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The Starter for Rural System Sourdough...

As you may know, a "start" is about a half-cup of plain wheat flour full of wild yeast. The yeast allowed the miners, hunters, and settlers in early America to bake tasty bread when there was no baking soda in the wilds. The people who made sourdough bread were eventually called 'sourdoughs', the hardworking people of the wildlands and the American frontiers.

Sourdough hotcakes, the main breakfast of prospectors, miners, and old-time Alaskans, differ from other hotcakes in that the batter is leavened with a yeast starter and soda. The starter must be set the night before it is to be used. The starter, replenished every week with flour and water, will last weeks, even years. Some Alaskans are still using starters traced back to an original starter brought into the country with the gold rush. To them, the sourdough pot is a prized possession.

From an Alaskan Extension Service publication we learn that in 1890, an Alaskan prospector married an Indian girl. They started a sourdough pot and kept the starter going by using it regularly. When the wife died and the husband became i1l he refused to go to the hospital if it meant leaving his sourdough pot. It was given to a friend to guard. She kept her promise and used the starter once a week. From it, she has given starters to countless other Alaskans. It is an essentially good starter with a clean aroma and flavor.

One old sourdough warns: If the starter turns orange it is not spoiled, but if it turns green, it must be discarded. Stored as a batter, moisture may separate and colors form. Discard moisture and colored parts and restart with a small scoop from the center placed in a warm fresh flour-and-water batter. Modern Alaskans do not use discolored starters, but keep the starter clean and fresh in a refrigerator or other cool place and use it weekly. For best results, use glass or pottery containers. Never use a metal container or leave a metal spoon in the starter. A good starter contains only flour, water, and yeast. It has a clean sour milk odor. The liquid will separate from the batter when it stands several days, but this does not matter. If replenished every few days with flour and more water, the starter keeps fresh. If the starter is not to be used for several weeks, freeze or dry it to keep it from spoiling, or simply keep it in a capped glass jar on a shelf in the refrigerator. To carry it to camp, add flour,shape it into a ball, and place it in a sack of flour.

In the dried form, the yeast goes into a spore stage that will keep inert for a long time like old-fashioned yeast foam. Water and warmth bring the yeast plants back to the active stage.

Commercial sourdough starters now on the market are dried and powdered. Simply add water to bring it to life. In growing, the yeast gives oft a carbon dioxide gas which bubbles in the dough. The lactic acid bacteria changes starch and sugar to lactic acid, giving the dough a sour odor. When soda is added, it reacts with the acid to form more gas, which makes the batter light. If too much soda is added, the product becomes brownish when baked. If too little soda is used, the product tastes sour. Add soda just before baking, but never add soda to the starter since it kills the yeast.

The starter is used mainly for hotcakes, but may also be used for waffles, muffins, and bread. Sourdough hotcakes are tender and moist, not thick and fluffy. The bread is apt to be heavy, but it keeps moist for a long time. It molds easily.

A True Story

Here is a true story that's hard to believe but it is part of the Rural System story, one about care of the essential small things, all of them, over long periods.

Sometime before 1952 a graduate student of Professor Lee Sharp of the range management department of the University of Idaho, Moscow, brought to him a sourdough "start" from Alaska. Dr. Sharp kept that sourdough 'going' (replenishing it after each use [see the instructions above] and keeping it in the refrigerator). He gave a start to Dr. Bob Giles in 1968 when Bob left the University of Idaho to start teaching and doing research at Virginia Tech. He brought it to Virginia in the dry ball suggested above. Bob 'raised two girls' on the sourdough and shared it with friends and parents in Virginia. The starter has been maintained by Giles all of these years and is now available to you as a product of the Rural System. It is an "antique" and imparts a delightful, distinctive flavor to breads.

Hotcakes for Three (use the Rural System Starter only for the first batch)


Set in a warm place in a closed cupboard overnight. In the morning, take out 1/4 cup of the batter in scalded pint fruit jar Cover and store in the refrigerator or cool place for a starter for the next batch. To the remaining batter add:

Beat with a fork and stir in 2 tablespoons melted fat or butter. If batter is too thick, add a tablespoon of milk, enough to make a batter that will pour. Bake on a hot griddle; brown nicely on both sides. Serve hot off the griddle with molasses, jelly or your favorite syrup. Hot melted butter and honey is also a good topping.

Never add leftover batter to the starter. Use it for muffins or keep until the next morning. It will not spoil in a day, but would eventually spoil the starter.

For variations, add a little whole-wheat flour or cornmeal to the batter after starter has been saved out for the next batch. Wheat germ and bran flakes are also nice variations.

Sourdough Waffles:

Mix the sponge as for hotcakes, making ft slightly thicker. Let stand over-night. Save out 1/2 cup of starter for next starter and keep in a cool place. To remaining batter sprinkle:

Mix well and add fat just before baking. Bake like other waffles.

Sourdough Muffins:

In the evening, set the sponge as for hotcakes. In the morning, take out 1/4 cup for next starter and place in a cool place. To the remaining sponge, add:

Sift dry ingredients into a bowl. Make a well in center. Mix eggs and fat with the sponge in the "well" in the flour. Stir only enough to moisten the flour. Fill greased muffin tins 3/4 full. Bake in a 375 degree F oven for 30-35 minutes. (Yields 20 small or 12 large muffins.)

Each strain of sourdough imparts a slightly different taste to food. Each one is more or less powerful in its ability to cause bread to rise. Commercial yeasts have been selected for their ability to reproduce and to produce the carbon dioxide gas that causes the bubbles to form in dough. A series of wild yeasts of Rural System are being selected for their differences and because they are part of the biosphere. They are a resource that can be used and one that has special value to each person. The value of a start comes from its history, from how people see themselves as part of that history, but especially from how they see their future and that of their sourdough start. Will it be passed on to future generations as this Alaskan start was passed along?

We welcome your comments, advice, and recipes. A website for outdoor cooks and old sourdoughs to share their recipes and experiences will soon be available.

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This Web site is maintained by R. H. Giles, Jr.
Last revision May 8 , 2003.