4 Natural Leaven Tips From a Beginner

Reader Contribution by Jonathan Sadowski
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Last week I successfully baked my first natural leaven loaf.  After weeks of trial and error, and sticky jars, and questions (some may even say interrogations) about how long my experiments would be kicking around the kitchen, I seemed to have read up enough, put this and that tip together and voila, the wonderful bread you see here.

Every piece of advice I came across seemed to be someone who has had starter that was three generations old and explains his/her eight day, 47 step process to great bread as if it were nothing.  While there is a lot of history, knowledge, and experience within the natural-leaven bread community, starting out, getting it right, or asking for help can seem intimidating. 

Lessons Learned From Baking with Natural Yeast

As a newbie, I feel I can provide some tips and guidance in an understanding manner to those thinking about trying to bake bread with natural yeast. Here’s what I have learned from many failures and first success:

1) Don’t make the container airtight – I tried mixing equal parts flour and water in a Pyrex container with a lid that sealed. Apparently, air flow is needed to give the bacteria a chance to breathe. The first time I tried in a different container (a mason jar with a loose lid), I was successful.

2) Nothing is dead, a couple feedings will help revive it -The sign you want to see to know the bacteria is alive and well is plenty of bubbles on top of the mixture.  I have seen plenty of non-bubbling dough, due to suffocation and /or neglect.  Know that nothing is a lost cause.  If a mixture looks dead, move it to a different container and feed it an eighth of a cup each of flour and water once a day. After a few days, life will begin again.

3) Creating natural yeast sounds like a lot of work, but it’s not –As I mentioned before, some recipes or blog posts make it sound like natural yeast is a very involved process. It really isn’t. Something is required every day for a few days, but that “something” is mixing a scoop of flour and some water into a container.  All told, it should take the average person about a minute to accomplish this. Not really very daunting.

4) Put the container in a visible place so it’s not forgotten – Seeing your project regularly will work as a reminder that the dough needs to be fed daily.  I personally have found that putting it in the fridge (which is absolutely fine to do) will guarantee that the dough will get swept back, behind the gallon of milk, and left for dead.  Leaving it out on the counter or a cabinet that’s opened frequently assures that at some point during each day, there will be that aforementioned one minute needed to add what is needed.

Any other natural-leaven beginners out there with tips for other beginners?  Feel free to share them in the comment section.  I hope these tips helped troubleshoot someone’s own attempt, or show that experimenting and failure in baking is all part of the fun, or let someone know that creating natural-leaven bread is not impossible… it just requires some trial and error.

Special thanks to Henry Wills of Humble Bread in Prince Edward County, Ontario, for inspiration, advice, and samples of what natural-leaven bread is all about.

Thanks for reading what I wrote…

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