All the hoarding we've been seeing over time has led to a shortage of many different items, including items a person can use to self-sustain.

Being a bread-happy society, it's not a surprise when you think about it that yeast was among these items being hoarded. You may have already seen the microbiologist's response to yeast “shortage” online, where he points out there's never really a shortage of yeast and gives instructions on harvesting and cultivating your own.

It's true. Yeast is incredibly common. It's one of the things responsible for the dusty appearance of blueberries and grapes, and it can be found in varying degrees on most vegetables and fruits. It floats in the air literally everywhere, and except in places with very rigorous and scientific elimination efforts, you cannot escape it. It's also one of humanity's oldest culinary tools dating back 5,000 years.

Before yeast, Egyptians consumed grains as cereals, gruels and flat breads. But something changed and they began to bake yeast risen bread and considered the process spiritual or magical. They also used it to ferment wine as evidenced by the 700 jars of wine in the tomb of an Egyptian king named Scorpion. Yeast's use for wine-making is even older, with evidence of yeast-fermented wine dating back more than 7,000 years to Iran.

However, not all grains rise with yeast. They need gluten, a combination of proteins present in wheat flour that make yeast-raised breads possible. This was no problem for Egypt, because wheat was the most common grain there. If you recall, many Jewish holidays forbid eating leavened bread, especially those that originated from the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. During these times, doing so likely would have been practical and would have made a statement.

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First, unleavened bread is more mobile and doesn't require hours to raise, so it can be made on the move. Second, a people in exile would have to make bread with whatever they can find, even if it has no gluten. Finally, if leavened bread was a big deal in Egypt, eating unleavened bread could have been both a statement against Egypt or at the very least a very powerful symbol of the Isrealites' challenges and journey.

Discovering the process behind yeast leavening wouldn't come for thousands of years after humans first started using the microbes, but it was the cornerstone of many trade items, including bread, anything fermented and by extension, vinegars. Yeast is even used more discreetly to age many foods, including sausages, coffee beans and chocolates. In Roman times, leavened bread and beer were combined as bakers started incorporating yeast-laded beer froth into their dough, making it rise even faster.

Yeast couldn't be observed without the invention of the microscope in 1676 by Anton Van Leeuwenhoek. Even then it wasn't until 1857 that scientists observed and documented how yeasts worked. And then it was none other than Louis Pasteur himself who discovered the yeast life cycle. Thanks to both Pasteur and the Egyptians, we can easily harvest and use our own yeast and at least have an idea why it works the way it works.

Potato Yeast

  • 1 medium, peeled potato
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar

Boil the potato until it is finished cooking. Strain but reserve the water. Mash the potato and add the salt and sugar. Add enough water to make one quart of liquid and pour it into a glass jar and cover it with a breathable fabric. Place this in a warm place for several days. When the yeast has taken hold, the mixture should begin to bubble and fizz. Cover this container and shake it to redistribute the contents and allow to age on the counter a few more days, then refrigerate.

To use this, simply substitute your potato water for the water in bread recipes. However, you will need to give 2-3 times as much rising time to this yeast. You need to feed this starter once a week using 4 ounces room temperature water and 4 ounces flour mixed with 4 ounces of the starter. The remainder (if there is any) should be used for cooking.

The new mixture should be allowed to warm and ferment before going back in your refrigerator. You can also feed it simply with more mashed potato.

Potato Yeast Bread

Makes 2 loaves

  • 1 cup potato yeast water
  • ¾ cup softened butter
  • 2 ½ teaspoons salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup mashed potatoes (can use the mash at the bottom of your potato yeast starter)
  • 6 ½ cups flour

Combine all the ingredients and mix until the dough is smooth, then knead about seven minutes. If you are using a bread machine, you can simply allow it to run up until the rising cycle and then stop it.

Form the dough into a ball and place into a greased plastic bag or bowl and refrigerate overnight. Next, divide the dough into two loaves and place them in 9- by 5-inch loaf pans and cover with lightly greased plastic wrap until the dough has risen about 1 inch over the rim of the pan. This could take 4-8 hours, or more, using homemade starter.

Bake these loaves in a 350-degree oven for 25 minutes before tenting the loaves with aluminum foil and baking another 15-20 minutes or until the center of one loaf reaches 190 degrees.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.