How sourdough got its start
Sourdough can be traced back to 4,000 B.C., but the term "sourdough" originated with the California gold rush prospectors.
Yeasts and other leaveners fill modern cupboards, but for centuries the only method of leavening bread was with a "starter" or "sponge." Early bread makers who found that moistened flour, exposed to air, fermented and expanded probably discovered starters.
The year 1849 brought the gold prospectors who traveled throughout California. The prospectors would carry starters with them to make their leavened breads away from home. From California they followed the gold to the Canadian Klondike and made Alaskan sourdough well known and acclaimed. For this reason, San Franciscan and Alaskan sourdough are similarly recognized as origins of this palate-pleasing product.
To traveling men, sourdough starters were a treasure. Some carried their starter from claim site to campsite along their journey, and by necessity these men were creative in their use of the soured batter.
Gold dust pans were interchanged for bread pans at the evening meal,
and stories tell of these men taking their crocks of starter to bed
to keep them warm on chilly frontier nights. The men who carried these
crocks of soured starter were called "sourdoughs," and eventually the
words sourdough and prospector became interchangeable.
Sourdough starter is simply a living mixture of lactobacilli and yeast that live off complex carbohydrates in flour. When the organism runs out of food the starter will go dormant. Every time the starter is fed, the cycle of growth starts over.
Making a sponge "proofs" the starter by sitting it in a warm place until it is foamy. To make the traditional sponge, the starter and all liquids in the recipe are mixed with half the flour and allowed to proof and ferment.
There are some simple guidelines for keeping a starter. Keep it in a glass container, feed it at least once a week or every 10 days, and wash the container every few months.
Glass is recommended because acids in the starter will corrode any metal. Plastic cannot be used because it is an organic material and the starter is as well; the plastic will absorb any organic compounds made by the cultures.
Always use a wooden spoon to stir the starter so there are no chemical
reactions. If you go out of town put the starter in the freezer and
thaw it later at room temperature.
Obtain a little starter from a friend who is growing one, or follow
this simple recipe.
Archived Months:September 1998