By Jane Goodwin
Back in the days before people waltzed into the grocery store to buy packaged bread. . . even before the days when people baked their own bread using store-bought packaged yeast, people could still enjoy a loaf of light, risen bread. They used Witches’ Yeast, which people refer to more commonly as sourdough. The science of Witches’ Yeast is hundreds of years’ old. Why was it called Witches’ Yeast? Because it worked magic in the kitchen.
Early pioneers didn’t think of witches’ yeast as science; they considered the family jar of starter to be part of the heart of the home. Pioneers cherished and regularly fed their family sourdough starters; brides took a jar of the family starter with them to carry on the tradition of fresh-baked bread in the home.
Sometimes, the family jar of witches’ yeast would go bad, usually because of the weather or an accident, and a child would be sent to the neighbor’s to “borrow” a cup of starter, and the feeding and growing of it would commence. (Skimming off a few insects was no big deal back then. Now, people like to keep it WELL covered!)
The family jar of starter was kept in a place of honor – its home had to be warm enough to let it grow, but not so hot that the starter would die. Remember, yeasts, whether store-bought or home-cultivated, are living plants, and extremes of temperature, or bacteria, can kill them. The pioneers usually kept the jar of starter on a shelf near the wood stove. (The fire in the wood stove never went out; it was banked when not in use.) The more often bread was baked in a kitchen, the more wild yeast accumulated in the very atmosphere of the home; therefore, each batch of bread was better than the one before. When the starter’s lid was removed, and it was fed with more flour and warm water, the yeast in the air nourished the yeast in the jar.
Now, remember that the starter must NEVER be depleted, so whenever some of it was used, it had to be replaced, and allowed to grow so it could be used again.
Many families keep a traditional family starter in the freezer, getting it out and feeding it up before holidays and reunions. Witches’ Yeast freezes well. Keep it alive and it will outlive YOU.
The starter for the bread you’re seeing here is over 30 years old. It’s Halloween week. Time to feed and use the Family Witches’ Yeast.
Want to start your own Family Witches’ Yeast tradition? Here’s how to make a starter:
In a large container with a lid, mix together:
- 2 cups of warm water
- 2 cups flour (white or wheat)
- a package of dry yeast
Mix well. Make sure there is plenty of expansion room in the container. Cover and set in a warm spot for five days, stirring well each day. (Pioneers borrowed a few tablespoons of a neighbor’s starter, but it’s easier to start with a package of dry yeast.)
After five days, you can use your starter.
Put one cup of starter in a large bowl. If your starter is cold, let it warm to room temperature. To the container of starter, add another two cups of warm water and another cup of flour; mix well and return to its place of honor.
To the starter in the bowl, add:
- 2 tsp. of salt
- 2 tbsp. sugar
- ½ cup milk
- 2 tbsp. melted butter
- 2-3 cups flour (white or wheat)
- You can add an egg if you wish.
Knead hard for about ten minutes, adding flour when the dough gets sticky. Put the dough back in the bowl, cover it, and let it rise for 45 minutes.
Punch it down, knead some more, and shape into loaves. (You can also use this dough to make dinner rolls) Place loaves in buttered loaf pans, and let rise another hour. The accumulated yeast in the atmosphere of your kitchen will encourage your loaves to rise high and higher. Each time you use your starter, your loaves will rise faster and higher.
Bake for 40 minutes at 375. (Dinner rolls need about 10 minutes)
Let the loaves cool, and slice them, one at a time. When you eat your bread, think about the many people before you who have used Witches’ Yeast for making bread for their families for dozens of generations before you. And maybe, when your children grow up and leave, they will want to take some family starter with them.
In the meantime, have another slice of Witches’ Yeast Bread for Halloween. Then start feeding your starter for Thanksgiving!