Saturday, November 3, 2012

Feeding Your Natural Yeast Start

Natural yeast seems like a mysterious sort of pet that you have to baby a lot.  A lot of people get stressed out about the whole 'feeding' thing.

Well, I'm here to tell you that it's just a matter of remembering a couple of techniques and you're on your way to maintaining a fabulous, healthy yeast start.

Once you have a healthy yeast start, then it's easier to find ways to use it.

Feeding your natural yeast start is seriously easier than you think.    Here's how it works.

Do you want a sour start or a sweet start?
1.  Feed twice a week or more if you want a sweet start.
2.  Feed once a week if you want a sour start.  

I have two jars:  one is a sweet start [wide mouth jar],  one is a sour start [narrow mouth jar].   I also wrote SWEET and SOUR on the lids so I don't forget which one to keep sweet. 

Care and feeding of your start:
1.  Keep your start in a quart jar.
2.  On feeding day, pour the yeast into a bowl.  You'll have about 2 1/2 cups of start.   Don't wash the jar!  It's full of good yeasty bacteria.
3.  Into the now empty yeast jar, put:
  • 1 cup of  the old yeast start
  • 1 cup of whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup of warm water
Notes:  My start likes whole wheat flour much more than white flour.   Much more!   If you feed with white flour, it will take about 1 1/2 cups [or more] of flour to get it to the right consistency.

If you haven't been able to get a really great rise, then try using HOT water to feed your start.    I put the new flour in first, then the hottest tap water I can get on top of the flour and stir, stir, stir.   I can get it to rise to the top of the jar that way.    You don't need to have a great rise to keep a great start, but knowing that the start prefers heat means that when you are using your start [instead of just feeding it to keep it going] you can get a higher rise in your dough if you heat your liquids before you add them. 


What is the right consistency?
You want to add enough flour to make it the consistency of oatmeal - not too thick to stir easily, and not too soupy.

How long does it take to rise?  
Once the old start, the flour and water are stirred well in the jar, I put a rubber band around the level it starts at so I can see how much it's rising.

Then I put it in a warm spot and wait.

And wait.

After a while it looks like this.    All those bubbles are evidence that the bacteria is working on the flour and expelling carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide is what makes your bread rise.

And after another hour or so, it looks like this. 

And after another hour or so, mine looks like this,  if I use hot water.  Now you can pop it in your fridge and ignore it for a couple of days.

Where do you keep the yeast when you're not feeding it?
I let it rise for a few hours on the counter, then I put it in the fridge.   You can also just pop it in the fridge as soon as you feed it.  It won't rise as spectacularly, but it'll do it's thing just fine.  

But what do you do with the leftover yeast?
Make something with it, like pancakes  or cardamom buns or bread or whatever you want.

If you don't have time to bake, then toss the start or give it away.  

Do not feel guilty for throwing it out or washing it down the sink.  Flour is super cheap [much cheaper than cat or dog food] and if you feel guilty, then you won't enjoy your start and if you don't enjoy it, then you won't use it.  Most of us don't have the time or desire to bake bread twice a week.   Or even once a week.   It's OK to toss the extra start until you have that one weekend a month to bake bread.

Really.   It's OK. 

Your primary goal is to feed your start, not to make stuff with it.   This is opposite what you might think.  Once you get in the habit of feeding it, then you'll start thinking of ways to use it.  If you're always focused on making stuff, but forget or get stressed about feeding it, then you won't have yeast to make stuff with.   Stay focused on feeding.

Other Tips:

1.  Keep your start on the top shelf of your fridge where it's easy to see.   If it starts going grey or dark, you need to feed it.   Sometimes liquid pools on top - if so, pour it off.   Scrape off any dark yeast and pitch it, then feed the start and use the extra if you need to.   Pitch the extra if you don't need to use it.

2.  Which brings up vacations.   If you're gone for a couple of weeks, it'll be fine.   You don't need to hire a yeast sitter.   Scrape off the dark and feed it when you get home.    If it's gone sour, then feed it every two days until it's sweet again.   It usually sweetens up after two or three quick feedings.  

3.  If a recipe calls for only 1/2 cup of start it is OK to use more!   We use the whole 1 1/2 cups of extra yeast start when we make dough.   It might take a bit more flour to get the dough to the right firmness,  or you can subtract a bit of your other liquid to get the right firmness [leave out 1/2 cup of water, for example].


  1. Thank you for this post!!! I'm not scared anymore ... and ready to try again :-)

  2. I so killed mine, it's not funny. Really, by the end, it would shrink BELOW the rubber band. :P As soon as I saw the post heading, I thought C would really appreciate it...and there she is, right above me, being excited. LOL!

  3. I got the book on baking with Natural Yeast before Christmas and have been working (without much success) to get it all to work. Maybe your tips will make a difference. Despite following the instructions, I haven't ever been able to get my yeast to grow much past the mark I made when I fed it. My family has however enjoyed the "flatbread" that has resulted from my attempts at making bread.

    1. Hi Blaine! I feel your pain. It took a month or so of playing with it in the hot July sun before mine took off some. And then it took another 3 months to figure out it likes hot water and to sit out for a while on the counter to visit after we feed it. Who knew?

      If your yeast is growing at all, then you're definitely on the right track and it's just a matter of time before it really takes off. Hang in there! Keep it warm. Keep it away from competing beasties like vinegar or sauerkraut/pickles. And keep me posted!


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