Tag Archives: yeast

Alton Brown Live

Old What’s Her Face* and I had date night last night. We bought tickets nearly a year ago to see Alton Brown Live. For those who don’t know, Brown is a celebrity chef. He’s hosted Iron Chef America for years and years, and his own program, Good Eats, helped put Food Network on the map. This was before all cable chanels became reality TV and game show networks. In the early era, this was a good channel.

Brown taught me a lot of interesting things with his humorous style that seemed to combine Mr. Science and Monty Python. Today, he is relegated to hosting various competition shows. Think; you have 72 seconds to cook something using Fruit Loops, escargot, and rubber cement – go. (Who cares.)

Brown’s talents are wasted in these endeavors, but he has to keep making a living. I get it. He came up with the idea of a live show that wasn’t a typical cooking presentation. I have to say it was a fantastic show. It involved some standup comedy, a few humorous songs, and some food preparation that involved sensational props.

In similar style to other shows I’ve attended, there is film running before the show starts. This is my horrible attempt to capture yeast puppets burping and farting as they do what yeast does. (Maybe my sourdough starter would have enjoyed the show.)



Yeah, I know it’s awful photography. I never claimed to be a photographer.

This was a long show, roughly two seventy minute segments with a twenty minute intermission. I was sad when it ended. Brown is a genius of presentation. His song, Airport Shrimp Cocktail, is worth the price of admission.

There was food preparation too. He made a gallon of chocolate ice cream in ten seconds using a fire extinguisher and some jet propulsion techniques that were way over my head. He also made two pizzas using a super sized Easy Bake Oven. The oven was about ten feet tall and powered by theatrical lights.

His engaging stories cemented something in my mind. He used suspense to make the punch line all the sweeter. His story elements all tie together in the show too. Yeast from the film is a central player in a dough mishap he shared with us. (And it was hillarious.) As a writer, I really appreciate all the technique and polishing that must have gone into this show.

If you ever have the chance to see Alton Brown Live, do it. Even if you aren’t a cook you’ll have a great time. Oh, and never eat airport shrimp cocktail.

*Not my date’s actual name.

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The Science of Sourdough

Many readers have expressed an interest in Tituba, my sourdough starter. I started her sometime in the 1980s and really don’t know how old she is. One of the secrets is knowing how to put her away for long term storage. I used to freeze a small sample, but these days I dry the sample and refrigerate.

A sourdough starter is a wild yeast culture, but that’s pretty simplified. They really don’t travel all that well, and will eventually become a culture of your local wild yeast. That’s why I never feared adding other yeasts to the mix.

Active dry yeast is the hothouse flower of the yeast world. It will only last a generation or two under the crock environment. Its best use is to medicate an ailing starter, knowing it will all disappear and leave your wild beastie in place. I’ve added champaign yeast, brown ale yeast, and active dry yeast to mine at times.

The lifespan of one yeast organism is somewhere around the blink of an eye. I have no doubt that some hybridization occurred, but Darwinism leaves me with a decent starter. She was born in Nevada, and may be more of an Idaho wild yeast these days.

There is a microscopic war going on all around us. We want yeast to leaven our bread, but yeast is under a constant attack. The enemy here is mold. Tituba needs an ally.

Enter lactobacillus. This simple bacteria hates and kills mold with extreme prejudice. It loves the alcohol produced by the yeast as it devours the flour I feed it. I get bubbles that raise my dough, and the bacteria gets the waste product of fermentation, alcohol. (Every military in history thrives on alcohol.) The bacteria in exchange, keeps the mold at bay.

But wait, there’s more. Sourdough bread has a distinct tangy flavor. This flavor isn’t available to bakers who use active dry yeast. That’s right, it is provided by the lactobacillus.

Tituba is a symbiotic organism. She consists of both a wild yeast culture, and a colony of lactobacillus. She makes great bread too.

I baked my first loaf of the year this morning. It turned out great. I left it out overnight to ramp up the sour flavor. The house is usually cold enough at night, but this time it over proofed a bit. It was about to crawl out out of the Dutch oven when I got up. It fell a bit when I sliced the dough prior to baking. Still, it tastes wonderful.

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Tituba Rising

Tituba, the sourdough starter, relaxed this morning. It was time to bake, or cut and feed. I did both.

This is what she looks like when she’s happy and ready to work:

Happy Sourdough, ready to work

Happy Sourdough, ready to work

All it really takes is a spoonful, but for my little Dutch oven, I usually use about a half cup. This is more a personal quirk than real necessity. I dipped my cup and sloshed it into my favorite Pyrex bowl.

I added some water and flour. This is all you really need for basic bread, but it will taste like crap. For me, salt is an absolute must. I also added a glurg of olive oil. Then I stirred the batch up and added flour until I couldn’t stir any longer.

I used all purpose flour, and do about half the time. It’s what Tituba eats, and readily available. I use sexy flours too, but not today. Semolina is my favorite. It looked like this:

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Now it’s time to knead in as much flour as needed. Tituba raises better with what’s called a loose dough than a stiff one. I’ve made free standing boules, and they always manage to spread on me. They taste great, but with Tituba it may take another day of raising to get a stiff dough up to size. Pour a little flour on the counter, flour my hands and go to work. Keep adding flour until it feels right.

Because she's weird like that.

Because she’s weird like that.

When it feels right, I let it set while I wash the bowl and add a glurg of regular cooking oil. Then I tuck the bottom under while rotating the dough in my hands. When it forms a boule I wipe the top in the oil, wipe the sides and flip it right side up. Cover it and walk away. Time for Tituba to work her magic.

I left it for about five hours, then punched it down. This isn’t rapid rising dry yeast here, folks. Long slow rise times give the sour flavor. A night in the fridge works best, but I don’t have the time available. I have to work tomorrow. I formed the boule once more and plopped it in my Dutch oven; covered loosely so it can grow. In another four hours or so it looked about ready. With Tituba there’s always a bit of oven spring and I don’t want it to overflow. Then I have to cut it out of the mold, and it looks ugly.

This is what we get to have with dinner:

Sourdough Bread

Sourdough Bread

The bread will be more sour tomorrow. I know most of the science here, but not why this happens. Different starters will give different results.

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Resurrecting Tituba

Bonus points if you guess where the name comes from.

I first called Tituba in the early 1980s. I had a recipe that involved a whole bunch of things that are actually unhealthy for her. It worked, but it was despite the recipe not because of it. I’ve kept her alive all that time through several different methods, and I’ve learned quite a lot in the process.

To start off she would need housing. I went shopping, but since this was a special project I didn’t want any old coffee can. I wanted something that spoke to me. Like a piece of art. I settled on this lovely crock. I was told it is a Boston Bean Pot, but this wasn’t its destination.

Winter Housing

I mixed up the recipe and waited for Tituba to come. The first lesson was about patience. She didn’t come quickly. My first baking efforts were pretty bad, also a lesson in patience. She needs time to work her magic.

She spends her summers in a mummified state these days. It wasn’t always that way. She used to have a cool Wisconsin Cheese crock with a latch. I placed her in the freezer for over twenty years. One year the crock broke. Now she goes through the mummification every year.

She spends her summers in a pretty jelly jar in the refrigerator. But today it’s time to bring her back to life. Time to move into her winter quarters.

Tituba's summer resting home

Tituba’s summer resting home

After a long summer she’s hungry. I gave her a quick batch of flour and water. I have more patience these days, and we know each other well. She needed a few days to get her strength back.

Tituba's winter home

Tituba’s winter home

I washed 90% of her down the sink. Don’t worry, it’s for the best. The tablespoon or so left is all we need to get up to full power. I gave her fresh food before I went to bed. Today she’s bubbling merrily and ready to go to work.

Happy Sourdough, ready to work

Happy Sourdough, ready to work

I almost lost her when I moved to Idaho. Every little region has it’s own wild yeast. Those from the high desert of Nevada are different than the ones here. This is why vacationers who take home sourdough starters are often disappointed. The yeast is local to San Francisco or Alaska, not Miami. You need to summon your own beastie.

I learned a long time ago that commercial yeast will preserve the environment in the crock until she gets her powers back. There’s a whole science behind this, and I might address it in a later post. Just think mold bad, yeast good. Commercial yeast does not survive more than two generations in the crock environment, or so the experts say. The commercial stuff’s like the hot house flower of the yeast world. Think of this like a hospital for sourdough.

I didn’t want to take a chance after my move, so I contacted my brother. I added a pinch of active dry yeast, and he provided three brewer’s yeasts. I remember that one was for a brown ale, and one was a champaign yeast, I’ve forgotten the other one.

I believe mutation and hybridization must have occurred. With yeast lifespan of an hour or so, there must be evolution of some kind in 30 years with that many generations. I don’t care, personally. Some of original Tituba’s still there, possibly some of the brewer’s yeasts too, plus wild Idaho yeast. but now she’s like Tituba with super powers.

I’ll show you what she does for me in a later post.

Yeah, it’s a writing blog, but there’s more to life than just writing.

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