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Sourdough Bread
© 2006

An American Tradition

Sourdough bread is a tradition that started somewhere around the campfires of the American pioneers and continues among die-hard traditionalists, such as the Rogue Turtle. If there ever was a bread that exemplifies the pioneer spirit, it is the Sourdough Bread.

Aroma therapy is very popular now in America, although I can't particularly understand why. I do know that smells can trigger amazingly vivid memory flashbacks. Every time I smell Sourdough Bread cooking I flash back to my Grandmother's kitchen. Not my mom's, she was a lousy cook. But, before her death, Granny could really cook. She had to. She came from Deming, New Mexico and married a man who was one of the original "Sooners" in Oklahoma. I still have his tool kit. Although her bread starter is long-since history, I can still remember Sourdough Bread baking in her apartment kitchen in Indianapolis. She didn't do it often, because she did it all by hand, no mixers for her. But the die for.

I found this recipe in yet another of the old books my parents had squirreled away over the years. I'll be publishing some of my other finds as time allows. Try this one, you'll like it.

Sourdough Bread

Sourdough bread is one of the true pioneer-type breads used for hundreds of years. The basic ingredients are flour and water. In other cookbooks you add baking soda and call the mixture bannock, or hardtack, or cush. What makes this recipe so different? Sourdough bread is a "real" bread that uses a natural yeast found in the air we breathe. Bannock, hardtack or cush is little more than a flour paste that stretches your taste buds to the limit. Sourdough bread is still made today and served in even the finest restaurants. You can make it yourself, either at home or in the campsite. The major difference (I feel) between Sourdough bread and hardtack is time. Sourdough bread requires more time to make the "starter" for the bread you will bake in some sort of oven. Yes, the Dutch Oven can be used.

Some families pass a "secret" recipes for Sourdough bread down from generation to generation, usually from Mother to Daughter. Some of the original starter is still left in starters that are 40-50 years old.

The earliest pioneers didn't have today's active dry yeast to make the starter. You don't need it. You can culture the yeast without any help at all, except time. I think this is an extremely interesting process so I'll take your time to explain what's really going on when you make Sourdough starters.

Yeast: All breads require yeast. Yeast is a single-cell fungus that breaks down the starches in wheat flour. The is a simple process of fermentation. When the yeast works on the starch and sugar molecules, it gives off carbon dioxide gas and alcohol. Yeast is a leavening agent for bread; it's what makes the bread rise. (Un-leavened bread does not rise.)

Flour comes from any kind of ground grain, but most bread uses wheat flour. Two proteins found in wheat flour (gliadin and glutenin) form a stretchy substance called gluten. When you knead dough, you help gluten form long, threadlike chains. These gluten chains help hold the carbon dioxide gas in, creating those tiny holes that create the airy texture of the bread.

So, the biggest difference between Sourdough bread and bread purchased in today's Super-markets, is the source of the yeast. Today, time is money. Anything that you can do to save you time, saves you money. Today's bakers use modern active dry yeast to speed things up. This yeast is dried, preserved, and formed into an easily used powder. I use it but I only do it to speed things up. If I was a true traditionalist, I would stick to my starter ONLY and leave out the yeast.

It's Alive...

Sourdough yeast (fungi) are actually kept alive constantly in a liquid medium called the "starter". It is a living colony of yeast fungi, and has to be treated as a living entity. It has to be fed, and provided air to breathe. The baker either captures wild yeast that floats in the air to create this starter, or from a cup of active starter from another baker (if they will give you one). In the woods, all alone, this isn't possible. So let's start from scratch.

Starter: To make the starter you need the following equipment:
  • A pottery or glass crock, preferably with a loose-fitting lid.
  • A wooden spoon
  • A piece of cloth, cotton is great, cheese cloth also works.
  • Some flour (preferably without any preservatives) and water

To start the culture: Mix 2 cups of flour and 2 cups of water in a glass or pottery bowl. Lay a cloth over the top and let it sit on the kitchen counter. This mixture will absorb the naturally-floating yeast from the air that is around all the time, wherever you are. This yeast will start growing and dividing, without you doing a single thing (yet). Sit down, relax, cook something else...this will take a while.

After 24 hours, pour off about a cup of the mixture and "feed" it with another fresh cup of flour and water. In a few more days, the mixture will become frothy as the yeast population grows. The froth is caused by the carbon dioxide that the yeast is generating. This starter will also have a (harmless) bacteria, lactobacilli, in it. This is what causes the slightly acidic flavor of the bread. The starter also creates alcohol. The alcohol and the lactic acid together is what makes the Sourdough breads flavor so unique. It is also the reason your starter doesn't turn into a gigantic green "science project". The alcohol and lactobacilli enzymes actually "poison" the culture so no other bacteria will grown in it. This is really cool! It is also the reason that it never spoiled when crossing the country in a covered wagon. It doesn't need refrigeration.

Patience: Leave the starter on the kitchen counter for five (5) days. As the starter ferments, it will develop a strong aroma � bready and alcoholy and not particularly appetizing. You must keep it fed! Feed it every day or two by dividing it in half and adding a cup of flour and a cup of water to the remaining half. You can either keep the other half and feed it for someone else, or throw it away. When you see a watery substance floating on the top, stir it. Sourdough bakers call this "hooch". Over the week the starter becomes a thick liquid, like pancake batter. It will be slightly yellowish.

Decision time:
1. You can store it in the refrigerator to slow down the yeast growth. If you elect this option, you will only have to feet it every 5 or 6 days.


2. Keep it on the counter and feed it every day. (Not a popular decision.) The picture below shows what the finished starter looks like. If you have a lot of refrigerator room, you can do all the above steps inside a 1 gallon wide-mouth jar. Remember, don't seal off all the air. There are two reasons for this: A. The starter is a living organism and needs air, and B., the evolving carbon dioxide gas will blow something up or off.

Using Packaged Yeast:

You can use the "modern" active dry yeast available today if you are in a hurry. Be sure to check the expiration date on the label. If it's too old, throw it away. You begin the starter just as you did in the above steps, making sure the water gets no warmer than 110° F. Just add in a package of yeast, and continue on as you normally would. After 1 hour of rising, divide and knead into round loafs. Let it set for another hour, covered with the cloth, in a warm, dry spot. You can bake the first loaf after this time, and treat the starter like any other starter. This is a much faster method, but may not have quite as good a flavor as starter that is very old.

Some starter recipes use milk instead of water, some starter recipes call for sugar or honey, which boosts the fermentation. There are starters that use potatoes, too. Potatoes have starch in them, and that supplies more sugar for the yeast to feast on. In fact, there are probably as many recipes for Sourdough bread as there are bakers. I'll cover some of these later on.

Baking: When it comes time to bake bread, you add a cup of the live starter culture to the dough to provide the yeast needed to leaven the bread. You can find recipes for Sourdough white bread, whole wheat bread, biscuits and even cake. Once you have the starter, you can bake Sourdough in many ways. You replenish the starter stock by adding back an equal amount of flour and water, and regular feeding keeps the starter alive. Ok? Any questions? I thought not.

Sourdough Bread Terms:

Sourdough has been around for many, many years. Some terminology is very old also and you can still find some terms that are unique to Sourdough bread recipes.

Sponge: Sponge often refers to the mixture of starter with the flour and other dry ingredients of the recipe you are using. "Poolish" is another name for sponge.

Some recipes call for Proofing the starter. To proof a starter, you take a portion of it out of the refrigerator and feed it for a day or so to get a foamy "proof" that the yeast is still active. I have also seen "Proofing" to refer to the initial division of the starter (half of it) set aside to rise for a second time. Confusing, isn't it?

Baking Sourdough Bread

This simple recipe comes from "Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook", 1989 edition. It cheats a little bit by using both the Sourdough starter and packaged yeast at the same time. The yeast guarantees that it will rise quickly and reliably, while the starter is used for taste.

The "purist" baker can leave out the active dry yeast and take their chances (and longer times to rise). It's probably best to be certain it will rise, at least for your first attempt at bread-making. This way all the steps involved will happen the way the recipe says it will.

Take the Sourdough Starter out of the refrigerator EARLY.

Sourdough Bread

  • 1 C. Sourdough starter (at room temperature)
  • 5 1/2 to 6 C. All purpose flour
  • 1 Pkg. Active dry yeast (2 1/4 Tsp.)
  • 1 1/2 C. Water
  • 3 Tbsp. Sugar
  • 3 Tbsp. Margarine or butter
  • 1/2 Tsp. Baking soda
  • 1/2 Tsp. Salt

Make sure the Sourdough starter is at room temperature. Make sure you feed the starter batch to replace what you take out. Combine 2 1/2 cups of flour and the yeast into a big bowl (a 4-quart glass bowl will do). Heat the water, sugar, butter, and salt until warm (110° F) Caution: Water that is too hot will kill the yeast. Add this liquid mixture to the flour and yeast mixture. Then pour in the Sourdough starter. The next step is mixing the dough. I would strongly urge that the first-time beginner use an electric mixer for the first try. That way you will know what the finished product should look like if you later have to make the bread by hand.

First Mixing:

Electric Mixer: Use a dough hook if you have one. Mix at low speed for 30 seconds. The mixture looks very smooth and creamy at this point and smells very "yeasty". 

By hand: Use a rubber spatula and mix until all the ingredients are smooth and creamy. This will take longer than 30 seconds, but probably not much longer that 3-4 minutes.

Second Mixing:

Electric Mixer: Set on high(er) speed for 3 minutes. This is when you begin to see the elasticity develop in the dough. It practically climbs up the beaters to the mixer. It will pull off of the bowl to climb up. You need to keep a scraper or spoon on hand to push the dough back down into the bowl.

By Hand: Mix rapidly with the same spatula used in the first mixing. In fact, this is just a continuation of the first mix. It may help to tuck the bowl under an arm to hold it in place while mixing rapidly. You can probably get the same results as with the electric mixer in 5-10 minutes. You will begin to learn why electric mixers were invented in the first place.

Third Mixing:

Add 2 1/2 cups of flour mixed with baking soda into a separate bowl. Then add the yeast mixture you just finished above. Stir this (by electric mixer or by hand) until the dry ingredients and the starter mixture are combined. Then try to add as much of the remaining flour (1/2 to 1 cup) as you can. The dough gets pretty stiff at this point.

Kneading: Lightly flour a flat smooth counter top. Using your hands, start pushing and pulling the dough to make the mixture even stiffer than it was when you started. You will know when you are done when you can push on it with your finger and it pops right back instead of denting. You can actually "feel" the dough changing in your hands as you knead.

The skill of the baker is most apparent here in this step. The dough has to be stiff but not "over-worked".

Since young women and children used to do this job, a great deal of hand strength is really not needed here. Just a thorough mixing, pushing and pulling the dough into the desired consistency.

My first loaf was a disaster because I "murdered" the bread by over-kneading the loaf. After that, it never rose up, and I threw it away. Getting the "feel" of the dough is a skill that has to be learned. Watching a good bread maker work will really be of great help on your first loaf.

Shape the kneaded dough into a ball and place it into a lightly greased bowl. Cover it with a clean cloth and place it into a warm (not hot) place to rise until it doubles in size. This should take about 45 to 60 minutes.



When the dough has doubled in size, punch it down. This is a fun thing to do. Put the dough on a floured surface and divide it into two parts. Cover the two "lumps" with a clean cloth and let them rest. (Ed: Does yeast get "tired"?)

After the rest period, form the two lumps into round loaves. Put the two loaves on a greased baking sheet. Cover them again until they again double in size. This should take about 30 minutes. It's time to bake.

Bake: Place in oven set at 375° for about 30 to 35 minutes.

Dutch Oven: Use coals for 375° temperature. You may have to cook the loaves separately. Make sure the bread is off the cast iron on a baking rack. Don't let the sides of the loaf touch the cast iron oven sides or top.

Hint: To make the outer crust of the bread really brittle (crusty), lightly spray a small amount of water onto the crust after it has been in the oven for about 15-20 minutes. A cheap, hand-pumped atomizer (available at most dollar stores) can be used.

Commercial bakeries use expensive steam injectors to get the surface of the bread to be really crusty. The hand spray works just as well and only costs about a buck.

If you don't like the round shape of the loaf, you can substitute commercial bread pans to shape into more modern (traditional?) loaf shape that we all are familiar with.

You're Done: Take the bread out and eat it when-ever you like. You should get bread with a chewy texture and an amazing Sourdough taste.