The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Sustainable, off-grid yeast

arthur_the_baker's picture

Sustainable, off-grid yeast

Dear TFL,

I'm new to baking bread and to this site. I've been enjoying the many existing articles about getting started and basic recipies with which to get started. Thanks for the great knowledge base!

One of the attractions to baking for me is, in the long term, to contribute to my life project of becoming a self-sufficient individual and enjoying the satisfaction of being master of my own food from ground to table. With enough good land and time I will be able to produce my own basic ingredients on my future hobby farm, but the one thing I have not been able to figure out from reading various articles here is how to produce a reliable supply of my own yeast.

Does anyone know of any good resources on this topic? I see a lot of forum posts about sourdough yeast - is that the only kind you can keep alive and reproduce on your own, or are there other varieties? How did bakers of the 1800's procure their non-sourdough yeasts? If disaster strikes and the power goes out or I am without water for a few days, will the yeast survive, or will I have to find wild yeasts somehow (e.g., I think I have seen reference to natural yeasts on the skin of fruit?).

Thanks in advance for entertaining this strange line of questions and please forgive me if I have missed this topic somewhere else in the forum.

Best, Arthur


LindyD's picture

Natural levains were used by bakers of the past and still are by many TFL members.  What we call sourdough is called levain by the French.  I don't think there were any alternatives until the introduction of commercial yeast.

Yeast are single-celled fungi, so there's plenty around.  You don't need fruits, veggies, etc. to create a sourdough culture.  As the wild yeast lives on the wheat and rye berries, it's also present in the flour.  No hunting for wild yeast is necessary.

That's your sustainable source that you can create and keep alive.  You can take it a step further after you have a mature and strong sourdough starter by drying portions.  I imagine you could probably dry a few pounds of it.   Drying instructions have been posted here in the last month or so.  As I recall, it's just a matter of smearing some sourdough starter on waxed paper, letting it dry, then keeping it in an airtight container. 

Good luck on your project.  Growing your own food is an admirable objective.

Yumarama's picture

long before the advent of electricity, refrigerators, kitchen scales, commercial yeast and most modern conveniences, people made bread with sourdough yeast. And just like you could do today, they would make their starter/levain by mixing flour and water and patiently feeding it over a period of time or, I'd bet, get a little dollop handed down to them from grandma or the neighbours. 

Drying a little of the culture, as LindyD says above, would have been one way to transport that culture from here to there or just keep some for back-up. This would be their way of keeping their culture around where we would just use refrigerators.

The ol' 49'ers and other pioneers and miners were known to carry a bit of sourdough with them as they trekked across the land, a small pouch of stiff leaven in their jacket would keep nicely warm from body heat.

If people could do this hundreds or thousands of years ago, long before the "grid" was even in existence, it should do you well indeed. The difference is that today, we may know a little more about what's going on in that lump of dough and have improved the techniques to get it from just "flour soup" to active culture. But getting back to it's basics, it's the same stuff a baker would have used back in Mesopotamia 2000 years back. And they certainly were not on any sort of grid.

If they could do it, so can you!


Happy baking,


G-man's picture

From the sound of it you're looking for a culture of yeast that you can keep alive yourself that isn't sour, right?


You're going to want to make a sourdough start using any of the myriad methods you see on this site or in books on artisan bread baking, etc.

Reducing the sourness of that starter can be done by decreasing the time between feedings (giving the acid-producing bacteria less time to grow) and keeping a dry starter, making the environment a bit less hospitable for the bacteria in question. At least that is what I've gathered from reading up on this stuff. A major source is that post by Debra Wink on the lactic acid produced by bacteria in your sourdough starter.


I definitely suggest looking up traditional Italian and French bread methods, since those cultures, from what I've seen, tend to prefer bread that is less sour.

clazar123's picture

I started on my sourdough journey because I wanted to know what my Grandmother would have faced in baking for 12 people every week back in 1912. I have heard stories about her capabilitites-unfortunately, I never knew her.She was a legend in our family lore. She was married in 1912 and quickly produced a large family.Commercial yeast was available but quite costly and my mother tells of her mom's yeast jar sitting in the kitchen.I'm sure that was a very busy culture! In the 60's, my mom wanted to start a sourdough culture and immediately started with a gallon crock.I believe that is because her mom had a gallon crock.That's a lot of yeast! I keep just a few 1/2 pint jars in the refrig.and bake every week for 2 people.

I have become successful at baking with natural levain/sourdough and I am capable of making some tasty bread from homegrown yeast. It is not at all sour tasting and I've made levain from a flour and water culture and a fruit and water culture.Yeast is everywhere.What I have discovered is that it is more time consuming to make the daily bread with natural levain so when commercial yeast came out, it must have been seen as a miraculous timesaver. Currently, most of my bakes involve both natural and commercial yeast to reduce the time involved.

Dirt to table is quite ambitious a goal.I grind most of my own wheat but I buy from local or organic farmers.

HAve fun-you are at the start of a big learning curve!


Janknitz's picture

I just finished reading 52 Loaves, and the author visits a yeast factory.  I had no idea how much water and energy goes in to producing modern dried yeast.  It's quite a bit!

So I applaud your efforts to do this in a sustainable manner, off the grid.  It's definitely doable through a levain (sourdough), and if you bake often enough it has to have a positive carbon neutralizing effect.  (I'm not 100% positive that is the case for people like me who are less frequent bakers and who have to discard a fair amount of our starters, although I do discard to the compost bucket). 

arthur_the_baker's picture

What a great community this is. This is all the information I could have hoped for, and then some! I will certainly experiment with maintaining wet and dry cultures and see how they perform.

Clazar, I have early great-grandmother-linked memories of bread-baking, also. More out of necessessity than choice, she also led a ground-to-table household. I have long felt it was a great loss for her knowledge and skill to pass out of the family. Maybe that is what is part of what is driving me towards this project. It sounds like you have managed to hang onto those older traditions - I owe it to you (and the others here) for keeping the knowledge alive and accessible even to novice hobbyists.

It's interesting to hear that commercial yeast are energy intensive. How do they have a carbon-neutralizing effect? I suppose carbon is captured in the materials you feed to the yeast?

G-man, thanks for the tips on reducing sourness. I am looking forward to playing with different feeding techniques and cultural varieties of sourdough yeasts before settling on a "stock" choice and method for the long term.

Yumarama, thank you for the link on culturing techniques. I will be sure to follow up on these once I aquire my first 'dollop'!

I'll also be sure to post on the site again to report on success (or failure) on these various experiments.