Happy Birthday, Sourdough!

By , February 20, 2010

Today marks an important anniversary in our home, the birthday of a family member whose life nourishes and improves ours. Today our family strain of sourdough turns 18 years old.

A batch of "18 hour" sourdough bread under cellophane after first rising. (Photo: Michelle Zeiger)

In 1992, Michelle and I lived in Fresno, California. For some time I’d been missing Alaska terribly. It had been about 10 years since I’d visited my native state, and I longed to return. We decided to start saving for a trip to Alaska, and I decided to start some sourdough.

My parents had given us our own copy of Ruth Allman’s Alaska Sourdough (check your local bookstore) the year before. This chatty, meandering, homely, yet wonderfully informative book had been my mother’s guide in the care and use of sourdough through the years she raised it in our home. Imagine a transcription of a day in the kitchen with your grandmother—every instruction, story, reminiscence, aside, joke, and admonition.

I used one of Ruth’s several starter recipes, but it went bad. On February 20, 1992, I tried again. For the second attempt, I took the purist approach, and made starter the “real” way, allowing wild yeasts to settle in the mixture instead of adding commercial yeast. This batch prospered, and has been husbanded carefully from that day to this.

Sourdough Starter:

Slice and boil a potato or two in water until it becomes rich and thick.

Mix with a scoop of flour and one or two spoonfuls of sugar.

Place in a glass or stoneware container (bowl, crock, jar, etc.) that can be covered loosely, and set open in a warm place. Wild yeast in the air should develop a ferment in a few days.

That’s pretty much it. Once it gets started, stir in a spoonful of flour every few days. Let it grow and develop a few weeks before you begin using it.

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My only regret, being so homesick, was that the natural yeasts that started this sourdough came from California instead of Alaska. Nevertheless, it has survived, either in our home, or in the homes of family members who have received starter from us over the years. And I’m sure that by now, it has absorbed plenty of Alaskan wild yeast.

The easiest way to start your own sourdough is to get some from a friend. We could have done this, and would have had better sourdough sooner. It’s literally a living organism, and it improves with age. There are sourdough strains around that date back to the California and Klondike gold rushes that must be truly delicious! As a trade off, we have the pride of starting this one ourselves, and of knowing its lineage.

The great thing about sourdough is that it’s self perpetuating, so it stretches your flour considerably. Also, it chemically transforms starches into protein, “trading up” in food value. It’s also useful for an improbable array of non-food uses, such as glue and tanning.

We are constantly learning new sourdough recipes, but our standbys are pancakes, which Aly likes to make, and bread using J.B. McKinnon’s 18 hour recipe from his book Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100 Mile Diet with Alisa Smith (our full review here). The chemical properties of sourdough allows skimping or forgoing common ingredients in many recipes, making for frugal baking.

Happily, our plan to visit Alaska by that autumn turned into a summer move to Juneau to take a new job in my chosen field. The sourdough came with us, because it’s “part of the family.”

You can bet we’ll have sourdough pancakes for breakfast today.

6 Responses to “Happy Birthday, Sourdough!”

  1. Konnie Newell says:

    I can’t believe you’ve kept it alive this long! The last starter I had lasted for just a few weeks…. until it exploded all over the inside of my car!

  2. Mark Zeiger says:

    Konnie,

    Okay, Cuz, you know, you’re not really supposed to go out joy riding with your sourdough! I think Dad’s still got some, you might be able to get more starter from him, if you’re ready to try again!

  3. Robbie says:

    I just made this last weekend, and so far, so good! Thanks for the recipe.

  4. Mark Zeiger says:

    Excellent, Robbie, best of luck to you! Treat it like a member of the family, and it’ll feed you for years to come!

  5. Jennifer says:

    This may be a dumb question, but do you peel the potato before slicing and boiling or leave the peel on?

  6. Mark Zeiger says:

    Jennifer, I don’t consider this a dumb question, because I had to look it up myself!

    Ruth Allman, my family’s revered source for all things sourdough, says to boil a couple of potatoes with the jackets on until they fall to pieces. Lift the skins out; mash potatoes into a puree.

    So, you don’t even have to slice them up. That’s one less step.

    That must have been what I did, and it worked well for us. Hopefully it will for you, too. Best of luck!

    Mark

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