Grandma’s Yeast Sponge, Part 1

(copied from my old blog)

December 31, 2015


When I was a girl, I would stay with my Grandma over the summertime. Her Sunday night ritual was to set her yeast “sponge” just before going to bed. In the morning when she got up, she would proceed with the sponge as her starter and would make 10 loaves of bread.

She would put about a cup or so (I don’t know if she measured and this is a more-than-40-year-old memory) of warm water to her huge wooden bowl, then sprinkle one packet of yeast over it. Once it was softened, she whisked it into the water, then added about a quarter cup of sugar and enough flour to make a thin slurry. A tea towel covered it and the whole went into her gas oven, which was only warmed by a pilot light.

Grandma was a single mom during the Great Depression and learned to live very, very frugally. I sure wish I’d been smart enough to take notes and ask a LOT more questions than I did.  At any rate, I am now going off my memory to try to duplicate what she did.

The first batch I made only slightly more than doubled a usual 2-loaf bread recipe, so not much of a “success” toward trying to truly re-create her recipe, but it was a good learning experiment.

I began the second batch on November 22nd, taking pictures of the steps along the way, and actually measuring out the ingredients so that I could share it all here.  I finally baked the last of the dough 19 days later for dinner, keeping the dough in my spare refrigerator.  That fridge rarely gets opened – maybe 3 times a week – so the temperatures in it are very stable, and I’m sure that had something to do with the longevity of the dough.

Grandma’s Yeast Sponge Bread Dough Recipe


2 cups hot tap water

1 packet active dry yeast OR 1 Tbsp bulk active dry yeast

¼ cup sugar

2 cups flour

Next day ingredients:

3 cups milk

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup sugar

1 Tbsp salt

3 large eggs

4 cups flour

To make half into bread products:

Additional 2-3 cups flour


Because our house is quite cool in the late fall/early winter, I use my oven as a “proofing” box.  I preheat it to 170* F (the lowest temp it will go), then turn it off while I am prepping my sponge.  I use hot tap water to pre-warm my largest metal bowl and then put measured hot tap water into the bowl.  Sprinkle yeast over the water and allow it to soften and absorb water.  This is an important step in the process.  If you just whisk the dry yeast into water, there will be globs and pockets of dry yeast clumps.  As Alton Brown would say, “Not good eats!”

When the yeast has softened, whisk in some sugar and flour  and then cover with plastic film and place in turned off oven and shut the door.  Leave at least 8 hours or overnight.  This time allows the yeast to multiply enough to make several loaves of bread.

Remove sponge from the oven and preheat to lowest setting again.  The batter will have risen, then fallen, and there will be a spongy mass on top of a whey-like liquid.

Stir sponge and liquid together into a homogeneous batter.

Milk is the next ingredient to be considered.  If using raw milk, it must be scalded:

“In bread making, scalding the milk serves a more scientific purpose. The whey

protein in milk can weaken gluten and prevent the dough from rising properly.

Scalding the milk deactivates the protein so this doesn’t happen.” (Reference:

I would also scald if using low-temp pasteurized milk, as it takes approximately 180*F to break down the proteins.  Most modern day pasteurized/homogenized milk is heated to high temps at the same time as homogenizing, heating and aerosolizing it in one step, so those proteins have been destroyed.  If using such milk, simply warming it is enough.

To scald milk, heat to 180*F, then allow to cool to no more than 115-120*F.  Any hotter than that can kill the yeast.  I add the butter for the recipe to the milk to help it cool down more quickly.

I temper the warm milk with some of the sponge batter, as is done for egg custards.  I sure don’t want to overheat my carefully multiplied yeasts and kill any of them off!

I then add more sugar, some salt (for flavor and to keep the yeast from overgrowth), and three eggs (amounts listed in the “Next day ingredients).  I like the body and color that eggs add to bread.

I then stir in the milk/butter liquid alternating with flour.  The alternation of the additions makes it easier to manage the dough without getting lumps.  The dough/batter will end up in a consistency like pancake batter – just right.

Because my largest SS bowls would be rapidly over-run once this amount of dough starts rising, I divide it in half into both of my biggest bowls.  It then is covered with plastic wrap and goes back into the oven to rest and replicate the yeast some more.  Anywhere from 2 hours and up is just fine, as this method is SO forgiving.  I was gone 4 hours that day.

When first poured into the bowls:

And four hours later:

Stir down bubbles and re-cover one of the bowls with plastic wrap.

From the uncovered bowl, I removed 1/2 of the batter – approximately 2 cups of dough – and placed it in my stand mixer bowl with the dough hook attached.  With the mixer on low speed, I added flour ½ cup at a time until the dough pulled from the sides of the bowl.

From this point, I added flour ¼ cup at a time until the dough was no longer sticky, occasionally stopping the mixer to scrape down the sides of the bowl.  It took a total of about 2 1/2 cups of flour to achieve a good texture.  I then allowed the mixer to knead the dough another 5 minutes or so.

Grease a large, clean bowl with butter.  Remove dough ball from mixer bowl and turn it in the greased bowl several times to coat well with butter.  Cover with plastic film.

Repeat above steps with other half of batter from the uncovered bowl, but add the dough ball to the buttered bowl holding the previous dough ball, rather than dirtying another bowl.  Allow dough to rest approximately one hour.

At this point, the dough is ready to be used as you would any other bread dough.  On that day, I used one half of the finished dough to make a loaf of bread and the other half to make caramel rolls.

While waiting for the finished dough to rise, turn your attention to the rest of the sponge.  Sit in ½ cup of flour at a time until the dough pulls from the sides of the bowl, but is still very sticky.  Brush melted butter in a clean bowl and turn the sticky dough into the clean bowl.  Brush the top of the dough with butter, making sure to coat all exposed surfaces, then cover the bowl with plastic film.  Refrigerate for later use.


My next post will include my recipe for caramel rolls and further reporting on what I did with the other half of the dough.  While I did not fully re-create my grandmother’s efficiency of making 10 loaves of bread from one packet of yeast, I am very pleased with my results.

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