Fort Mill Times

Unravel mystery of yeast

Without yeast there wouldn't be wine. What is yeast? Where's it come from? What's it do?

Yeast can appear to be kind of a mysterious and spooky thing. My grandmother lived in a rural area, and she and her neighbors baked their own bread using a yeast starter passed along from one person to another. She was told it originally came from witches living in the woods.

It's alive! It's alive! Yeast is a living, microscopic, single-cell organism that as it grows, converts sugar, through fermentation, into alcohol and carbon dioxide. It's a catalyst that enables a chemical reaction to take place. Yeast occur naturally, and "wild yeast" is that dusty stuff you find on a bunch of grapes in the supermarket or in a vineyard. Like people, each individual strain of yeast has its own characteristics.

When yeast assists in fermentation, it alters the final product with its own particular personality. Because of this, using "wild yeast" to make wine can be risky business.

Dry yeast was first developed during World War II. These yeast cells are dormant until warm water is added. They then become active. Today there are a number of cultured yeasts available commercially for winemakers. These yeasts enable winemakers to better control the fermentation process and give them the results they're looking for.

You can get yeasts that will impart specific traits to a wine. Are your grapes overripe? There's a yeast to help with that. If you want to emphasize citrus flavors in a wine, there's a yeast that can do that. We're not talking genetic engineering here. Cultured yeast is not an artificial product but rather something that occurs naturally and has been preserved. Yeast can help make wine into the best product it can be. It can't, however, make a sow's ear into a silk purse. No yeast can make good wine from poor quality grapes.

Grapes have a lot of sugar, and when they ferment, a lot of alcohol is produced. Bread dough has relatively little sugar. When baker's yeast is used to make bread, it's a leveling agent. The carbon dioxide released during the chemical reaction forms air bubbles in the dough increasing it in size, causing it to rise. When the dough is baked, the air pockets remain, and any residual alcohol from fermentation is evaporated.

Jim and Marie Oskins are Fort Mill residents living on Lake Wylie. They can be e-mailed at winetime@com.

Perfect Pizza Dough

2/3 cup warm water

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 Tbs. olive oil

1/2 tsp. salt

3/4 tsp. sugar

1 packet dry baker's yeast

Proof the yeast by adding one envelope of dry baker's yeast to 1/4 cup warm water 100-110 degrees. (Use a thermometer. If the temperature is too hot, it'll kill the yeast.) Stir in the sugar. Let stand 8-10 minutes. If the yeast foams, it's active. In a large bowl stir the active yeast into 2 cups of the flour a little at a time while also adding the remaining water, oil and salt. Work into a ball. If the dough is too loose (like a batter) add the additional flour. If it's too dry and cracks, add in a little more water. Knead the dough on a flat dry surface using flour to keep it from sticking. Place the dough back in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and store in a warm place (80-85 degrees) to let the dough rise for about 30 minutes. When the dough has risen to twice its original size, remove it from the bowl and punch it down (knead it again). The dough may be used immediately or kept refrigerated overnight. Yields one 14-inch pizza crust.

Sprinkle corn meal on a pizza pan to keep it from sticking. Place the dough in the center of the pan and flatten with a floured rolling pin, working from the center to the edges. Add your favorite sauce, cheese, and toppings. Bake at 450 degrees until golden, 20-30 minutes.

Recommended Wines

Zinfandel is a versatile wine and one of our favorites. It can range from light to extremely full bodied. It goes well with barbecue, pizza and many other full- flavored meat or pasta dishes.

• Recommended: 2007 Cline Zinfandel, Sonoma, Calif., about $10. This wine comes from Clines own vineyards making it consistent from year to year. It's medium bodied with pronounced flavors of dark cherries and raspberries.

• Highly Recommended: Klinker Brick Old Vines Zinfandel, Lodi, Calif., about $19. This wine is made from grapes coming from 14 vineyards of vines ranging from 37 to 112 years old. These old vineyards yield small crops of fruit with very concentrated flavors. This is a very full-bodied, complex wine with flavors of black cherry, plum and spice. These grapes have lots of sugar, which makes a very powerful wine.