When I was newly married and just settling into my first kitchen, I had a desire for all things domestic. In my kitchen, I had a little Scandinavian “kitchen witch,” a small fabric and straw doll, hanging in the corner for good luck (these were particularly popular at the time). I browsed through catalogs for months before selecting a set of deep cherry red cast iron pots and pans that would hang from a wooden pot rack near the stove. And, before I even knew why I wanted it or what I might use it for, I desired to make my own sourdough starter.
I started my first sourdough starter with a packet of active dry yeast, a couple of cups of water, a little sugar and some flour mixed together. I set my mixture in a warm corner of the kitchen in a small ceramic crock and let it ferment. I would circle on the kitchen calendar what days to “feed” the starter by adding in a little more flour and water.
Things change and the “kitchen witch” is long gone. I am not nearly so enraptured by all things domestic — only some things. I still have that lovely cast iron cookware, however. And, I still have an interest in sourdough.
Living in Alaska, we are well aware of the word “sourdough,” a term of endearment for some older Alaskans, like my husband. The word is found in our state song as in “gold of the early sourdough’s dreams.” Robert Service wrote that miners “lived on tinned tomatoes, beef embalmed, and sourdough bread; on rusty beans and bacon furred with mold.” Sourdough is a part of our culinary heritage.
Some years ago, I learned that using those active dry yeast packets doesn’t create true sourdough. The type of yeast used in those packets is called Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It is strong, powerful yeast that basically overpowers any of the wild yeast called lactobacillus found in true sourdough.
There are hundreds of variations on sourdough starter; using different combinations of flour like rye and whole wheat, adding in milk rather than water, there’s even a chocolate sourdough. We’ve settled on something of a signature sourdough in our kitchen. We add in tart green apples that have fermented in a little sugar for a few days, combined with plain white organic flour. And, we use water from our well.
I like to start and store sourdough in clear glass pitchers so I can see what is going on. I have two identical pitchers so I can periodically pour the sourdough from one pitcher into the other to keep the containers clean.
It is said that gold miners wore sourdough pouches around their neck to keep the starter warm and alive. I can’t imagine anything more uncomfortable. They didn’t know that sourdough freezes without killing it. So, if you go on vacation, just place your sourdough into the fridge or freezer and it will slow down but be just fine when you return.
Try crafting your own signature sourdough. It adds a little local flavor to any baked recipe and it’s a nice way to connect to our gold-rush heritage.
- 2 Granny Smith (or other) tart green apples
- 6 tablespoons sugar
- 3 cups water
- 2½ cups all-purpose flour
- Cut up the apples into chunks and place in a bowl (I leave the skin on but you can peel the apple if you prefer), add in the sugar and ½ cup of the water. Cover the bowl. Let it sit for about a week in a warm place in the kitchen, checking on it now and then. If for some reason the apple has dried out, add in a little more water. The apple will soften and turn into something that looks like applesauce.
- Make sure your sourdough container is well washed. Add in the flour, the remaining water, and the apple mash. That’s it. Set the covered starter in a warm place and now you have a living pet that has to be fed and watered, sometimes every day.
- To maintain your sourdough, the general rule is to add in equal weight amounts of flour and water (roughly 1 cup flour and ½ cup water) as you use the sourdough. If you don’t bake enough to use sourdough every week, then you’ll need to add in, or “feed” the starter with additional flour and water. You might have to remove a little bit of the old starter to add in new flour and water so you don’t outgrow your container. If you don’t use your sourdough for an extended period of time, place it into the refrigerator or freezer until ready to reactivate.