By 1959 every real cook knew the environment was a mess. All those chemicals, the plastic that Woody Guthrie had sung about so eloquently, had come back to bite us in the ass. I am trying to date the moment of an epiphany on bread making. It was before Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. Someone told me about wild yeast. It’s in the air. Everywhere. The trick to making bread is to collect the wild yeast and start a sour milk culture that is strong enough to keep bad tasting yeast away. Each time you make bread, you use a little of the “sour dough starter” to begin the rising process and replace what you took out with fresh water and flour, which quickly bubbles up in active yeast. My father made bread this way in Alaska in 1914.
Collecting Wild Yeast. I wanted to collect the yeast from the Sierra Nevada mountains, where I assumed the air was cleaner. I camped at close to 11,000 feet, on the western side of Duzy Basin. There are no mosquitos, not many flies, and no rattle snakes above 11,000 feet. I put a battered aluminum pan with a half inch of warm milk, covered with cheese cloth, in the shade of a stunted pine, and left it for twenty-four hours. Then I stirred in enough flour to make a thin paste, about the consistency of wood glue, and left it another day more or less. The mixture bubbled up, and I added it to a large bowl of flour and water to make a starter. Your tolerances are pretty broad here. You want a pudding consistency. The starter, left in a warm place and out of drafts if possible, will bubble up as the yeast devours the sugars in the flour.
Take out a cup or two and put it in a covered jar. This is your starter. If you’re using it every day, keep the starter on the back of the stove. If you’re using it on weekends, make sure it’s active then store it in the refrigerator in a sealed jar, taking it out a day or two before you use it to come to room temperature and bubble up again.
Okay, you can also buy yeast at the store.
Making bread is very primitive. The chemistry is ancient. The fermenting of yeast ties bread-making to wine and beer. Making bread is sacred. The smell is unmistakable, and it has stayed the same since the first wheat growers ground the first kernels and mixed the flour with water, then neglected it long enough to let wild yeast start to work. Five thousand years ago, at least.
Today’s blog is really a rip-off of an article in the New York Times by Mark Bittman, a food writer who is well worth following. If you’ve read his minimalist bread recipe, join me next Sunday for another approach to bread. But for those of you who don’t know it, this is an easy way to make an impressive bread. If you modify it using a sour dough starter, it resembles the great San Francisco bread.
The Minimalist Approach. I read about this approach in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/08/dining/08mini.html), It requires very little work, takes a long time and a 6 to 8 quart covered enamelware baking dish. The result is a crisp, thick crust white bread with an interior that is full of holes and delicious. Start this one day before you want to eat it. Here’s the original recipe with a few preparation notes of my own.
Mix the ingredients together in a bowl. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18 hours, at room temperature.
The next day after the surface is dotted with bubbles (you can wait longer — up to 24 hours) take a small handful of flour, and sprinkle it onto the sides of the bread bowl as you pull the bread out. Form it into the shape into a ball.
Generously coat a cotton towel with cornmeal and put the dough on top. Sprinkle with flour and cover with the rest of the cloth. Let it rise for 2 hours. The dough should double in bulk and not readily spring back when poked with a finger.
Thirty to forty-five minutes before the bread is ready, heat an oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy, covered pot (cast iron or enamel is best) in the oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove the pot from oven, take off the top and slide your hand under towel and slip the dough into the pot. This will get easier after a few tries, but don’t worry if it looks weird. It will turn out great. Cover with the lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.
Yield: One 1 1/2-pound loaf.
Enjoy! It won’t last long. In life, nothing does.