From where did people get the yeast for their bread??

  • 6
    From thin air. Literally. There are still recipes in use that just expose the dough (or part of it) to ambient conditions until, hopefully, yeast gets to it before spoilage organisms do. Dec 2, 2015 at 11:46
  • However, there is a large step involved from an empirical observation that dough changes when it is left be for some time, to actively adding organisms that do the job. Dec 2, 2015 at 12:11
  • 2
    @PascalEngeler, like from a spoiled petri dish to antibiotics. Accident -> observation -> conclusion -> use.
    – Stephie
    Dec 2, 2015 at 16:50

2 Answers 2


The first yeast was "just there" - in the environment, everywhere. People discovered very early on that leaving the dough (or just a flour-water slurry) out would lead to it getting "sour" and "bubbly", thus leavening the bread: What we today call sourdough is in fact a mixture of yeasts and bacteria (lactobacillae).

The origins of bread-making are so ancient that everything said about them must be pure speculation. (M.G. Gaenzle: Encyclopedia of Food Microbiology)

Early sources are the Bible (-> the explicit demand for of "unleavened" or "unsoured" bread during Passover suggesting that otherwise was the norm) and sources from Ancient Egypt.

The "modern" yeast that was explicitly added was mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis historia as a foam skimmed from beer:

In Gaul and Spain, where they make a drink by steeping corn in the way that has been already described - they employ the foam which thickens upon the surface as a leaven: hence it is that the bread in those countries is lighter than that made elsewhere.

Source: The Natural History, Chapter 12: Wheat. Pliny the Elder. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855.

Sources from the 18th century describe how the yeast from the brewing process (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) was used for baking, leading to the "specialized strains" of bakers' yeast cultivated separately when the brewers switched to bottom-fermenting yeast (S. pastorianus) in the 19th century, which preferred cooler temperatures and was not as easy to harvest as the top-fermenting types.

The use of separately cultivated yeast allowed to bake "milder" breads than the sourdough types with their typical acidic undertones but is restricted to certain flour types.


It's from before history.

Cool fact I read in a brewing book: Brewers used to keep a "magic wand" that was used to stir the wort (sugary water). This wand had the brewer's yeast on it and inoculated the wort with yeast to ferment it into beer. This is part of the origin of the magic wand.

Bakers, brewers, krauts, and yogurts would have had similar experiences with their tools (mixers, vessels, etc) harboring the yeast needed to make the fermentations.


  • 2
    "krauts" as in "Germans"? And who are "yogurts"?
    – Stephie
    Dec 3, 2015 at 9:31
  • 1
    Think he means those that made Sauerkraut and Yoghurt, though technically these arent made by yeasts... but IIRC (If I could be bothered my sources I'd make an answer not a comment :) people hundreds of years ago understood yeast as a substance that you could extract from the brewing process, but assumed it was chemical, not live in nature. Dec 3, 2015 at 9:58

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