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Taming the Wild Yeast

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On rare days, there's a conflation of failure and unexpected inspiration that can send one off on new tangents of obsession. Last summer for me, it was stone-fruit preserves. Right now, it's sourdough starter.

Dreaming up a housewarming gift for Jared and Shu, I thought maybe a sourdough starter would be right neighborly. The smell of fresh bread is just about as homey as it gets.

One problem: the brand-new jar of yeast I bought from Safeway was plain dead. Never mind that the expiration date promised leavening until 4/2002. No amount of warmth, moisture, carbohydrates, or cursing could revive the yeast. Was it time to get dressed and head back to Market Street? Hopefully not, if I could find that copy of Ed Wood's book about sourdoughs, the one claimed from the ruins of a failing food magazine. Like my mother says and lives: Don't throw anything away because you never know when you're going to need it.

I'm not proud to admit that, as a freelancer, sometimes changing one's pajamas and leaving the house can be a daunting task. Fortunately, in this case, it opened a whole new world to me. A morning project ended up filling my whole day. Intrigued and reassured by Wood's book, World Sourdoughs from Antiquity , I decided it was time to tame some wild yeast. After all, I live in San Francisco, where tourists can buy sourdough loaves at the airport and where resides Candida milleri along with its aptly named sidekick, Lactobacillus sanfrancisco, world-famous celebrities. In the baking world, that is.

So begins my hunt for wild yeast. But just in case the local microbes refused to cooperate, I'll order starters from Carl Griffith's friends and International Sourdough.

As for Jared and Shu, whose housewarming dinner was happening before the starter would be ready—they found themselves the proud new owners of vinegar mother instead. But that, my friends, is another story…

My Sourdough Journal >

February 2001