My love for sourdough and learning how to make sourdough bread began suddenly one day while out hunting in antique stores. A shop owner in Paxico, Kansas, said she had just gotten in a truckload of old cookbooks she’d scored at an estate sale, and she suggested I might want to have a look. Might I? She had no idea who she was dealing with!
For the next couple of hours I pored through the stacks, and when I pulled out a smallish, red book from 1976 called Alaska Sourdough: The Real Stuff by A Real Alaskan by Ruth Allman (Alaska Northwest Publishing Co., Anchorage), I held it up in a “Eureka!” moment. This charming, handwritten book (literally handwritten by the author, and mass-produced by the publisher) spoke to me on many levels. My grandfather was an Alaska Native, and after spending time on “the last frontier,” I came to cherish both the Native culture and that rugged pioneer spirit. Also, being a fervent baker, I had wanted to investigate sourdough for some time. All of that, together with my love for “real food,” converged, and I started on my sourdough odyssey.
One of Webster’s definitions for a “sourdough” is “a prospector or settler in the Western United States or Canada, especially one living alone: so called because their staple was sourdough bread.” Sourdough, the food, is a fermented dough and traditional pioneer food of mining camps and chuck wagons, and for those living on the trail. It was known as the best food for energy because of its protein content – according to Ruth Allman, laboratory tests have shown sourdough contains the greatest amount of protein for its weight and size of any comparable food.
Sourdough was common in pioneer days because yeast was extremely hard to come by, and when it was available, it was almost always “dead” from exposure to extreme conditions. Dead yeast resulted in baking failures that were a grievous waste of vital supplies. Sourdough became the standard because it could be controlled and kept alive, and it was always dependable.
The best way to get started with how to make sourdough bread is to acquire a small quantity from an active pot. My husband gave me a small jar of starter as a gift; he acquired it from a friend who acquired it from a pig farmer in the Italian province of Le Marche, where it has been used as the village starter for at least 100 years. (There will always be great lore surrounding any sourdough starter, for people love their sourdough!)
In lieu of tapping an Italian pig farmer, make your own. According to Ruth Allman, it’s this simple:
“Mix a rich, thick potato water with flour, and a spoonful or two of sugar, and you have the beginnings of a Sourdough Pot. Keep it in a warm place and it will begin to ferment. A ‘wild yeast’ develops. The sourdough is beginning to work, emitting a profusion of small, effervescent bubbles. Thus you have created the ‘Bubbling Sourdough.’ Truly this is a miracle worker. Transforming what was apparently a starch food into a protein dynamo!”
Here’s a more-specific recipe for getting started when learning how to make sourdough bread:
2 cups thick potato water
2 tablespoons sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
To make thick potato water: Boil the potatoes with skins until they fall apart in the pot. Remove the skins and mash the potatoes into a puree. Cool for 1 hour. Add water until you have a soupy liquid.
Then place all starter ingredients into a crock and beat by hand until you have a smooth, creamy batter (similar to pancake batter). Cover with a clean cotton or linen cloth and fasten with a rubber band around the top. Set aside in a warm place for 3 days to begin fermentation.
Starter can be used after 3 days, but it’s best to wait a few more days. Add fuel in the form of equal parts flour and water (start with 1⁄4 cup), and a spoonful of sugar. Mix well, making sure to get out any lumps, and put back in that warm spot to keep fermenting. Your sourdough should develop a pleasant, sour aroma.
Once your sourdough is established, feed it daily, or every other day, depending on how often you use it, with equal parts flour and water. (I’ve been advised to use only white flour or you run the risk of turning it rancid.) Every time you use your sourdough, feed it before stowing it away. Feeding sourdough is really more of an art than a science. I have not found the definitive source on how often to feed it. You really must use your baking intuition and your sense of smell and make sure to feed it often enough to keep it bubbling and fermenting; but not too often so that you end up with an unusable quantity, having wasted cups and cups of flour. If your pot is becoming too full and you won’t be using your sourdough for a few days, toss out half of it, and feed it small doses of flour to increase its volume gradually.
Whatever the case, it’s a good idea to stir it every day to aerate, regardless of whether you’re feeding it or not. Always stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula – never metal. Metal causes a chemical reaction with the sourdough.
It’s a tough call deciding what to use as your sourdough pot – something ever-present on the countertop that you will interact with on an almost-daily basis. It’s important to never use any kind of metal pot or spoon with sourdough – it causes all the sourdough enzymes to work overtime in a chemical reaction.
My trusty sourdough pot is a robin’s-egg blue, 1-quart ceramic crock with a lip that runs around the top – perfect for holding that rubber band in place. I bought it from a ceramic artisan at a festival in Missouri, and the size is just perfect for the amount of sourdough I use regularly. Good crocks of various sizes also can be found online; traditional 1-gallon Ohio Stoneware crocks can be purchased from retailers like Do It Best or Sears. Upscale ones can be found from Le Creuset, and unique, one-of-a-kind crocks can be found on etsy.com. (I love the ceramic fermenting crocks for sale on that site by “liciapfadt” of Bozeman, Montana – she even throws in the cheesecloth cover and a rubber band.)
Sugar is important in sourdough recipes, but only in small quantities (a couple spoonfuls at most). Sugar will render your baked goods a beautiful golden brown, but too much sugar will toughen the dough and result in a leathery texture. Baking soda sweetens sourdough, so don’t over-sugar your recipes.
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