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Wild Yeasts Harvested from Brooklyn

Wild Yeasts Harvested from Brooklyn

Yeast Wranglin' in the Big Apple

You know, my sister Margaret is no science writer, and I'm no baker, but recently our worlds collided in the most delightful way. It all started last October when I attended a workshop on artisanal bread and cheese-making up in Lincolnville, Maine. That's where I first learned about the wonders of sourdough bread and the wild yeasts that make it possible.

As it turns out, sourdough doesn't just rely on your run-of-the-mill commercial yeast strain. Nope, the real magic happens when you harness the power of wild yeasts - those little microbes floating around in the air, just waiting to stumble upon your flour and water mixture. When they do, they get to work digesting those sugars, producing CO2 bubbles that give sourdough its signature rise and chewiness.

Taming the Sour Beast

So when I told my sister Margaret, who owns and operates Margaret Palca Bakes in Brooklyn, about this wild yeast revelation, she was immediately intrigued. "I want to try this!" she exclaimed. And try it she did, whipping up a sourdough starter using nothing but good ol' Brooklyn air.

Now, you'd think harnessing the yeast power of the Big Apple would be a straightforward affair, but Margaret soon ran into a bit of a problem. "The bread made with this wild Brooklyn yeast is way sourer than I'd like," she told me, her voice tinged with a hint of frustration. "Is there any way I can tame this sour beast?"

The Science of Sour

As a science correspondent, I knew I had to get to the bottom of this. First, I reached out to Robert Wolke, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. He explained that the sour flavors in sourdough come from lactic and acetic acids produced by the environmental bacteria feasting on the flour's sugars alongside the yeast.

"Different bacteria make different sour flavors," Wolke told me. "San Francisco is awash in local bacteria species that make its sourdough bread famous." So it makes sense that the unique microbial ecosystem of Brooklyn would impart its own distinct sourness to the bread.

But how do you tame that sourness if you're not a fan? Wolke wasn't entirely sure, so I turned to food scientist and author Shirley Corriher. Her advice? Slow down the metabolic rate of those pesky Brooklyn bacteria by keeping the starter chilled or feeding it more frequently.

Sour Surprises

Margaret tried both approaches - refrigerating the starter and feeding it three times a day instead of just once. And you know what? Her customers ended up loving the extra-sour kick. "I was the only one who wanted it less sour," she laughs. Apparently, Brooklynites have developed a taste for that funky, wild yeast flavor.

But Margaret's not giving up on her quest for the perfect sourdough loaf. "There are so many variables - the temperature of the water, how often you feed it, the flour, the kind of oven," she muses. One thing she's learned, though, is that a Dutch oven or lidded pot is essential for getting that coveted crusty exterior.

Yeast Hunting in the Big Apple

So while Margaret may have failed to tame the sour beast, her wild yeast adventure has opened up a whole new world of baking possibilities. And it's not just her - the team over at Brooklyn Brewery has been getting in on the yeast-hunting action too.

According to Joe Palca, the brewery has been collaborating with scientists to isolate all sorts of wild yeasts from the lees (sediment) of naturally fermented wine. They're particularly interested in Brettanomyces, a funky, fruity yeast strain that can add some serious complexity to beer.

But it's not just Brettanomyces they're after - the team is also on the lookout for other wild yeast species, like Candida, Hanseniaspora, and even good ol' Saccharomyces cerevisiae (the workhorse of the brewing world). After all, any indigenous yeast could be a potential game-changer for their beer recipes.

The Wild Yeast Frontier

As I dig deeper into this world of wild yeast wrangling, I can't help but be amazed by the sheer diversity of microbes just waiting to be discovered, right here in our own backyard. I mean, think about it - the same air that carries the scent of freshly baked bagels and simmering pizza also holds the key to unlocking new and exciting flavors in our food and drinks.

It's like a whole new frontier of culinary exploration, and folks like Margaret and the team at Brooklyn Brewery are leading the charge. Who knows what other wild and wonderful yeasts are lurking in the nooks and crannies of this bustling city? ​

One thing's for sure, though - the future of baking and brewing is looking mighty funky, and I can't wait to see what these yeast hunters discover next. So here's to the wild yeasts of Brooklyn, may they continue to surprise and delight us with their boundless potential!

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