My college student son and I were starting on one of our all-too-few quail hunting trips when I noticed he was packing along a rather mysterious paper shopping bag. The bag was tightly closed at the top with a heavy cord and I suspected that it held something special. As I found out later, it did!
I was busily preparing dinner in our camper the first evening out when Bob suddenly reached into the shopping bag and pulled out a large mound-shaped loaf. “What’s that?” I asked.
Bob grinned a self-satisfied ear-to-ear grin and replied, “Alaskan Sourdough bread. I made it myself.”
“Yeah?” I said as I hefted the loaf. “Boy. It’s heavy. What’s it taste like?”
“Oh, about as good as this,” Bob said with forced nonchalance as he plumped a second solid loaf on the camper’s table. “Try some.”
For the next half-hour, we buttered and ate slice after slice of both white and cracked wheat sourdough bread and — although heavy — it was the first honest-to-goodness “bread” I had eaten for many a year. Bob’s product was close-textured, heavy-bodied and had a good crunchy crust. I hadn’t enjoyed plain bread and butter that way since bakers had started puffing vast quantities of air into the “store bought” loaves on grocery shelves.
When we had eaten our fill (better than half a loaf between us) I began asking Bob about the mechanics of sourdough bread.
“First,” he said, “you need a starter.”
“A starter? What’s that?”
“This,” said Bob, withdrawing a small earthenware crock from the shopping bag, “is starter. It’s one of the most precious possessions of the old-time prospector in Alaska. A starter is really just a culture of yeast perpetually kept growing by use and replenishment.”
I lifted the lid on the crock and sniffed a somewhat pleasant alcoholic odor. Bob’s small batch of starter was (except for size) strongly reminiscent of the crocks found in so many homes during the futile days of prohibition. “It smells like home brew,” I said.
“Well, you know that yeast and fermentation have been known to form a little alcohol from time to time,” Bob replied mischievously.
Alcohol or no alcohol, since Bob gave me that introduction to sourdough, I’ve enthusiastically turned on the rest of the family and many friends to baking with this do-it-yourself yeast ... and I now find myself living in my own little clique of expert sourdough bakers and connoisseurs. In the process we’ve all been exposed to a large slice of the fascinating history of sourdough starter or “sponge.”
Tales about the origin, baking and consumption of sourdough bread have become almost legend in the north country of Canada and Alaska. It’s said that — in a last ditch effort to keep their precious starter from freezing — old-timers would put a glob of the sponge into a small pouch and hang it from a cord around their necks. They could then tuck the fragrant culture under their long underwear and keep it “working” with the heat from their bodies. In this way, the sour, half-spoiled starter soon lent its peculiar yeasty smell to a prospector’s cabin ... and his own personal body odor as well. Eventually the starter and the bread made from it became so popular and commonplace among these men that the miners and prospectors themselves became known as “Sourdoughs.”
It’s also said that some of the original starters set by the 1849 Alaskan and Yukon gold seekers are still being used by modern-day cooks. I find this claim hard to believe, but it is possible since, each time bread is baked, part of the batter is put back into the crock to serve as starter for the next batch of dough. In theory at least, as long as fresh bread is baked every week or two and the remaining starter replenished with flour and warm water, the culture of yeast will continue indefinitely.
If you’re interested in making sourdough bread as the old-timers made it, your starter can be formulated by dissolving a cake or a package of dry yeast in two cups of warm water. Add two cups of flour and mix well. Put the mixture in a warm place overnight and it will be ready for use the next morning.
When making bread, hotcakes or whatever from this starter, always set aside one-half cup of the yeasty brew with which to activate the next batch (sort of like leaving a cup of water at the well to prime the pump). This first half-cup of carry-over starter contains the yeast plants that will multiply and age and eventually mellow through hundreds of bakings into your own personal strain of sourdough.
Just as your sourdough starter will eventually become uniquely your own, I’m sure that you’ll eventually come up with your own novel ideas of what should go into a sourdough recipe. For example, I like cracked wheat and I usually put a half-cup of cracked wheat flour into my sourdough bread. Maybe you will too, maybe not. You can’t go too far wrong, though, using the following recipe for your introduction to sourdough baking.
First, take out one-half cup of your new starter and set it aside in the refrigerator for your second batch. To the remaining yeasty mixture (usually about two cups), add:
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup white flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup cracked wheat (optional)
Mix the ingredients well and set the dough in a warm place.
After two or three hours, turn the dough out on a well-floured board and knead in one or more cups of white flour for about 10 minutes. Shape into a loaf and place in a well-greased baking pan. Grease the top and sides of the loaf, cover with a towel and place in a warm place for an hour or until the dough has nearly doubled in size. Bake in a preheated oven at a temperature of 450° for 10 minutes, then turn heat back to 375 degrees and bake for 35 minutes more.
To bake sourdough white bread, set a sponge the night before by adding two cups of warm water and two cups of flour to your starter. In the morning, save back one-half cup of the batter to use as a starter for your next baking effort and add two tablespoons of cooking oil to the sponge. Mix well, then pour the sponge into the following dry ingredients and mix thoroughly:
4 cups white flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
If necessary, add more flour until you have dough suitable for kneading and knead on a floured board for about 10 minutes. Put dough in a greased bowl, cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place for about three hours.
Dissolve a quarter-teaspoon of soda in a tablespoon of warm water and knead into the dough. Shape dough into a loaf and set in a baking pan to rise. When loaf has doubled in size, bake at 375 degrees for about 55 minutes.
Sourdough French bread, with its fine crunchy crust baked to a golden brown, is also a taste tempter and I hope you’ll try it the next time you feel the need for a little variety in your bread making. Except for the addition of a package of yeast, the ingredients are the same as for ordinary sourdough bread and here’s the way we make ours:
Set a sponge the night before as called for in the white bread recipe. Return one-half cup of the starter to the refrigerator in the morning and, to the balance of the sponge, add one package of yeast and two tablespoons of fat. Mix well. Sift into a bowl:
4 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
Make a well in the center of these dry ingredients and pour the sponge into the hole. Add enough flour to make a dough and knead on a floured board for 15 minutes. Put knead dough into a greased bowl, cover with a towel and allow to raise until doubled (usually two to four hours in a warm place). Dissolve one-quarter teaspoon of soda in a tablespoon of warm water and knead it into the dough. Divide dough in two and roll each half into a rectangle measuring about 12 by 5 inches. Then, starting on one of the wide sides, tightly roll each rectangle of dough and seal the edges by pinching them together.
Sprinkle cornmeal on a greased baking sheet and place the two loaves on the sheet. They should double in size in about an hour. Brush the loaves with cold water and cut several diagonal slits about one-fourth inch deep in each loaf of bread.
Put the loaves and a pan of boiling water in a 400 degrees oven and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the bread, brush again with water, set the oven temperature back to 350° and bake the loaves another 40 minutes or until the crust is a golden brown. Brush again with cold water and bake for another two or three minutes.
Some home bakers like to give their French bread yet another brushing with undiluted canned milk or heavy cream before a final five minute baking. If you try this, you’ll find that an egg yolk mixed with one teaspoon of milk for the last coating will give the finished loaves an even richer yellowish-brown crust.
For an even more interesting variation on baking with your starter, you might try sourdough muffins. They go mighty good at breakfast and here’s the recipe we use:
As with white and French bread, set a sponge the night before by adding two cups of warm water and two cups of flour to your crock. Next morning, set aside a half cup of starter and mix 1/2 cup of melted fat and two eggs into the remaining sponge. Then sift into a bowl :
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon soda
1/2 cup sugar
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the add the mixed starter. Stir just enough to moisten all the flour. Raisins or chopped nuts can be added to the batter if desired. Grease your muffin tins and fill each hole about three-quarters full. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes.
During one of my wife’s last sourdough sessions, she came up with another good breakfast recipe. Although she claims the finished product is bread, I classify the delicious result as halfway between bread and coffee cake. For lack of a better name, I’ll call it Cinnamon Coffee Bread.
To make this coffee bread, follow the recipe for sourdough French bread but substitute about a cup of raisins for the cake of yeast just before dividing the dough and rolling it out into two rectangles. Then generously spread the 12-x-15-inch pieces of dough with soft butter and sprinkle them with cinnamon and about three-fourths cups of sugar before tightly rolling and pinching them shut. Put the two loaves in a warm place to rise and, when they’ve doubled in size, bake them at 375 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes.
Having sweetened me up with the cinnamon coffee bread, my bride of 30 years next decided to knock out a sourdough cake. It, as usual, was excellent and here’s the formula:
To one-half cup of thick starter, add:
1/4 cup non-fat dry milk
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup water
Mix well and allow to ferment in a warm place for two or three hours. There should be a clean, sour milk odor. Then assemble:
1/2 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons soda
3 squares melted chocolate
Cream the shortening, sugar, salt, soda and flavorings. Add the eggs one at a time and beat well. Then add the melted chocolate and creamed mixture to the sourdough sponge and mix at low speed until well blended. Pour into a pan and bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes. Top with frosting if you must, but I prefer mine plain.
Hotcakes made from sourdough starter have a distinctive soft texture all their own and no treatise on sourdough would be complete without a few words on the subject.
Our favorite sourdough hotcake recipe starts with the setting of the usual sponge the night before. In the morning (after saving one-half cup for starter!), add the following:
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
Beat thoroughly with a fork and add two tablespoons cooking oil. Bake on a hot griddle.
As with most other sourdough recipes, there’s a lot of room for personal preferences when mixing this hotcake batter. We like to add a bit of cornmeal, for instance, and we have — upon occasion — included a handful of chopped walnuts for a pleasant taste change. Another treat is the addition of a couple spoonfuls of fresh wild raspberries once the hotcakes are on your plate.
In my opinion, however, there’s one sure-fire way to elevate sourdough hotcakes to a class far above any other hotcakes in the world ... and that’s by mixing wild blueberries into the batter. You’ll just have to try it to know how good hotcakes can be. Incidentally, frozen and domesticated blueberries will not give you the same result at all. The large domestic blueberries seem to release too much moisture into the batter and they turn the pancakes soggy. The “improved” berries also lack the wonderful tartness of the wild blueberry.
So there you have it. A veritable cornucopia of good things to eat from your sourdough starter crock. Treat it kindly and that starter will serve you well!
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