It all began in November of 1979. Or maybe I should say, it all started. I made a batch of sourdough starter that has been going strong now for almost 33 years. It has made hundreds of beautiful braided loaves of bread and countless pizza crusts. It’s also the matriarch of dozens of smaller jars of starter that have been given to friends over the years.
Gold prospectors in Alaska and California during the 1800’s were nicknamed sourdoughs because among their provisions there was always a bucket or jar of sourdough starter. In the absence of yeast and baking powder, they used sourdough starter as leavening for biscuits, bread and pancakes.
So there I was in 1979. I put 2 cups of milk into a jar and covered it with cheesecloth and set it on the counter for 24 hours. Then I stirred in 2 cups of flour, covered it with cheesecloth and set it out on my back porch for 24 hours. While it set out there, I’m told, wild yeast cells sneakily forced their way through the cheesecloth and made a home in my milk and flour mixture.
Then I brought the jar back into the kitchen and left it on the counter for 5 days. By that time it was nice and bubbly and ready to be used in any recipe that called for “sourdough starter”. I usually store my starter in the fridge, but I don’t think that is necessary. The old sourdoughs of the gold rush certainly didn’t.
Whenever I use my starter in a recipe I replenish it with equal parts of milk (or water) and flour. If I don’t use it for a few weeks I “feed” it or “freshen” it by stirring in equal parts flour and liquid.
Now speaking of liquid, after the starter sets for awhile a murky liquid will rise the top. I don’t know what the real name for this is – but the old prospectors called it “hootch” and made good use of it as a nightcap when nothing better was available.
The hootch nightcap is an adventure we have not yet experienced, but the sourdough bread is yummy!
Recipe for our favourite Sourdough Bread
1 cup warm water
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon yeast
1 ½ cups sourdough starter
2 tsp salt
Pour hot water over the sugar and butter and stir to melt the butter
When mixture is just warm, add starter and yeast
Stir in 2 cups flour
Stir in salt
Add enough flour to make dough stiff, elastic and not sticky
Allow to rise in a buttered bowl till doubled
Punch down and allow to rise again
Punch down and gently shape into a mound
Punch down and gently separate into three parts and roll each part into a rope then braid
Allow the mound or the braid to rise on a buttered/seeded cookie sheet
You can sprinkle corn meal lightly on the sheet instead of seeds
Allow to rise
When loaf is doubled, bake in a 400° oven till brown
You can slash the loaf across the top with a very sharp knife just prior to baking
If you put pie pan with water on the floor of the oven it will make the bread more crusty
You can also spritz the loaf with a water bottle a few times as it bakes
For a different look (especially on the braid) brush the surface with well beaten egg white several times during baking