One day, millennia ago, next to a fire or hearth, someone found that their flatbread dough — a dough made daily, eaten at every meal — had gone bad. Dough that should have been firm was misshapen. It was puffy and elastic. It would have smelled of something unfamiliar, and, to an inexperienced nose, probably unpleasant. Most likely, they tossed it to the birds or dogs, and started anew. But this “off” dough, had it been baked, would have been one of the first leavened breads.
As we now know, the bread we enjoy so regularly today results from the process of leavening. Leavening occurs when yeast is mixed into a basic wet dough made from water and flour. The dough will subsequently rise to double, triple — or even more — its original size. This is fermentation in action, and we’d be hard-pressed to do without it. Like so many other mainstays of life — applying heat to food, for example, or penicillin — its discovery was certainly a very happy accident.
To most of us, yeast is something that comes in bright yellow packets from the supermarket. But yeast is a whole lot more ubiquitous than we might suspect: the world around us is alive with yeasts. Wherever you are as you sit and read this, yeasts are swarming around you. Of course, only some of them are the types that cause bread to rise. Depending on a number of factors —climate, geography, season — there may be more of those yeasts present than others. So if you leave a flour-and-water dough out in the open, there’s a decent chance the right sort of yeast will land on it, and it might begin to rise.
But who first realized that this “contaminated” dough actually tastes pretty good when cooked, and then figured out how to get consistent results? If you just set out flour and water and hope for the best, you’re bound to be disappointed.
History isn’t very generous with giving credit where it’s due. The first real breadmaker may have been in Canaan, India, or ancient Peru. We’ll never know. What we do know is that the first to write down their discovery of leavening — or more accurately, draw it on a wall — were the ever-prolific Egyptians.
When they weren’t building the wonders of the ancient world, perfecting astronomy, erecting vast libraries and enslaving anyone they could get their hands on, the Egyptians were formidable brewers of beer. This, according to reigning theories of bread history, had an important bearing on leavening: the brewing and the baking were thought to have been done in the same place, and so the yeasts used for brewing had close contact with dough.
The Israelites would go on to make a spectacular migration across Egypt’s borders. By the time they said farewell to that country, they would have been pretty proficient at baking bread — at least proficient enough to make it on a daily basis. (After all, if leavened bread wasn’t commonplace, why would God have so specifically instructed them to leave Egypt without even pausing to take some along?) So what? you might think to yourself. Not taking the time to leaven bread, or leaving it behind altogether, is no big deal. You can always make more the next day. But a leaven-free exit from Egypt meant the Israelites were without a crucial ingredient for future efforts: a starter.
A starter is, quite simply, a piece of already-risen dough that’s mixed into a batch of new, unleavened dough. This new dough will begin to rise and a piece of it can be saved to start the next batch. It works in a cycle. Some starters that artisanal bakers use today were first formed well over a hundred years ago.
Given the circumstances of the Israelites’ departure, it is doubtful that anyone would have ignored God’s warning and smuggled out a bit of starter. They would have had to start from scratch once they were safely far away, and in a baking mood again.
So I decided to bake some bread. I also decided that, in the interest of history, I’d put myself on equal footing with the Israelites. I’d be making my own starter according to time-honored methodology: conjuring yeast from thin air. And thus the debacle began.
My preliminary research revealed that the most basic medium to catch yeast for a starter was a 1:1 mix of flour and water. From my experiments making flatbreads, I had a little barley flour in the cupboard (which I’d considered more authentic than the usual white). But only a very little. As I began, the clock read 9:12 p.m., which meant the local health food store was closed; I wouldn’t be able to replenish the barley supply. On the same shelf, though, was a nearly full bag of flour whose packaging depicted King Arthur proudly riding a horse. I figured he’d probably keep my secret, and went ahead and mixed a cup of his flour with a cup of water.
This mixture would need to sit in a warm place until it took on a fresh, yeasty smell. But if you live in a slightly drafty house, the wintry weather in upstate New York doesn’t afford you too many options. I pondered the possibilities. Well, I thought, The bathroom is pretty warm.
I settled for the top of the refrigerator instead. Heat rises, I figured, and the motor would be running constantly. So I placed my mixture in a position up top and waited. And waited. Then waited some more. After five days, even with regular stirring, the water just kept separating from the flour. The water was also turning a bit brown. After another day, “a bit brown” became “positively brackish.” Out the mixture went.
On day four of the next batch, my taster returned from several days away. I’d used the same flour but this time placed the mix near the fridge rather than on top. My taster wrinkled her nose, then brought her hand up to cover her face. “It smells like…” she said, searching for the right words. “I don’t know how to describe it. Did the cat throw up or something?”
That batch went out, too.
I tried a third time, using newly purchased barley flour. Three days, four days. Five days. Six. Nothing. I imagined that at some point, the Israelites must have thrown their hands up and decided that unleavened bread would do just fine. At least this batch didn’t smell like rot. Close to it, but not exactly.
I tried once more, this time hedging my bets and using both barley and King Arthur flours. After only three days, it not only had that “off” smell, but an additional surprise: a very red tint. The mixture looked as if it might be blushing, perhaps in embarrassment over my futile efforts. I scraped that batch, too, into the trash. I eyed the flour once again, but left it on the shelf. I was forced to admit defeat.
But if anyone else out there would like to try, I’d be eager to hear the results.
Jonathan Dixon was raised in New Hampshire and has lived in New York City since 1992. A former staff writer for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, he is currently a student at the Culinary Institute of America. He blogs about the experience at 19 Months.
Pq: ‘I decided that, in the interest of history, I’d put myself on equal footing with the Israelites. I’d be making my own starter according to time-honored methodology: conjuring yeast from thin air. And thus the debacle began.’
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