#Sourdough bread – history and methods – my @AlbertaatNoon column for May

sourdough cinnamon buns near Whitehorse, Yukon Territory - photo credit - Karen Anderson
Sourdough at Haines Junction Yukon Territory – photo credit – Karen Anderson

Keeping a sourdough starter requires some planning and dedication but for those that love the tangy taste, crumb infiltrated with air pockets and a thin but firm crust, it’s definitely worth the bother. This post will share some of the history and technique involved in building your own sourdough starter.

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Symbiosis! That’s one way of describing the chemistry between the wild yeasts and bacteria that are attracted to the flour and water of a sourdough starter. The wild yeasts go forth and multiply digesting sugars and producing ethanol or carbon dioxide gas to help bread rise. The lactobacillus family of friendly bacteria convert sugars into lactic and other acids which keep the yeasts happy but deters other harmful bacteria from settling into the mix. Breaking down foods in this fashion is known as fermentation.

One part chemistry, one part pet that needs daily care and feeding, sourdough fermentation is also a great part of Canada’s history. During the Klondike Gold Rush between 1896 – 1903 in Yukon Territory, mining prospectors known as stampeders brought their sourdough starters with them packed deep in sacks of flour up over they Chilkoot Pass. They depended on them as life-saving source of calories manifesting in the campfire breads they could produce and they cared for them with such devotion that they actually slept with them curled up in their bedroll at night. Laura Beatrice Berton in her iconic memoir I Married the Klondike talks about “trying the traditional sourdough” which she said “wouldn’t work for me”. When I drove to Alaska in 2010, though there was a lack of fresh produce in Northern B.C. and Yukon Territory, sourdough bread bakeries were still numerous and thriving.

Without the convenience of access to daily bread at plentiful groceries, the isolated people of the North retain the skill of minding this living breathing organism that is a sourdough starter.The first sourdough was documented in Egypt about 6000 years ago. While many people in our grandparent’s generation still baked their own bread – mainly with addition of yeast to flour and water, most of us rely on purchasing it at supermarkets. We think of bread baking as arduous and time-consuming. It isn’t really. We just think it is because we’ve lost the skills involved.

People in pursuit of the perfect loaf are never satisfied with the flavour or texture of commercially baked bread and so the art of starting and keeping sourdough is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. If you can keep a pet alive, you can keep your sourdough going.

Some people do indeed treat their sourdough as they would a pet and hire sitters to feed the starter daily while they vacation. According to The Guardian newspaper, the sourdough craze in Stockholm Sweden spawned a local bakery to start a sourdough hotel where for about 50 dollars a week, they will keep your sourdough going for you.

You know something has really gained a foothold in our Canadian culture when Stuart MacLean weaves it into a Vinyl Cafe story involving “Dave”. Here’s that sourdough story about Dave babysitting his neighbours starter.

So how do you start a sourdough? The simplest instructions are as follows:

Take a mixture of 50 per cent white and 50 per cent whole grain flour and mix it by hand in a glass bowl with some warm water until you have a mixture that looks and feels like pancake batter. Cover it with a cloth and leave it on the counter at room temperature for two to three days then peak to see if bubbles are happening. If nothing is happening – wait for two to three more days and check again.

You’ll need to keep feeding so on Day 4 (if you’ve had the bubbles happening) add 1 cup each of flour and water and stir. You’ll now have about 3 cups of starter.

From here, I’ve taken advice from a great Canadian food writer named Michele Genest and her book called The Boreal Gourmet – Adventures in Northern Cooking (Harbour Publishing, 2010) where she outlines what she calls a two week “sourdough boot camp”.

By Day 5 – you could remove 1 cup of starter and use it in a scone, pizza or pancake recipe. You replace the volume, you took out with ½ cup of water and ½ cup of flour.

On Day 6 – you could remove more as above or just keep stirring it from time to time.

Day 7 – 9 continue stirring.

Day 10, morning – you’ll now start ramping up the feeding schedule to 1 cup flour and 1 cup water twice a day.

Day 10 evening – remove all but 1 cup and discard what you remove. To the remaining mix add 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water.

Day 11 – remove 1 cup of starter and make a recipe. Discard all but 1 cup and add 2 cups of flour and 2 cups of water (you may need a bigger container).

Day 11 evening – Remove all but 1 cup and discard the rest (or make pizza dough with it). Add 2 cups of flour and 2 cups of warm water to the remainder.

Day 12 morning – reduce the main mix to 1 cup and add 2 cups of flour and 2 cups of starter. You could make sourdough pancakes with what you removed.

Day 12 evening – Remove all but 1 cup and add 2 cups of flour and 2 cups of warm water.

Day 13 – repeat pattern above.

Day 14 – The starter is ready and you likely have about 9 cups of yeasty smelling starter.

In her book Genest suggests storing one cup in the fridge and then starting a 2-day sourdough bread with the rest. She also gives instructions for drying some of the starter or freezing it. Her sourdough recipe collection is tasteful and enticing. You can order her book here.

Other great books about sourdough include Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson and this year’s James Beard Foundation winner Sourdough: Recipes for Rustic Fermented Breads, Sweets, Savories, and More, by Sarah Owens (Roost Books).

Need a hands-on mentor? In Calgary, we are fortunate to have artisanal baker Aviv Fried who offers classes regularly at his Sidewalk Citizen Bakery and Cafe. To find out about the classes sign up for their newsletter here. In Edmonton NAIT offers sourdough classes throughout the year.

Caring for your sourdough starter or “mother” and enjoying the results of your dedication is a great way to savour it all. Write and let me know if you take the plunge.

Aviv Fried - photo credit - Karen Anderson
Aviv Fried of Sidewalk Citizen Bakery – photo credit – Karen Anderson


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