Harvesting Wild Bread Yeast from the Top of a Mountain

Bread is just one of those things, isn’t it?  The more you learn, the better it can be.  Go from a factory produced white bread peanut butter and jelly sandwich to an authentic french baguette with some brie and your world view changes dramatically.  Take the leap from letting a bread machine and store bought yeast create your bread for you to feeding and caring for a sourdough culture, then handling the supple dough with your palms and fingers, and now the bread has a story to tell.  

buttered sourdough

We’ve been maintaining a sourdough culture for the past five and half years, and nearly every bread and pizza we’ve baked in that time has been leavened with that culture.  When we started, we struggled with finding the right methods and techniques, and many breads came out strange.  Some spread like pancakes, others tasted way too sour.  There were many dough bricks that didn’t rise at all.  But we didn’t give up.  We tried different methods and finally struck a consistent, desirable result when following the thoroughly informative method outlined in Peter Reinhart’s celebrated book, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice (we actually were able to get him to autograph our copy, because face it, the man is a bread rock star).

For many, bread is a part of every meal.  Toast to go with eggs, sandwiches for lunch, and soft dinner rolls to mop up juices and gravy.  It can be the foundation supporting the comfortable home of nourishment, consistent, regular, sturdy.

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Lately our lives have been changing.  Dramatically.  Our beloved car’s engine died.  We had a new baby.  I lost my job. We radically increased efforts on the homestead.  I found a new, completely different job.  Ashera Fine Baking has more than doubled output.

With all of these changes, I decided we should try out one more change to welcome the new era before us.  I wanted to change our bread by culturing a new sourdough.  After much thought and research, I knew I wanted something that tasted good, was truly local, and most importantly, was unique from our old sourdough.

I also wanted a challenge.  I decided to try catching the yeast from the top of a mountain.

Truly authentic, Local Sourdough

The logistics of collecting yeast from a mountain were at first intimidating.  I thought the most authentic way to catch the wild yeast would be to let the culture go through its entire process ON the mountain.  To keep it fed on a daily basis, I would have to hike the mountain every day for a week.  That’s a lot of hikes!

But then I looked into how the yeast really gets into sourdough, and was surprised to find that it is very likely that the yeast captured in a sourdough culture is more likely to have originated from the grains in the flour than from thin air, as many sourdough bakers believe.  So when you make a sourdough culture in your kitchen, the yeast might not be regional at all. It might just be the yeast from the farm that grew the wheat!  To me, this possibility is shocking!  And if it is true, I might very well be wasting my time and energy climbing the same mountain every day to feed the culture! The results would have been the same at the top of a mountain or in our kitchen!

So how can you catch a wild yeast and really know it’s not coming from the grains?  Here’s what we did:

how we caught our Wild Yeast for Sourdough Bread from the top of a mountain

To do it right, you want to avoid accidentally introducing the yeast from the wheat and the farm it comes from and at the same time make efforts to ensure the yeast that you culture is authentic.  Therefore, you must to sterilize the flour and introduce something that could have yeast on its surface.  Here’s a step by step:

Ingredients:

  • About 7 cups flour of your choice
  • Boiling water
  • Sample you hope has yeast on the surface

Materials

  • heatproof bowl or container for each sample with cover or plastic wrap
  • spoon(s) for mixing (If trying out multiple samples, you may want to be sure to use separate, clean spoons for each sample’s mixing to avoid cross contamination.  If you do cross contaminate, you will not be able to accurately identify the successful samples.)

1. Collect samples from your desired location.  Make sure the samples are considered at least edible and won’t contain anything toxic (e.g, no poison ivy, random berries, mushrooms, etc.).  It is a good idea to plan on multiple unique samples, in case one of the samples fails to provide yeast.  I collected 3 different samples from the top of Mount Chocorua: a twig from a fir tree, a pinecone, and a rock.

Fir twig at top of Mount Chocorua
Twig collected around the summit of Mount Chocorua

2. Place samples in separate, clean containers (zip top bags or jars should be fine) to ensure no contamination. Set aside.

Samples to use to culture sourdough yeast

3. For each sample you will use: In a heat proof container or bowl (1 quart capacity is ideal), combine 1 cup of flour (I used whole wheat, but all purpose should work too) with 1 cup of boiling water. Mix to thoroughly combine, adding more boiling water as necessary to ensure a wet pancake batter consistency.  The boiling water will gelatinize the wheat flour somewhat, so you will probably need more water. cover with foil or a lid to hold the heat in for at least 5-10 minutes to kill any yeast that may be present.

Sterilizing Flour with boiling water

4. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature, then introduce the sample you hope has yeast on it.  Mix it in as well as you can.

Culturing wild yeast from a rock for sourdough bread with sterilized flour

5. Cover and let rest for 24 hours.

6. About an hour before the 24 hours are up, make another batch of sterilized flour/water mixture as in step 3 above.  You will have to do this daily for the next several days, so you could also make a larger batch to portion off each day by mixing 5 cups of flour and boiling water (adding more water as necessary) and storing in the refrigerator.

7. Discard half of the mixture that has been resting for 24 hours and add the sterilized water-flour mixture.  If you made a big batch, aim for adding a heaping 1 cup of the sterile mixture.

8. Cover and let rest for another 24 hours.  Feed as in step 7 every day until you see some bubbles forming.  You may also notice strange, cheesy smells, but do not be discouraged.  Continue feeding!

Three attempts at culturing wild sourdough yeast

9. When you notice bubbles, begin feeding the mixture every 12 hours following the same methods above.  Make sure there is room in the container for the mixture to double in size, upgrading containers as needed (we used quart yogurt containers).

wild yeast sourdough cultures bubbling away

10. When the mixture is active enough to double in size within 3-4 hours of a feeding, it is ready to use as a starter for baking bread!

Wild yeast sourdough actively foaming

Results of our mountain sourdough yeast

Two out of our three samples produced powerful sourdough starters that went through the stinky cheese phase, which lasted from days 2 through 5.  The third, with the pine cone, did not do quite as well, but did bubble up.  Continued feeding would have probably allowed this to  develop into a strong starter as well.

The stinky cheese phase, by the way, is caused by other bacteria in the mix that are dominant before the bread yeast takes over when conditions become optimal after several feedings.  Continued feeding will usually allow the yeast to develop as needed, which was the case for our successful starters.

At about 9 days the cultured starter based on the sample rock was performing best and had a pleasant and distinct wine/cider smell to it.  So we baked a simple boule with it, using only flour, water, and salt as added ingredients.

wild yeast sourdough boule bread

The flavor of this bread is definitely unique compared to our 5 year old sourdough culture.  It has a polite, earthy tang and soft crumb that is addicting, with or without toppings.  The crust was crisp and crunchy and as you may have guessed, it did not last long!

Baking bread and other sourdough treats with your starter

We have developed our own sourdough methods that have been honed from years of experience, research, and taste testing.  But instead of writing it all out and making this an even longer blog post, we think for now you will have much luck following the Sourdough Baking Guide on King Arthur Flour’s website, which has the basics covered as well as some decent recipes to try.

In the future we plan to fully document and share our particular sourdough methods that give unique, adaptable breads for all bread scenarios, from focaccia and pizza crust to baguettes and sandwich loaves.

Happy baking!

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