commercial yeast (store-bought packets) vs. wild yeast: pros and cons?
I just got Nancy Baggett's book "Kneadlessly Simple" in my attempt to squeeze bread-baking into my crazy schedule by keeping it as simple as I can without buying a bread machine. At the same time, my local farmer's market has a baked goods booth that now sells wild yeast.
My question: is the result, and extra work, of using wild yeast WORTH it??
Wild yeast is captured from the flour, not the air, BTW, so anyone can do it and it seems a bit silly to see it sold.
Wild bread yeasts (and bacteria) are the basis of starter doughs (sometimes called sourdough starters) and are the same pretty much worldwide. The combination of yeasts and bacteria create a more complex flavor than using commercial yeast.
The other addition to flavor complexity comes with time. In winemaking and in bread, a long slow fermentation creates flavor. Commercial yeast ferments the dough very quickly, and the result is a loss of flavor compared to the slow rise of wild yeast and bacteria. But you can use commercial yeast -- just a very tiny quantity -- and ferment it a long time, and get extremely good flavor.
That's what the No-Knead Bread method does. What makes this method ludicrously simple is that it is little more than stirring flour and water together in a bowl and letting it rise for 18-24 hours to develop flavor without your touching it. To bake, you do preheat your pan in a hot oven, but that's about it. The first time you try the No-Knead method, it takes a bit of time, but then it's less than 10 minutes actual work. I used to mix up the dough in the late evening before bedtime, then after work the next day preheat the oven and pot, and then bake for bread ready at dinner time.
Bread machines are a great thing, and there are used ones for sale on Craigslist. Many people buy them new, don't use them and then sell them. You can even program them to end baking at a particular time (shortly after you get home, for example).
I have a starter of wild yeast I have had going for about five years. Just make a paste of flour and chlorine free water and let it catch yeast from the air. Nice fresh organic flour works best. The critters seem especially fond of rye. Feed it once a week and keep it in the fridge after it stops bubbling up after feeding. It makes a very easy loaf with a cup of starter, two and a half cups of flour, a cup of chlorine free water, and a teaspoon of salt. I mix it in the KA, put it in a greased loaf pan or free form on parchment, let it rise once, and bake it. Wild yeast, at least in my neighborhood, are more delicate than commercial yeast. They really cannot handle chlorine. They seems to me to have a much nuttier very slightly sour taste, reminiscent of the bread in France. Wild yeast make very good pets! They can easily handle two weeks of getting no attention. My dog, on the other hand, wants to go out and chase squirrels for the twenty ninth time today!
If you start your culture from scratch it does take time as you need to attract millions of yeast. I started with about a pint but used a much larger container. I added to it regularly. I would check one of the detailed posts or books. Now it is in equilibrium where I use a cup a week and replace it at feeding time with flour, water, and a little sugar. It sits out after the feeding, preferably near an open window. It bubbles up a lot and has to be stirred to keep from overtopping the container. I set the container in a Pyrex baking dish, just in case. My preferred proportions are King Arthur bread flour about 7 parts to one part King Arthur whole wheat flour. Sometimes I augment with a little Bob's rye. Once it calms down, usually half a day after feeding, I put the lid on and put it in the fridge.
I can't comment on using wild yeasts because I've had them only erratically as they fell into my bread doughs.
However, I can comment on baking bread while working. There are two options. First, you use a lot of yeast and push the raising so it all gets done in an evening. But this doesn't produce the best flavored bread. Still, you have it and you made it. Second is to slow down the raising process to cover 2 or 3 days. You can use a minimal amount of yeast and put the dough in the fridge to slow things down. There is really a lot of control possible, but be prepared for some failures on the way to success.