Sourdough–My New Project

I have a new project: sourdough bread. [the pic on the left is from King Arthur Flour–not me!] I say project because this isn’t pick up a loaf at the store, or even wake up early on Saturday and decide I’m going to bake a loaf of bread. No, to make sourdough you have to plan ahead.

Okay, I thought, I’m a planner. I can do this. Truthfully, I’m a haphazard baker at best, but, since we’re trying to eat less pre-packaged foods—read foods with less ingredients I can’t pronounce—I decided to start making my own sourdough bread. It’s a simple bread, using only flour, water and time. But sourdough has to be tended, culled, and fed.

Sourdough bread is made by the fermentation of dough using naturally occurring lactobacilli and yeast. Translation: this stuff is ALIVE!

Or, lordy, what have I gotten myself into.

“The origins of bread-making are so ancient that everything said about them must be pure speculation. One of the oldest sourdough breads dates from 3700 BCE and was excavated in Switzerland, but the origin of sourdough fermentation likely relates to the origin of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent several thousand years earlier… Bread production relied on the use of sourdough as a leavening agent for most of human history; the use of baker’s yeast as a leavening agent dates back less than 150 years.” (Michael Gaenzle, Encyclopedia of Food Microbiology)

Bread is older than metal; even before the bronze age, our ancestors were eating and baking flat breads. Until the time of the development of commercial yeasts, like brewers yeast, all leavened bread was sourdough, with it’s slower raise. One reason given for the importance of unleavened bread in the Jewish faith is that at the time of the exodus from Egypt, there wasn’t time to let the dough rise overnight.

Sourdough became a staple in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush of 1849. And the sourdough tradition was carried into Alaska and the western Canadian territories during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Other leavening agents 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—even though freezing does not kill a sourdough starter; excessive heat does.

Sourdough had to have crossed the American west to get to California. Cookies certainly couldn’t take the time to allow a yeast bread to rise—all that bouncing in the wagon…

Even with it’s dislike of heat, it stands to reason sourdough would have appeared in the American West, maybe in leather pouches tucked into saddlebags, or beside the water jugs or barrels. A traveler wouldn’t always need a large loaf of bread, and to make a sourdough loaf you only need an amount in proportion to the size of the final product.

I’ll keep researching to see if cowboys and settlers took sourdough along on their journeys. For the moment, though, I’ve got to go feed the newest member of my family—SOURDOUGH!

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25 thoughts on “Sourdough–My New Project”

  1. Oh, I loved your post! I admit I’m not a baker anymore but I do so love history. Thank you for a topic I never really thought about much before. If you don’t mind, may I add a couple of things I found that you inspired me to check out?

    Word origins (I love this field):
    “Companion” comes from Latin COM “with” + PANIS “bread”).
    The oldest Old English word for “bread” was HLAF for “loaf” (from Teutonic), and then later Old English “Br?ad,” of Germanic origin; related to Dutch “Brood” and German “Brot.”

    Bread as a metaphor (another love):
    “Our daily bread” (used by pagans too)
    A breadwinner — main provider (also “bread and butter”)
    Bread, dough — slang for money
    “The best thing since sliced bread!”
    “Bread and circuses” — from Rome for politicians diverting the populace (sound familiar?)
    “Breaking bread” — to share a meal
    Being put on a bread and water diet
    Knowing which side one’s bread is buttered on

    Recent studies show “bread” to be 30,000 years old, roots and so forth pounded on rocks for a flatbread and cooked. Then 10,000 years ago agriculture and cereal became the source, and it’s thought yeast spores in the environment leavened the bread that was left to rise on its own early on. Pliny the Elder reported that some used the foam from beer to make a lighter bread. But as Tracy mentioned, most users eventually saved dough from the previous day to make the next batch, which likely beats the heck out of waiting for the spores on cereal to leaven the bread on its own. Ha.

    Last thing: Although bread is the main staple for much of the world, for East Asia the main staple is rice, also a grain, dating from 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, very close in time to when agriculture in other parts of the world were raising other grains. Rice is now the third highest in world production, after sugarcane and maize.

    Thanks all for your patience and endurance. Sometimes I can’t help myself. 😉

    • Great stuff, Eliza! “Bread and circuses” — from Rome for politicians diverting the populace–love this one. lol

      Glad you stopped by today!

  2. Interesting post, Tracy. I’d love to see the recipe for how to make this from the beginning. I should probably know this – but what do you feed the dough?

    • Pam, you feed the dough flour and water. I bought a “starter” from King Arthur Flour. You can mix four and water and leave it out and hope for the fermentation to start, but a starter from established dough is faster. Besides, I like having a bit of a 100+ year old bread starter as part of the process.

      There are lots of articles out there. Or go to and look at their sourdough section. 🙂

  3. You can do this Tracy! I also started with starter from King Arthur and have kept it going for the last 8 or so years. It even survived a move from Texas to South Carolina! Check out King Arthur’s harvest blend sour dough boule recipe. It is really good. A tip for those just starting down the path of yeast breads….I use filtered water not water straight from the tap. The microbes seem to like it better.

    • Hi, Ellie! Thanks for the tips. I wondered about filtered water. And I’ll check out the Boule recipe.

      SC, huh?

      • Yup, retired and moved here two years ago. Really like it and have adjusted to living in a small town. We’re in Gaffney home of the peach water tower made famous in Netflix’s House of Cards.

        FYI, I don’t throw out any of my starter. Just can’t seem to do it (probably because I’m a child of depression era parents). I just use it all when I go to feed the starter for the next day’s baking.

      • The excess starter is absorbed by the bread recipe, not the starter. The starter volume is always 1 cup flour, 1 cup starter and 1/2 cup water.

    • I really like sourdough, Estella. Mine isn’t very sour yet, but I understand it will get there.

  4. I have wanted to do this for a while! I need to actually do it now. I’m so afraid of messing it up, though.

    • I can honestly say you can’t mess it up. Believe me–I tried. lol The hardest part? Throwing away the unused started. I’ve made sourdough biscuits and sourdough crackers just so I don’t have to throw it away.

  5. The best sourdough we ever had we got at a small roadside bakery on a mountain road outside of Colorado Springs, CO. They made the best cinnamon sweet rolls I have ever eaten. Unfortunately, they closed down before we moved. I wish I had gotten some of their starter. From CO we moved to Sacramento, CA. We would go to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco whenever we got the chance. There was good sourdough to be had there. We have lived in Virginia and now in Tennessee since then and haven’t been able to find any really good sourdough. I have tried making starter a few times, but have never been satisfied with the results. My husband has been talking about trying again, but I don’t want to. I love making bread and even more, love eating it. I certainly don’t need the temptation of good, homemade sourdough goodies lurking in my house.

  6. Do enjoy reading about history. Never knew sourdough was a bread of choose back then but I can see why.

  7. I keep a crock of sour dough starter in my refrigerator. I’ve had it since 1978. When I want to use it, I set it on the counter for eight hours or over night so it can warm and start to grow again. If it’s been awhile since I used it I might feed it with two tablespoons of sugar. The key to keeping starter going is to not use it all when you make a recipe. Save at least a quarter cup of the starter and add equal amounts of flour and water or milk (I use milk as directed by the original recipe I used back in 1978.) Mix until smooth and allow to sit covered with a tea towel or cheese cloth overnight until it is bubbly. Now your starter is ready to use or store in the ‘frig. Since most of the recipes I use call for 1 cup starter, I add 1 cup flour and 1 cup milk to the starter I reserve. If you don’t have a crock, a glass jar with a loosely screwed on lid will work. Now you have your own starter to share.

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