In Defense of Yeast

Multigrain bread

Shortly after the release of Crumbs!, the Centre for Science and Environment (Delhi), published a report that laid bared the fact that commercial breads contained dangerously high levels of potassium bromate and potassium iodate—carcinogenic chemicals that were primarily added to bread to make it look whiter—the Fair&Lovely for breads, if you will. Friends and family teased—the report couldn’t have been better timed—people were sent into flights of worry as they gave up eating bread. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) hastened to remove potassium bromate from the list of permitted chemicals and announced that they would look very seriously into what designs the other notorious chemical would entail. About time!

Meanwhile, my book did well (and continues to; no complaints there!) and a generous amount of praise followed in the form of emails, pictures of breads baked from recipes in the book, instances of people recounting memories of eating some or other kind of bread in another country or from their childhood or eureka moments of finally baking an edible loaf of bread after a series of bricks. I still wake up to a stray WhatsApp picture of a cherub munching on a brioche slice their mum learned to make from the book or a long email from a baking enthusiast who finally found the answer to why her yeast wasn’t frothing. It fills me with pride and gratitude. It makes me happy to share what I know—that making bread at home is not as complicated as it is made out to be—that it is firmly engrained in our chappati-making DNA. Even the elusive Sourdough is, in my opinion, a distant cousin of the idli in the way that it requires the yeast present in the air to breathe life into it. In the book, I talk about how one can cultivate a sourdough starter in the tropical climate of India and nourish it so you can have a steady supply of homemade sourdough bread with equal enthusiasm as breads made using commercial yeast.

Anyone that has had the good fortune of tasting a good sourdough bread made purely from a naturally cultivated yeast is likely to prefer it greatly over bread made using commercial yeast. It is easy to see why—a sourdough bread has a more complex flavor, a beautifully caramelized crust and an open crumb that appeals to any menu or palate. Purists will also rush to explain how the slow fermentation of the sourdough method helps break down the proteins in the flour and therefore, makes the bread easy to digest. They’re absolutely right. I’m a big fan of Sourdough, too. Not just the flavor and texture and appearance of it but also the making of it—the tending to the culture, the periodic feeding and kneading, the shaping, and the pleasing crackle of the crust as it comes out of the oven—I love it all. The sourdough method is the most natural method of making bread as it was made centuries ago—unadulterated, gradually fermented and full of the goodness of the grain.

Having said that, I do draw the line when people say there is a problem with commercial yeast. I think we need to think a little more about commercial yeast before we drown it in our disdain. Straight doughs (breads made using commercial yeast or a combination of some fort of levain and commercial yeast; kneaded just once before bulk fermentation) are not all bad. Several generations have grown up eating breads made entirely out of straight doughs, never having tasted a sourdough, and they’re doing just fine. They didn’t grapple with gut diseases arising from gluten intolerance back then. Why is it that more and more of us are complaining of gluten intolerance, then?

Baker’s yeast or commercial yeast, as we know it, is the same species as brewer’s yeast (the stuff that goes into making your beer) and (with no intention to gross you out,) is commonly found on or around the human body. The wild yeast used in sourdough breads, on the other hand, is commonly found on grains and plants in general. Both yeasts are of natural origin! Where, then, is the problem? Why is one kind of yeast parading around with a halo around its head while the other gets kicked to the gutter?

The problem with commercial bread or even for that matter, bread made at home, in my opinion, is in the flour—not the yeast. If one uses bleached and chemically treated flours as opposed to organic or naturally stone ground flours or flours made from organic, locally grown grain, we’re going downhill at the word go. In a recipe that calls for 500 grams of flour and 5 grams of commercial yeast, I’d say we’re running a larger risk if the 500 grams of flour are questionable. Today, even home bakers resort to the addition of extra vital gluten and improvers to make bread at home—ingredients that were hitherto only used by large commercial bread manufacturers—not even the local bakery down the road! My theory is, if you eat a locally grown, locally milled wheat without the addition of gluten to “improve” its protein content, it will do you no harm. My grandmother has always believed that locally grown food agrees best with the body—so perhaps we are genetically better suited to eating breads with a relatively low protein content. (We get our proteins elsewhere—in the meats we eat and the rich plethora of grams and pulses we have access to.)

Another area of concern is the fermentation time; sourdough breads greatly benefit in form, texture, appearance, and flavor with the slow proofing they undergo—often more than 24 hours. Straight doughs, on the other hand, are barely proofed for a couple of hours because the concentrated form of yeast used is more aggressive and doubles the size of the dough quickly. In a commercial context, these breads are pumped with extra yeast (making them smell “yeasty”) and are pushed through proofing chambers that accelerate the yeast activity even further. This rushed activity does not allow the gluten strands to relax and elongate in order to trap large bubbles of air in order to make the resultant loaf light and airy. To counter this, the commercial bakeries add more questionable stuff to the bread—stabilizers and emulsifiers and whatnot—it goes on—like a lie that needs to be hidden so another lie needs to be told. That is where the problem is—not in the use of yeast but in the method employed.

Besides, for people just starting out with baking (and bread making in particular, as is the case with most of us in India), sourdough breads can be a tad intimidating. Straight doughs or breads made using the direct method prove to be more reassuring and help us understand and appreciate the science of bread making before we delve into the more complex world of sourdoughs.

So, how does one make a healthy, flavorful and rustically beautiful loaf of bread at home?

  • Best flour: Use the most unadulterated flour you can find. Use organic, use local. Try and get your own flour milled if you can—give the local chakki wala reason to continue. Do not add gluten or improvers to it. Instead, try adding a small percentage of coarse wheat bran or oat flour to improve the texture.
  • Less yeast, more time: Use good quality commercial yeast but don’t be tempted to add too much—a little will go a long way if you allow the dough to proof over a longer period of time. Overnight retardation is the most practical answer to bread making at home when you are pressed for time; besides, the 6-8 hour proofing contributes a complex flavor profile enhancing the naturally sweet nuttiness of the grain.
  • Leftover ferment: Pinch off a small ball of dough every time you make bread and refrigerate it for a couple of days before you mix it with a new, larger batch of dough. This mimics the effects of a sourdough culture and brings maturity of flavor.

Yeast isn’t the beast after all—just thought I’d help clear the air.

Comments (6)

  1. Shanti August 16, 2016 at 6:22 am

    I absolutely loved the post. I’ve been reading Crumbs and the way you’ve described every aspect of breadmaking makes me just want to learn more and try it all out. Thank you for always inspiring me to cook and write!

  2. Elizabeth Nelson August 17, 2016 at 6:11 am

    I was so excited to see this great post in my inbox! I have been baking our bread more years than, to look at your darling portrait, you have been alive–conventional, sourdough, poolish boosted, etc. etc. Your essay makes an excellent and attractive case for those who may never have thought that baking their own delicious bread is totally in the realm of the possible, no matter who they are or how busy their lifestyle. And as we both know– once you get started, there’s no turning back!

  3. themadscientistskitchen September 16, 2016 at 6:22 am

    I picked up crumbs from the library n I had to pick it up. I must say I am thrilled. Okay I have baked breads but never ever understanding the absolute basics. I know n have studied yeast but the understanding now is different from before. I love the book. Now as for yeast being bad for health why not stop breathing even the air is polluted. Live life you get it just once.

    • Elizabeth Nelson September 19, 2016 at 8:10 am

      It’s not the yeast itself that’s bad– it’s all that “stuff” they put in it to give it a longer “shelf life” and to cater to what they think the consumer wants. There are so many ways to work bread baking into your life! You can do slow, slow rise, for example, if you are going to be out for a good part of the day, or put it to rise overnight and bake in the AM, etc. — for this, take a look at Jim Lahey’s website, the author of My Bread (can you get the book in India?). Also, Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, there is a book and a website. Here is a good version in metric measures that I use: http://www.formerchef.com/2010/03/09/healthy-bread-in-five-minutes-a-daywhole-grain-master-recipe/

      You should be able to find recipes for refrigerator raised bread dough of the more conventional types at American flour company websites, such as Gold Medal Flour.

      With the help of Crumbs and its information, I’m sure you would be able to adapt these recipes to the ingredients available to you in India or elsewhere!

  4. golden triangle packages September 22, 2016 at 5:23 am

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