Sourdough: An Antique "Start"
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 to bake tasty bread when there was no baking soda in the wilds. It had to have been part of baking for which there is now evidence in Israel that it has been going on for 10,000 years. The people who made sourdough bread were eventually called "sourdoughs", the hardworking people of the northern wildlands and the American frontiers. A distinctive flavor is imparted by each sourdough "start."
|A modern sourdough start can be made by combining 2 cups all-purpose flour, 2 cups warm water, 1 tablespoon of dry commercial yeast, and 2 tablespoons of sugar in a large bowl, covering it with plastic wrap, and leaving it in a warm place (80 degrees F.) for 4-5 days. Stir it every day, then refrigerate it until needed.|
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. (The Rural System starter has been in use for over 50 years.)
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 keeps moist for a long time. It molds easily.
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 ill 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 this good starter with its clean aroma and flavor, she has given starters to countless other Alaskans. That tradition is being repeated in the Eagan Mountain region of eastern Tennessee and among native American, the Rappahannocks in Tidewater Virginia.
One old sourdough warns: If the starter turns orange it is not spoiled, but if it turns green, it must be discarded. 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 it is replenished every few days with a little flour and 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. To carry it to camp, add enough flour to 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 fife. In growing, the yeast gives off carbon dioxide gas that bubbles in the dough. The starch and sugar are changed to lactic acid, giving the dough a sour odor. When baking 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.
|A unique sourdough start from
the backcountry of Alaska.
This wild yeast is essential for making the distinctively delicious pancakes like those that fed the gold miners, loggers, and settlers of the West and those that moved northward into Alaska.
Tended like a treasure, shared as a great gift with "tenderfeet" the new arrivals, a sourdough start was a basic, a fundamental part of the beginning of permanent life on the frontier.
This start was brought from Alaska sometime before 1952, shared with a rangeland professor at the University of Idaho by a student, and then shared with Bob Giles who brought it to Virginia and has tended it carefully ever since. It needs to be handed down, preserved for use in breads, , pies, pancakes, and other wonderful tasty leavened products.
Its use needs to become a part of your family tradition, just as it was for Bob's, providing an attachment with the robust pioneering past of the USA and an enhancement of essentials for the great tasks ahead for the new world.
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] 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. Bob 'raised two girls' on the sourdough and shared it with friends and parents in Blacksburg and Lynchburg, Virginia, his home place. In 1997 Bob's 87-year old mother, Anna Trevey, and her friends began experimenting with the sourdough. They all knew what they liked and didn't like about pancakes, waffles, rolls, and 'breads for walks' -- backpacker stuff. (His mother especially like the sourdough waffles.)
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. The wild yeasts of Rural System, Inc. were selected only 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 the Alaskan start was?
Hotcakes for Three (use the Rural System Starter only for the first batch) a recipe from an Alaska Extension Service leaflet Mix:
Set in a warm place in a closed cupboard overnight. In the morning, take out 1/4 cup of the batter and put it back into the starter container (a small jar or plastic refrigerator storage jar with lid) or in a 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 (a favorite of Bob's mother, Mrs. Anna Trevey):
Mix the sponge as for hotcakes, making it 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.
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 the center of it. Mix eggs and fat with the sponge in the well. 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.)
We welcome your comments, advice, and recipes. A part of our web site will soon have ideas for outdoor cooks and old sourdoughs to share their recipes and experiences.
We sell the starts, but part of the profit goes toward studies of wildlife nutrition and microorganisms in the wildlands. Support to aid in such work is needed, and tax deductible opportunities are available within Rural System. We welcome your interest and financial assistance.
Note to Alinda Uzel, Cooperative Extension, from Giles, 2004
Please send me your mailing address and I'll send sourdough if you are interested in experimenting with it
Maybe you'll share name of staff here/elsewhere who might be interested in studying the properties of the crust (antioxidants?) and other things. I wish we could produce a non-greasy roll that would be great in field lunches or in hunters/loggers/anglers pockets.
Knowing properties may help sell it.
No matter what, it makes good pancakes.
I contribited my starter to Beth Barnett-Boebel of Blacksburg, The Fresh Palate, June, 2009
The Giles'start was lost in 2010. See old Oregon Trail starter, 1847, from : http:carlsfriends.net or arrange for Carla Brindle's "mother dough" from email email@example.com
Perhaps you will share ideas with me about some of the topic(s) above .
Robert H. Giles, Jr.