The history of sourdough in Alaska

According to wikipedia “Sourdough likely originated in Ancient Egyptian times around 1500 BC and was likely the first form of leavening available to bakers. Sourdough remained the usual form of leavening down into the European Middle Ages until being replaced by barm from the beer brewing process, and then later purpose-cultured yeast.”

“French bakers brought sourdough techniques to Northern California during the California Gold Rush, and it remains a part of the culture of San Francisco today. The nickname remains in “Sourdough Sam”, the mascot of the San Francisco 49ers. Sourdough has long been associated with the 1849 gold prospectors, though they were more likely to make bread with commercial yeast or baking soda.”

“A “sourdough” is primarily a nickname used in the North (Yukon/Alaska) for someone having spent an entire winter north of the Arctic Circle and refers to their tradition of protecting their sourdough starter during the coldest months by keeping it close to their body.”

“The sourdough tradition was carried into Alaska and the western Canadian territories during the Klondike Gold Rush. Conventional leavening such as yeast and baking soda were much less reliable in the conditions faced by the prospectors. Experienced miners and other settlers frequently carried a pouch of starter either around their neck or on a belt; these were fiercely guarded to keep from freezing. However, freezing does not kill a sourdough starter; excessive heat does. Old hands came to be called “sourdoughs”, a term that is still applied to any Alaskan old-timer.”

Anyone that has spent any time around Alaskan oldtimers is likely to have heard about a Sourdough start that has been handed down from the Gold Rush era. My ex Brother in law used to make his bread with a start that boasted a linage reaching back over 100 years.

Sourdough: More than a Bread

“All sourdough recipes begin with a starter — a mixture of flour, water and a little sugar. Sitting at room temperature, wild yeasts in the air and on the grain settle into the mix. The fermentation that occurs after a few days gives the starter its sour smell. Then it’s ready to use, for years if treated with respect.

A starter, or “sponge” as the pioneers called it, feeds many families over many years. Starters have always been passed through families and from friend to friend…

Starters can be kept thriving simply by adding equal parts of water and flour to a portion of the starter every couple of weeks. Replenish it, keep it stored in the refrigerator, and it will last indefinitely, acquiring more tanginess and personality as the years go by. The extra tanginess that comes with age is highly prized, and is why older starters become treasured members of the family for sourdough junkies.”

From Sunset magazine:

What if I neglect my starter?

Even with the best intentions, it’s easy to forget to feed a starter, but they can be surprisingly resilient. If you rediscover yours in the back of the fridge, take its “pulse.” An “old” smell, no bubbles at room temperature, a top layer of dark brown liquid, or slight mold growth indicate your starter isn’t feeling its best. First spoon off and discard any mold, then stir the starter. Feed it 1 cup each of flour and milk and let stand as directed in To Feed the Starter and Keep It Going, left. After 24 hours, discard half the starter and repeat feeding and standing. Repeat a third time, if needed, until the starter bubbles and has a “fresh” sour smell. If, after repeated feedings, your starter still smells “off” and won’t bubble, throw it away. Also begin a new starter if mold growth is heavy.

Can you use a starter too often?

Overuse isn’t a problem per se; if you bake several times a week or feed your starter a lot all at once (to increase quantity), it may take longer than usual to regain normal sourness. After feeding, let it stand as directed in To Feed the Starter and Keep It Going, left.

Why do starters “die”?

The longer a starter stands without new food, the higher the acidity gets; too much acid, and beneficial bacteria can’t survive. Mold infestations may also kill off good bacteria.

Can I freeze it when I’m not going to use it for a while?

Starters generally freeze successfully for up to a few months, but freezing does change the bacteria’s cell structure. Longer freezing brings more changes and decreases the chance of success with the thawed starter.

Making your own starter is incredibly easy, and the starter is not difficult to maintain.

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 packet dry yeast (or 2 teaspoons)

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups water

Using a wooden or plastic spoon and a glass or plastic mixing bowl, mix the dry ingredients. Never use metal spoons or mixing bowl with sourdough starter. Acid and metal don’t mix.

Gradually stir in water, and mix until it forms a thick paste. Don’t worry about lumps. They’ll disappear.

Cover bowl with a dishtowel, and let it sit in a warm place for 2 to 3 days, stirring the mixture a couple times a day. It’s ready when it develops a pleasant sour smell and looks bubbly.

Store in the refrigerator. (I keep mine in a 1-quart glass Mason jar covered loosely with a plastic sandwich bag.)

The night before using starter in a recipe, remove about a cup of starter and mix it in a bowl with equal parts water and flour. (Some recipes, like my pancake recipe, specify how much starter and additional flour and water to use.)

Cover bowl with a towel and let mixture sit on counter overnight. The next day, return at least 1/2 cup starter to container in refrigerator and stir. Use the rest in the recipe.