this oil as a preservative in beer and as a narcotic drug originated in Germany before Charlemagne. Since then its use has become wide spread and the vine cultivated in other nations, including America.The hop vine is related to the hemp and mulberry plants in the nettle family. The plant itself is twenty-five to thirty feet in length with rough lobed leaves and flowers that grow on catkin clusters. It is quite possible that many people in the Ozarks have never seen a hop vine, because although some Ozarkians have had limited success cultivating it, it grows best in sandy coastal regions.Recipes for making yeast from hops have been passed down from mother to daughter for generations. Many women stopped making yeast in the late 1800's when it became readily available in stores, and consequently stopped teaching the art to their children. None of the staff's mothers knew how but not everyone's families have adopted the use of the commercialized product. Ella Dunn, one of the few who has kept alive the tradition of making yeast, told us one way to make it and Mary Scott Hair was kind enough to send us some hops. With written instructions from Ella and our fingers crossed we chanced making the yeast cakes on our own. We had a few let downs and difficulties but we at least ended UP with a product that made bread, so apparently we did something right.[46]Yeast Cakes from Hops1 cup mashed potatoes1 cup potato water1 cup flour1 cup dried hops2 Tbsp. sugar4 cups corn meal (approx.)1 dried yeast cake (optional)Boil 3 or 4 peeled potatoes in unsalted water. When done, drain the potatoes and mash them well, but save the potato water to use later. Cover the hop blossoms with water and bring to a boil. Drain off the water and save it, too. (Ella's mother dissolved a dried yeast cake left from her last batch into this water as a booster.)Put flour in a pan and slowly stir in the potato water you saved. Be careful not to use too much water. Mix slowly so that the flour won't be lumpy. If the mixture is too liquidy it might be necessary to cook it until it is a thick paste-like dough.Add mashed potatoes and sugar. Mix well and then slowly add the hop water until you have a medium soft dough. Let rise double. Then punch down and work in enough corn meal to make a stiff dough. Roll out the dough on a board to about 1/2 inch thick and cut into cakes. Let the cakes dry, turning them often to make sure they dry evenly. When you think they are good and dry, hang them up in a muslin bag for a few days to make sure they won't mold. After this you can store them in fruit jars or however you wish.We followed this recipe using the called for amounts of ingredients and found it made two large pans of yeast cakes. Whereas this amount would be fine in a large family where bread is made often, it was much more than we needed. You may want to cut it down some, especially the first time you make it.

The hop vine (above) originated in Germany and was popular with Pepin the Short, father of Charlemagne. The cone-shaped female blossoms contain a yellowish oil, lupulin, which is useful as a narcotic drug, as preservative in beer and in making yeast cakes. (by Doug Sharp)

Of course, yeast isn't much use unless you bake with it. This is Ella's mother's recipe for making bread from the dried yeast cakes:[47]Bread from Hop Yeast Cakes1 quart warm water2 yeast cakes1 Tbsp. sugar flour (about 10-12 cups)1 cup melted butter1 Tbsp. salt3 Tbsp. sugarCrumble the cakes into the water, add one tablespoon sugar and put in enough flour to make a soft sponge. Beat the mixture until it is very smooth. Let this rise over night. The next morning add butter, salt and remaining sugar and work in enough flour to make a smooth dough that doesn't stick to the hands. Knead well. (Ella's mother made her work the dough for an hour.) After kneading leave dough in a warm place and let it rise double.Grease the bottoms and sides of the baking pans. pinch off dough for the loaves. Air pockets make bubbles in the bread when it is baking so try to knead the loaves Well. My own mother uses packaged yeast when she makes bread, but even so she always names each one of the loaves after my brother, sisters and myself and then "spanks" us as an extra precaution to get rid of air pockets.

Metal reacts with the acid in both the yeast and bread dough to spoil the flavor. For this reason use wooden utensils and some type of non-metalic bowl.

Another way is to twist the loaves. After forming the loaves, lay them in the greased pan and turn them over to oil the tops of the loaves, too. Then let them rise double again, and bake at 350°F for about an hour Or until the top is golden brown.Ella said, "The German way to tell when a loaf is done is to touch your nose to the top of the loaf. If it doesn't burn your nose, it is done.!'The second type of yeast everlasting yeast starter--is a living yeast that must be kept alive by regular feedings or use. It also must be stored in a cool place. This is one of the oldest known yeasts, dating back to 4000 B.C., and is actually more widely used than the dried yeast Cakes in spite of the added difficulty of preserving it. Often women found it necessary to make bread as many times as twice a week to keep the starter alive. But even if the starter did die there were many ways Of making a new one. The following recipes were shared with us by Mary Scott Hair, or better known to many as Samanthy.Everlasting Yeast StarterRecipe No. 1one medium potato (peeled)4 cups water1 tsp. salt1 tsp. sugarBoil potato in the unsalted water until done. Drain, but save the water. Mash potato then add sugar and salt. Cool to lukewarm, add enough potato water to make one quart of mixture. Cover and set in a warm place and let ferment. If you like, you can add a package of "boughten" yeast to speed up the process, but it will be just as good if allowed to ferment without the yeast. This recipe is about right for a large family requiring more than one loaf at a baking.Recipe No. 2one potato (about the size of a large hen egg)3/4 cup potato water2 Tbsp. sugarflour[48]Boil potato, drain and save potato water (unsalted). Mash potato well, and then add potato water, sugar and enough flour to make a fairly stiff batter or soft dough. Keep in a warm place until well fermented. Then put in a wide mouth jar and cover loosely--never use a tight fitting lid. In about five or six days it should be ready.Old-fashioned Light Bread from Everlasting Yeast StarterIn order to make bread from the starter first set the sponge. To do this, use the following ingredients:Starter1-1/2 cups potato water or sweet milk1 Tbsp. sugarflourGet a large bowl and put the starter, potato water or sweet milk (heated to a little more than lukewarm), sugar and enough flour to make a stiff batter. Beat well, cover loosely and set over night in a warm place. The next morning the mixture should be nice and bubbly. If it isn't, no use going any further. You'll have a flop!If the sponge is bubbly, take out of this mixture the starter you want to keep for the next time you make bread. Put it in a wide mouth jar and Put in refrigerator. You'll probably want a lid on it because the odor will transfer to other foods but don't put it on too tightly.The recipe for making yeas cakes from hops calls for cornmeal to stiffen the dough. White cornmeal was added to the cakes on the right and yellow cornmeal to the ones on the left. Although their appearance is quite different, their use and results in bread making are the same. Now you are ready to make the bread dough using the sponge and the following ingredients:2 cups potato water or scalded milk1 tsp. salt1 tsp. sugar1 Tbsp. melted shorteningflourTo what remains in your bowl after taking out your starter, add unsalted potato water or milk, salt, sugar and melted shortening. Add enough flour to make dough that will handle well. Beat until the batter can't be beaten, then turn out on a well floured board and knead until it is soft and smooth. Put in well greased bowl, cover with some type of cloth and let set in a warm place until the dough has doubled in bulk. Punch the dough down and pinch off your loaves. Shape and put into pans. Let your loaves rise double or until they almost reach the rims of the pans. Bake in moderate (350°) oven for about 45 minutes. When done turn the loaves out of the pans at once and grease sides with butter or shortening. This recipe will make two small loaves or one medium size loaf and a pan of rolls.We discovered that both of these yeasts are much slower working than commercial yeast. If you are used to using the store-boughten product, be sure to allow enough time for the dough to rise.[49]Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.Next Article | Table of Contents | Other IssuesLocal History Home Springfield-Greene County Library

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Hi, I've started making this yeast last night, and within less than 24 hours it has bubbles. Is this alright, or should I be worried? Cheers

Owner's reply

Hi Jodie! Bubbles this early on is fine. It's most likely just air settling out of the flour as it hydrates. If you start smelling putrid aromas, definitely discard your mixture and start over though. Good luck!

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I'm SO thrilled to have discovered your site! I've been trying, unsuccessfully, to buy ORGANIC baking yeast here in Canada and have had zero luck. Now it appears I dont' even need it! I can't wait to give this a try!

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Wild yeast quantity

Hi! I would like to know how much of wild yeast i should use per 1kg of flour?
When i already have a sponge (1 cup of starter + 1 cup of flour + 1 cup of water, like explained above) is this enough quantity for 1kg of flour?
Thank you! :)

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Thank you for this article about sourdough and wil

This past week was my first time caring for a yeast culture, and ever baking bread. I found this very helpful, I am now enjoying three loaves of sourdough bread. Thank you. :)

Owner's reply

Welcome to the world of sourdough Autumnvicky! Enjoy the bread!

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For many years I enjoyed a starter using potato flakes. I let it die and would love to start a new one. Are you familiar with this type of starter and do you know if you can use the same procedure for it - or do you need to "capture" the yeast with a flour based starter and switch to potato flakes? I tried starting it with bakers yeast and it went flat by the second day.

Thanks for any advice or opinions!

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Do you replace the cheesecloth each time or do you leave it off at some point..just making sure. Thanks!

Owner's reply

Great question M Farris! I just updated the recipe to specify to replace the cheesecloth after feeding the starter. The purpose of the cheesecloth is to just make sure flies and other particles don't become part of your dough.

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Just a thought, I have heard many times that using metal bowls or utensils affects the flavor of sourdaough starts in a negative way. Just a thought...

Owner's reply

Interesting MB, I haven't heard that but it makes sense that this would be the case with non stainless-steel bowls. The lactic and acetic acids present in wild yeast starters shouldn't be strong enough to have any affect on stainless steel. I'll update the recipe to reflect that glass or stainless-steel bowls should be used. Thanks!

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my starter is separating

I there, I loved your wild yeast article, very informative.

I created a starter using whole grain spelt flour (which is a form of wheat). Everytime I stir it, the water is at the top and the flour at the bottom. It does bubble when I stir it or add the flour and water each day.

Is this normal? Am I doing something wrong?

Owner's reply

Hi celeste, there will be some separation between the water and flour as it sits. This is perfectly normal. The object of the game is to get naturally occurring yeasts to populate the mixture and since it's bubbling it looks like you're on the right track! I'm going to update the recipe to mention this. Thanks for your input!

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Great write-up!

Fantastic! Thank you for the great write-up. I make a lot of bread (mostly in the fashion of Jim Lahey's No-knead Bread), but have not yet attempted to make and use my own wild yeast starter. I began one this morning on my own, disregarding all of the "fancy" and tedious how-to's published or written out there. I thought to myself that it couldn't be that difficult?! Common sense tells me that leavened bread making, like lots of fermented action, was brought on by accident, and then by experimentation. I am SO glad to see that your guide for a wild yeast starter matches the one I have started this morning.

My husband and a friend of ours have been experimenting with making beer, and I am glad to see that there is a connection between beer making and bread making in your write-up. I assumed there was a relationship when I saw what was included in the beer-making kit - the ingredients are all so similar to bread making; it's the proportions that are different, and either way, the grains are subjected to heat, and there is a fermentation process involved. My curiosity is peaked, needless to say. However, I think I'll keep my hands out of their beer just as long as they let me have the kitchen back when they're done.

Thank you again for a great write-up.

Owner's reply

Thanks for the kind words Marla, I'm getting ready to brew beer again for the first time in years and it's funny to notice the similarities. I just wish I could make a wild yeasted beer without ending up with barley vinegar!

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