Barm is what we used to use to make bread before the advent of solid, compressed yeast. It was skimmed off the top of fermenting beer and occasionally wine, and, back in the day when everyone was drinking small beer and ale because water couldn’t be relied on, was in ready supply.
Nowadays, it is a little tricky to obtain, unless you live near a brewery, but easy to rustle up your own due to the numerous recipes available in old books.
In general, a small quantity of hops is simmered in water for flavour, then flour and sugar and boiled, mashed potatoes are added to create the right consistency (a little like double cream). Frustratingly, when I was first looking into this, most of the recipes I found included an instruction something along the lines of: “then add a pint of good barm.” So yes, you end up with a large quantity of barm for all your baking needs, but only if you have barm to begin with. What about if you have no barm or, as I recently found, no yeast in the shops due to the random panic buying intially happening at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown?
To the rescue came a recipe in a Welsh-language cookery book “Llyfr Coginio a Chadw Ty”, (Wrexham, circa 1880), in which you can indeed start with no barm and end up with about a gallon.
I’ve made this a few times. The batch I made last year was in October, and after something of a baking frenzy spread over a couple of weeks, I left the remainder outside the back door in a closed, tupperare box. With the recent demise of yeast in the shops, I thought I’d try and resurrect it, and by jove it worked! The bread had a pronounced beery/yeasty flavour, which was due to the age, I think. Still, good to know it can keep for over 5 months in a cool environment.
Unlike a sourdough starter, it doesn’t need cosseting and feeding. Once mixed, and it has ‘risen and fallen’, it can be transferred to your container of choice and left alone. Before you use it, you stir it up (because it will settle over time), take what you need, then put the rest back.
Baking with barm is a little different from regular yeast. For starters, it takes a long time to rise, but on the plus side, it only needs to rise once. For wholemeal flour, it’s usually about 10 hours at room temperature for a loaf, and for white flour, around eight. This can be to your advantage, in that you can set a batch to rise at night, and it’ll be ready to bake by the morning. Also morning/afternoon rise, bake at night. If these times don’t suit, you could always go for an extra long, slow rise by putting the dough in a cool place, or even in the fridge (not tried this myself yet).
I have three hop bines planted in my garden, and if, like me, your garden is tiny, I can thoroughly recommend them as they are excellent producers of foliage for a tiny footprint of earth. I freeze some of the cones for barm making, others can be used in pillows to aid sleep. They also look fabulous hanging up and absorbing smells from the kitchen (although once dry, the droppage from the cones when you brush past is a housekeeping nightmare).
I realise not everyone will be in a similar position, so I have spent some time exploring other options, and
- you can buy hops on the internet from brewing supply stores. You only need 60g for one batch of barm – which makes a LOT – so don’t go mad with the quantities.
- I have also been investigating whether hops are actually needed at all, and the good news is, they aren’t! I have successfully made a batch of barm using only sugar, flour, potatoes, salt and water. If I’m honest, the hop-less bread does initially seem to lack a little something flavourwise, so my workaround for this is a suggestion to use beer as some (up to 50%) of the initial liquid, in order to get the hint of brewery aromas. You can choose dark, strong beers if you like it really pronounced, or something from the ales aisle for a lighter flavour. Or, you could just wait a while – the lower bread in the picture was baked with 2 week old hopless barm, and it had already started to have its own yeasty flavour.
4.5 litres water or beer & water mixed
60g dried hops (optional)
225g brown sugar
450g flour – a mixture of different flours if liked.
1.5kg floury potatoes (Maris Piper, Wilja, etc)
Put into container(s)
- Day One. The aim on Day One is to get a mixture that will attract the natural airborne yeast that surrounds us. One method uses hops, another uses no hops, but beer and water, a third uses neither beer or hops.
- With Hops: Add your hops to litres of water, bring the water to a gentle simmer and simmer for 30 minutes. If you want just a mild hoppiness, strain now, otherwise allow to cool to blood temperature and strain.
- With Beer: Make up 4.5 litres of liquid using beer/ale and water. Bring the mixture to blood temperature.
- No hops or beer: Bring 4.5 litres of water to blood temperature.
- Weigh out 450g flour. It can be one type of flour or a mixture of flours. Generally speaking, bleached white bread flour isn’t the best, better to have a mixture of brown/wholewheat with a little rye or buckwheat for flavour.
- Weigh out 225g brown sugar. Again, the type doesn’t matter, it’s more for colour and flavour. I prefer dark muscovado.
- Mix the flour, salt and sugar to a smooth paste with a little of your warm liquid, then add the whole to the rest of the liquid and whisk together thoroughly.
- Set aside and leave uncovered (so it can catch all the lovely natural yeast) for 48 hours. I use my preserving pan and leave it on one of the back rings of the hob.
- The flour will eventually sink, so keep a whisk handy and give it a good stir every now and then.
- Day Three
- Peel and boil 1.5kg mealy potatoes.
- Put the cooked potatoes through a ricer, or mash thoroughly.
- Add the mashed potatoes to the flour mixture and mix thoroughly. If you’re concerned about there being lumps of potato, I’ve found a stick blender is very efficient at smoothing out the mix.
- Leave for at least 24 hours. NB essentially what you are doing here is feeding the yeast your delicious flour/sugar mixture caught in the previous two days with a carb-fest of potatoes. The yeast will enjoy this so much, it will start working overtime, but will eventually fall into a carb coma. This is my very unscientific explanation of the ‘rise and fall’ that needs to happen before you confine your barm in a container. Failure to let this initial activity work through completely will result in exploded containers (see Exhibit A: my bathroom walls/ceiling/shower screen a few weeks ago….).
- You can pre-empt any overflows by continuing to whisk vigorously during this 24 hour period, to knock out the air in the mixture. If you’re concerned that your pan might overflow overnight, put it in the (empty) kitchen sink before you go to bed. I’ve done this every time, and it’s never overflowed, but I’ll bet the one time I don’t do it, I’ll regret it.
- Day Four: You will see a distinct ‘tide mark’ around your pan indicating both the high point your mixture got to, and confirmation that it has indeed ‘dropped’.
- Stir your mixture one last time, and put into your container(s). I use a large, 5 litre tupperwear box for a whole batch, but large (1.5 litre) plastic fruit juice bottles make for a handy size, with the added ease of a screwtop. VERY IMPORTANT do not screw the lids tight initially, just rest them on the top and only tighten them gradually, otherwise explosions, mess, wailing and gnashing of teeth, yaddah, yaddah…
Here endeth the lesson on the making of barm. Next up, what to do with your gallon of barm !