Did you know that you don't need commercial yeast to make bread? I learned this fact and more at a two-night Artisan-Style French Breads class at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in New York. There is natural, wild yeast in most environments, and if you give dough a bit more time, it will collect this yeast from the air and start to ferment and rise. You start with sponge, which is just water and flour (could be wheat, rye, or bread, depending on the recipe, but you want to start with coarser flours as it will promote more yeast activity). Each day, you add more flour (ever finer) and water to the starter as well as salt (it can inhibit yeast, so it isn't added at first). This is how San Francisco sourdough is made —bakeries have been feeding their sponge for years.
Our instructor had already started some the bread bases before our first night of class because the fermenting and rising can take 4 days or more. Over the course of two nights, we worked with several doughs and used various tools and pans to create the baked breads. We added additional ingredients, such as nuts, herbs, and dried fruit, to some of bases, too. We also got to work with brioche dough and made pain d' espices, two other traditional French breads. Check out my photos to see some of the items I baked. And for more bread pictures and recipes, visit the Wild Yeast blog. It has a weekly YeastSpotting post that features some beautiful breads.