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Propagating Wild Yeast For Reenactments

Propagating Wild Yeast for Reenactments

Today, if you asked 50 people about how to start a wild yeast culture for making sourdough bread, it’s likely you’ll get 100 different answers, but in reality, all it takes is a little bit of flour, some water and time. Now the question is, did people in the 18th century knowingly and intentionally propagate wild yeast? Our initial conclusion was yes due to the frequent references to sour bread, but as we dug deeper we found only 3 references to propagated wild yeast, none of those prior to 1790. These references were either examples of scientific experiments or were from non-European cultures.

Which Yeast (Time 0_01_56;07)

Interestingly, the typical response to these experiments is astonishment. Let me read to you a little piece from a journal dated 1790 from the transactions of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturing, and Commerce. The context is about a contest the society had on the manufacture of yeast. This is a man writing about experiments that he’s doing to make yeast talking about his assistant. “He accordingly brought me some small vessel with the full head of yeast upon it, assuring me with some degree of exaltation that neither oil of vitriol with chalk nor any portion of old yeast had been employed on that occasion. This greatly surprised me and I desired he would proceed with the experiment.” So his experiment had to do with having boiled water and malt and nothing else and just letting this set over time. He was cultivating wild yeast and he didn’t even know it.

Now there are many 18th century recipes for making yeast and circumstances when yeast was in short supply, but other than these experiments that I’ve already mentioned, they all have to do with propagating yeast from a little bit of preexisting yeast, so it was very surprising for these experimenters to find that you could make a yeast slurry without adding any preexisting yeast. So it’s apparent that these experiments flew against the conventional wisdom.

Which Yeast (Time 0_00_58;05)

So what does this mean for the 18th century reenactor or historic site? Should we be using a bread baked with barm or sourdough bread made with leaven? Well, it really depends on who we are trying to portray, what our culture is, what our class is, and what our climate is. The one thing we can seem to draw from this information is propagating wild yeast in the manner in which we do today to make sourdough bread is not a historically accurate option.

Transcript of Video:

For a couple of weeks now we’ve been anticipating doing an episode on cultivating wild yeast to make an 18th century sourdough bread but the more we did research the more it became apparent that this was not something that they did in the 18th century.

Now today, if you asked 50 people about how to start a wild yeast culture for making sourdough bread, it’s likely you’ll get 100 different answers, but in reality all it takes is a little bit of flour and some water and some time. Now the question remains, did people in the 18th century knowingly and intentionally propagate wild yeast? Our initial conclusion was yes due to the frequent references to sour bread but as we dug deeper we found only 3 references to propagated wild yeast, none of those prior to 1790. They were either examples of scientific experiments or they were from non-European cultures. Interestingly, the typical response to these experiments is a astonishment. Let me read to you a little piece from a journal. This is dated 1790 and it’s from the transactions of the society for the encouragement of arts, manufacturing, and commerce, and this is in context to about a contest. The society had a contest about the manufacture of yeast and this is a man writing about experiments that he’s doing to make yeast.

Here the man writes about his assistant, “He accordingly brought me some small vessel with the full head of yeast upon it, assuring me with some degree of exaltation that neither oil of vitriol with chalk nor any portion of old yeast had been employed on that occasion. This greatly surprised me and I desired he would proceed with the experiment.” So his experiment had to do with having boiled water and malt and nothing else and just letting this set over time. He was cultivating a wild yeast and he didn’t even know it.

Now there are many 18th century recipes for making yeast and circumstances when yeast was in short supply. Now other than these experiments that I’ve already mentioned, they all have to do with propagating yeast from a little bit of preexisting yeast, so it was very surprising for these experimenters to find that you could make a yeast slurry without adding any preexisting yeast. So it’s apparent that these experiments flew against the conventional wisdom.

So what does this mean for the 18th century reenactor or historic site? Should we be using a bread baked with barm or sourdough bread made with leaven? Well, it really depends on who we are trying to portray, what our culture is, what our class is, and what our climate is. The one thing we can seem to draw from this information is, is that propagating wild yeast in the manner in which we do today to make sourdough bread is not an historically accurate option.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this slightly different episode today. We want to take this opportunity to announce our new historic cooking blog SavoringThePast.net. In this cooking blog we’re going to give you authentic 18th and 19th century recipes along with some of the references and documentation that go on behind our videos. We invite you to subscribe to this new SavoringThePast.net so you can get immediate notification of new posts. Also we invite you to give us your historic cooking experiences and documentation by leaving us feedback.

SavoringThePast.net is a companion to our other blog SiftingThePast.com which is a website that’s intended to give you a snap shot though art of the lives and customs of people in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th century. I also invite you to subscribe to our YouTube channel so you can get notification of new videos as soon as they’re available and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook for all the latest news at Jas. Townsend and Son.

Jas. Townsend and Son offers hundreds of quality 18th century reproduction clothing items and personal accessories including a great line of cooking vessels and utensils. All these can be found on our website or in our print catalog and I want to thank you for watching today and I want to invite you to come along as we savor the flavors and the aromas of the 18th century.

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