Before, a preface: I am not gluten free, so recipes shared will have gluten sometimes. Let me know if you have gluten free versions of my recipes shared on here!
Sourdough! Who doesn’t like Sourdough bread? The combination of the sharp, sour taste with a crunchy shell and soft interior really can’t be beat. Sourdough bread, most folks know, is a very old style of bread – it doesn’t require eggs, sugar, yeast, etc; it just requires flour, water, and a lot of time. It is one of the breads that the 49’ers brought with them when they came over to California (as represented by Boudin Bakery in SF, which started in 1850) and the Alaskan gold miners brought with them during their gold rush in the late 1890’s, and is still a perennial favorite amongst Americans today.
There is a reason sourdough was the bread to bring to a mining outpost, and that is because of its starter. A sourdough starter is basically the yeast of the bread itself- rather than adding yeast like we do with say, standard white bread, a certain portion of the flour and water in the bread has been left to ferment in order to bring out the natural wild yeast which is both in the wheat of the flour and the air. Once the flour and water have fermented, the yeast gives off that sour smell and taste we so associate with sourdough bread. A starter can be liquid or it can be kept in a more floury form; traveling with it is very easy- you just add flour until it’s basically a dough disc, and stuff it into a flour sack, and all you need to get it going again is more flour and water once you get to your location. Yeast that is separated from bread was not commercially available until the 1860’s or so, and even then, was only available in general stores, etc, which could be far from a pioneer homestead or mining claim. Typically, folks made their yeast at home, which was the way it was for a very long time before commercial yeast reigned. Yeast may have been made from hops (sometimes known as “jug yeast”), potatoes, but most likely often just from flour and water, as those were the most readily available. Families might have some “good yeast” on hand for “light bread” or similar, meant for company, just like molasses or maple was the every day sugar of choice and “fancy” white sugar was kept for special occasions, but relied upon their jar of starter as well.
Nowadays, we consider sourdough bread a gourmet bread compared to everyday white bread, but for a very long time in American history, bread made using a sourdough starter was the everyday bread folks would eat at home before heading out to chores or work. But a sourdough starter wasn’t just used in bread, it can be used as the yeast in pretty much anything bread related- biscuits, pancakes, rolls, muffins, etc. I’ve even seen recipes of starter in some cakes. Starter is very versatile, and as long as it’s “fed” regularly, can keep for literally hundreds of years – Boudin Bakery, who I previously mentioned, boasts that their “mother” starter has been continually in use and going since 1850- 166 years of an active starter!
I keep a starter (pictured above), started the old fashioned way with just flour and water (there are recipes out there that cheat and add yeast to speed the ferment up, but I like doing things old fashioned), and I love to have it, especially for when I don’t have much in the house but I want pancakes or bread or biscuits or rolls. It’s also delicious- sourdough pancakes done correctly are melt in your mouth and sourdough biscuits are light and super tasty, for example. It’s also very easy to store and to maintain, of course- only takes up a small bit of fridge space.
How does one actually make starter, though, you might ask? I more or less followed a basic recipe (shared below) I pulled from several sources. There’s a wonderful Storey Publishing Country Wisdom Bulletin “Baking with Sourdough” with a lot of excellent recipes in it for using a starter, and many, many recipes on the internet, of course! It’s easy, though it takes some time to get going. Check out the recipe and instructions!
Old Fashioned Sourdough Starter
You Will Need:
1 1/4 cup flour (white all purpose works best, though wheat can be used, although takes longer to ferment and may not ferment well)
1 cup warm purified or spring (non-chlorinated) water (water should be around 98 degrees, not too hot)
One quart mason or ceramic jar with lid
Cheesecloth and rubber band
Put flour into jar. Add water slowly, mixing until both flour and water are well mixed through and resemble a thin paste. Cover the jar with the cheesecloth and rubber band it on, and set in a warm place – I used the pilot light on top of my gas stove, or you can put it inside a gas oven when it’s not on (this is important), as a gas oven creates enough heat even when off to be a good spot for fermenting. With an electric stove, look for a spot near the stove or oven when on, or near a vent where heat comes out, a warm sunny windowsill, etc. Be careful not to put it in too hot of a spot, say an oven or stove when it’s on or on top of a water heater, etc, as too hot of a spot will cook the paste and it will not ferment. Leave the jar for a few days, continually checking on it to see if there’s any movement, as the mixture will double as it ferments and that sourdough smell we’re so used to will develop. I read recipes that suggested you mark the side with a dry erase marker at the level of mixture in the jar or marking the level with a rubber band, for ease of checking.
Once it has doubled and the sourdough starter smell has developed (usually a few days), add the same amount of flour and water once again to the jar to give your starter something to eat. Let it sit another day or so, and either use some of it for something delicious (sourdough biscuits anyone?) or take some off and give it to a friend. Once the starter has ripened, put the lid on it and store in the fridge. Make sure it’s”fed” with warm water and flour occasionally, and it will go for years and years.
A few notes about this process:
Fermenting can be tricky sometimes, depending on where you live, how much humidity is in the air, and your starter may or may not start depending on where you are at. I live in temperate weather a few blocks from the ocean, and used a pilot light on my gas stove to get my starter going, which started immediately and has been going strong for 5+ years now. But it might take longer or ferment differently, or even in the most opportune situation, not ferment at all in other places. If it does not ferment, you’ll notice- it will dry out in the jar, or mold, or sit at the same level for three days and not double. Don’t fret! Wash out the jar and try again, perhaps with more heat this time, or warmer water, or cooler water- it helps to keep a few notes if needed. Remember, cooking is a science, and a sourdough starter is an excellent example of a chemical reaction (which makes this process fun to do with kids!), and not all chemical reactions take.
Once your starter is successful, try a recipe! Some of my favorites include sourdough pancakes and sourdough biscuits, and I’ve also done traditional bread (which generally takes two to three days to rise!). Look some recipes up on the internet, or keep an eye out here as I’ll be sharing a few within the next few weeks. Generally, you only need a few tablespoons to a few cups of starter to add to recipes, and almost every recipe I have read that uses starter doubles the starter before you even start, leaving you with the same amount you started with in the first place- how economical is that?
Sourdough Starter is like a best friend for the kitchen- the beginnings of many recipes that’s easy to keep and requires only a little bit of patience and time to maintain. You’ll find yourself looking for ways to use it, not only to keep it going, but because things made with it are so delicious!
I’d love to see other’s starters and suggestions for recipes, including gluten free flour ones if possible. Has anyone tried fermenting other kinds of flour to see what happens? Does it still make sourdough? Let me know!