Making Homemade Yeast Cakes
by Suzanne McMinn
I found a recipe for making homemade yeast in an old cookbook. The recipe was quite puzzling—and yet tantalizing. I had to decipher its meaning and uncover its mysteries!
Way back in the mists of time, people discovered this stuff in the air that worked magic to create goodies like bread and beer. Yeast. To capture wild yeast from the air, get a big jar or bowl (non-metal), 1 1/2 cups of warm water and 2 cups of flour. Stir it up good then let it sit undisturbed while you “catch” natural micro-organisms. Cover it with a mesh material, but be sure that it will allow air into the container. You need the fresh air.
Let it sit for three or four days–if you have bubbles on the surface, you have yeast! If the mixture isn’t bubbling after four days, dump it out and start over. You might succeed on the first try or might have to make a few attempts before getting a good mixture going. Alternatively, you can buy “pre-captured” yeast from the store in little packets.
When our great-grandmas were baking bread, commercial yeast wasn’t available as it is today and they made either a liquid yeast (similar to sourdough starter) or their own dry yeast, the benefit of the dry yeast being it didn’t have to be tended as a starter must be. For a dry yeast similar to what we commonly use today, they made a thick starter concoction, rolled it out, and cut it out in yeast cakes of a comparable size to what is in a packet of store-bought yeast today. (Sometimes they crumbled it–then just measured it out from there, the way we use bulk yeast.)
They had to start with capturing their own wild yeast, but the effort (and potential failure) of that process made it so it was in their best interest to carry their yeast from batch to batch using a little of the old batch to start the new. They needed to make sure they had yeast for bread every day. And so this recipe isn’t so much about “making” yeast as it is about “extending” yeast post-capture.
In deciphering the somewhat mysterious recipe in my possession (written by someone who expected everyone to understand basic principles which many of us don’t today), I searched numerous homemade yeast recipes. Every recipe was different in measurements and sometimes in ingredients. People made what they could make where they were. Everyone developed their own process.
The original instructions leave something to be desired. How much water? I had to make decisions on other points as well. A packet of yeast at the store is what I call a scant tablespoon. You can either use three packets of store-bought yeast or use three scant tablespoons of bulk yeast. (Don’t worry about the scant part. Go ahead and use a tablespoon if you want. It won’t hurt anything.) You can also start by capturing your yeast wild–get your starter concoction going then use 1/4 cup of that in this recipe in place of the dry yeast. (You’ll have to experiment.)
Here’s my version of the old recipe, after research and experimenting.
How to Make Homemade Yeast:
1 large potato*
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ginger
3 cakes yeast (3 scant tablespoons or 3 packets–don’t use rapid-rise)
2 cups cornmeal
*How many potatoes you’ll need will depend on the size of your potatoes. I used one large potato. You want to end up with one cup of mashed potatoes.
Slice the potato thinly and boil. Strain the potato water into a bowl and set aside. Mash the potato with a small amount of the potato water and measure out one cup.
Place mashed potatoes in a large bowl and add the flour, sugar, ginger, and yeast.
Pour 1/2 cup of the reserved potato water over the mixture. Stir just enough to get everything mixed. What you should have now is something akin to a pancake batter.
NOTE: Be sure to let the potato water cool. Water that is too hot will kill yeast. The water should be about 110-115 degrees. Set mixture aside to rise.
While the mixture is rising, spread two cups cornmeal in a large baking pan and dry it in a low oven for about an hour. Keep an eye on it–you don’t want it to brown, just dry.
When the yeast mixture is good and bubbly and growing up in the bowl, it’s ready.
How quickly that happens will depend on the temperature in your house. For me, this took a couple of hours. Stir it down and start working in the cornmeal.
Work in as much as it will take. I used about two cups. You want it where you can roll it out, so don’t work in so much it’s too dry to roll out. I reserved about a tablespoon of dried cornmeal to dust on top while I was rolling it out.
Roll out thinly–as with pie pastry. Then, you can cut it into “cakes” with a cookie cutter, or crumble it. Crumbles dry faster–I made crumbles. How long it takes to dry depends on the temperature and humidity. It could take a day, or several days. Cover loosely–it needs air to dry. (Use cheesecloth or paper towels–something light that breathes.) As it dries, start crumbling it apart with a fork occasionally to speed it along (if you’re making crumbles). If you’re making cakes, just leave them alone until dry.
You can store the dried crumbles in a quart jar. Dried cakes can be wrapped separately or placed between layers of waxed paper.
Use as you would any yeast from the store! By the way, you can use it before it’s dried and make bread right away if you want.
To store, you can keep it in the freezer for up to a year. (The freezer is the best place to store any yeast.) Take out what you need and bring it to room temperature before starting your bread. When you get near the end of it, take three tablespoons (or three cakes) and make the yeast recipe all over again.
Making your own yeast, you can turn three tablespoons of yeast into a whole quart jar of yeast–and that’s just on the first batch. You can carry it on forever and never buy yeast again. Is this truly necessary today as it was for our great-grandmas? Not really. However, it’s both frugal and satisfying nonetheless. And fun.
Today, we look back on these recipes as if deciphering ancient hieroglyphs. Our mothers and grandmothers were quite happy to throw the whole thing out the window for Fleischmann’s packets on their way to the automatic dishwashing machines, TV dinners, and linoleum. And who could blame them? They’d had it hard enough. But for us, with so many conveniences in our lives, there’s something charming about the old ways–we can pick and choose the ones we want to keep. Try homemade yeast–it’s fun!
Writer Suzanne McMinn lives in Roane County, where she writes every day in her blog, Chickens in the Road, at www.chickensintheroad.com.
A few weeks ago we canned sweet potatoes.This is the first year we have grown them. We all love sweet potatoes, I don't know why