Oatmeal bread Credit: Sandy Oliver

During these tough days, lots more people are baking bread than ever before. Sometimes flour is in short supply and so is yeast. Yeast shortage generated a tremendous interest in sourdough, little bubbling jars of flour, water and yeasts all multiplying like mad and giving off their dough raising gases.

Of course, long before instant dry yeast in handy packets, home cooks and bakers used yeast of their own making. Cookbooks from earlier time offer recipes for making yeast at home, often connected to brewing homemade beer, considered another of the housewife’s tasks, which produced more yeast to use in baking, and to brew the next batch of beer. This yeast wasn’t called sourdough; it was just called yeast. True sourdough, the wild and tangy dough famous in San Francisco, has a distinctive flavor; not everyone likes it.

Right now, in my kitchen I have a jar of pleasantly-yeasty-smelling flour and water which looks pretty bubbly and which I’ve used to raise numerous loaves of bread. My friend Derreth brought me the starter dough which I boosted with a tiny amount of dry yeast. If I had wanted to start my own, I’d merely set out a dish with a slurry of flour and water into which yeast in the air would fall and begin to ferment.

In kitchens where lots of fruit and vegetables, mixed grains and other loaves of bread and beer are consumed, yeast abounds. You just only need to capture it by mixing about a quarter cup each of flour and water, and let it set out for a day, watching for a little bubbling and stirring in more flour and water. It may take four to five days before you notice much liveliness; if you use anti-bacterials in your housekeeping, you may not see any action.

Mixing flour together with beer instead of water promotes yeast growth. If you have any dried yeast at all, you can get a starter going by adding a very small amount, only a sprinkle to an eighth of a teaspoon to the flour and water. While I do have some dried yeast, I want to keep my supply going as long as I can so instead of using only dried, I use my starter with a tiny bit of dried yeast in place of the two or three packets of yeast usually called for.

The additional ingredient here is time. Liquid starters are slow. Think of them as yeast gardens needing time and warmth. Many modern bread recipes call for a great deal of yeast which makes the bread double in size in merely an hour or so. Add yeast, and stand back! It makes bread quickly but letting yeast develop more gradually in bread makes it tastier.

To use these liquid starters, then, set up what old-timers and artisanal bread makers call a sponge: a quantity of flour, with the liquid starter stirred in and enough water to create a batter. It can stand overnight or for a portion of a day, growing and becoming bubbly, acquiring a sponge-like appearance, to which the baker periodically adds enough more flour and water to make a loaf.

If you have never baked a loaf of bread, using a starter or sourdough isn’t a terrific way to start your bread-baking career. Far better to follow a standard recipe and see how bread works, what it feels like when you knead it, what it looks like when it is time to bake it.

The recipe that follows is my favorite oatmeal bread recipe from Mrs. Norman Hilyard in Cushing, ME, printed in All Maine Cooking, in 1967. I used my starter and will describe how I used it to make two loaves of bread. If you have plenty of dried yeast, just follow the basic recipe. If you want to experiment with using a starter, use the modified directions following the recipe.

I hope that people will keep on baking with starters and sourdough long after there is plenty of yeast in the market. The bread you produce will taste so good, you may never want to go back to store loaves again.

Oatmeal Bread

Yields 2 loaves

2 cups non-instant rolled oats

1 tablespoon salt

1/3 cup butter or shortening

3 ½ cups boiling water

½ cup molasses

½ cup warm water

½ teaspoon sugar

2 packets dry yeast

7 to 8 cups flour

Mix the oatmeal, salt, shortening and hot water together, then allow to cool to merely warm.

Stir in the molasses.

To the warm water, add sugar and yeast, allow to dissolve and foam a little then add to the oatmeal mixture.

Add flour until the dough is quite stiff. Allow to rise in a greased bowl until it is doubled.

Punch down, and let rise again.

Knead the dough adding as much flour as the dough takes up but is still a little sticky. Allow to rise again.

Knead the dough until it is smooth and springs back when you poke it. Shape into loaves, and put into two lightly greased loaf pans. Allow to rise until doubled and is slightly higher than the edge of the pans.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit while the loaves rise.

Bake at 400 for about 10 minutes, the reduce the temperature to 375 degrees and bake for 30 minutes or until the loaves are browned, and sound hollow when you tap them.

To use a liquid starter or sourdough:

Follow the instructions above up to adding the molasses.

Put a half cup of starter in a bowl, add about a quarter cup of warm water, and 1 teaspoon of dried yeast. Sugar is optional.

Allow the yeast to stand until you see small bubbles, then stir it into the oatmeal mixture.

Stir in 2½ cups of flour and mix well, cover with a damp cloth, and put the bowl in a warm place.

When the dough has become puffed and bubbly, which may take 1-2 hours, or more, stir in 2 more cups of flour until it is completely mixed in. Cover with a damp cloth and put in a warm place.

When the sponge has risen until doubled which may take 1-2 hours or more, and has lots of bubbles on the top, add a final 3 cups of flour one at a time, and mix until you cannot stir it.

Then, using your hands, fold the dough over on itself, rotate it and repeat.

When the dough is quite firm, springy and smooth, turn it out on a floured board, divide it in half, shape the loaves, and place in the greased loaf pans to rise. Let it rise slightly above the edge of the pan before you bake it as above.

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Sandy Oliver, Taste Buds

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working...