In search of healthy and fun meals to feed my family, with an eye toward sustainable living.

Here you'll find recipes & ramblings about keeping my family fed with what's available in Alaska between local produce, a little bit of wild harvest, and the modern grocery store.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


"Sourdough" is a nickname for old-timer Alaskans (especially miners), because in the Gold Rush days, the only way to get bread or pancake to rise without the use of Baker's yeast or eggs was, of course, by using a sourdough starter.

In Alaska lore, one earned the title "Sourdough" after having lived thru at least one winter, whereas the newcomer who has not seen a full winter yet is called a "Cheechako".

"Sourdough" by Fred Machetanz, Alaskan painter (1908-2002)

Photo credit:

When the Prof and I got married, one of the most unusual gifts we received was a live culture of "Jedadiah's Sourdough Starter" together with a recipe book and a beautifully handcrafted bread bowl. Alas, Jedediah did not survive the trip to Alaska -- the bowl, however, did!

Sourdough is a live culture of bacteria, and the lactic acid produced by these bacteria causes the "sourness". According to Wikipedia, sourdough starters are actually stable symbiotic culture of bacteria and the yeasts Candida milleri or Saccharomyces exiguus, which usually populate sourdough cultures symbiotically with Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis.
Look back at the species name of the last critter: now that's a cool scientific name, named after another Gold Rush city famed for it's sourdough! These sourdough cultures later made it North in the Alaska Goldrush, up the Yukon, to the Klondike and Nome! And my kitchen...

Eldest (a.k.a. Kitchensister) made her own from scratch earlier this year: mix equal quantities of water and unbleached flour, keeping it in a warm place, loosely covered. Some recipes call for the use of potato water, a teeny bit of sugar, and sometimes even the skin from grapes, as they have some good bacteria & yeasts on them (the important critters for populating the starter come mostly from the grain outer shell, not so much the air in your kitchen).

Whether your sourdough comes from a friend, a freeze-dried culture bought at the supermarket (available in the tourist section of many Alaska stores), or you started your own from "scratch", the most important thing is to keep feeding it.
Every day (occasionally I'm forgetful and skip a day), I feed my sourdough by adding some water and flour, and stirring it: it keeps that culture of critters alive and multiplying. (Otherwise you end up with more dead than alive, it gets more and more sour, and can even start turning nasty colors on the container's sides -- if that happens, don't panic. Just stir it up, spoon out some from the middle into a new clean container, and feed it with fresh water and flour.)
If I know I won't be using my sourdough for a while (vacation, or general laziness), then I put the starter in the frig. There the processes slow down, but I still should feed it every week or so.
Turns out, you can even freeze it, thaw it out later, and start again with feeding it, but it's nearly like starting from scratch (patience!) -- it will take several feedings before your starter starts bubbling again and acting like a sourdough...

There's lots of do's and don'ts surrounding sourdough. Don't use metal is one rule often mentioned. Indeed, a metal container will cause the acidity to react chemically, which you don't want -- so always use glass or ceramic for your starter. But there's also the rule to never use a metal utensil, only wood or plastic. Turns out, using an occasional stainless steel spoon to stir your dough is no big deal -- that's too short of a contact time to be a problem (just don't leave that spoon sitting in the starter).

It's good to cover your starter, but never tightly. The cover needs to be loose to let the air escape -- sourdoughs have been known to explode, esp during transport! If your sourdough needs to travel somewhere, be very careful: keep in a cooler or thermos, and loosen the lid frequently.
Also, don't let sourdough get too hot, or subject it to ultraviolet light -- that kills it!

The first couple of days a newish starter may not have much "umph" to it -- it needs to be babied for a few more days. Feed it every day (toss some if you find your container getting too full), and pretty soon you'll see it bubbling away. Those bubbles are good sign! Even better, mix up a batch of sourdough pancakes, and if you'll know right away if your sourdough starter is up to snuff!

Using sourdough:
  • Never add anything other than flour and water to your starter.
  • Before using or feeding, always stir the "hooch" (liquid that separated & floats on top) back in.
  • If you feel that your sourdough is a bit too sour for your tastes, add some baking soda to the recipe to neutralize (sweeten) it -- but not to your starter!
  • Keep this in mind for your recipes: salt decreases the yeasties' activity, while sugar increases it.

Sourjacks (a.k.a. Sourdough Pancakes)
from Ruth Allman's Alaska Sourdough recipe book

2 c. starter (room temperature, fed last the day before)
2 T sugar
4 T oil
1 egg
1/2 t salt
1 scant teaspoon baking soda (more if your starter is real sour!)

Mix first 5 ingredients well. Have your griddle hot before proceeding.
Add soda (some dilute w/ water in a jigger first), fold in gently (don't beat!) and very soon you get this chemical reaction that is a joy to behold: the batter fills with bubbles and doubles in bulk. Pour batter on hot griddle. Flip.
Yummy with syrup!

My variation of this recipe (and a few other sources) is to make a few shortcuts, and to make smaller quantities, because I just can't cook them fast enough, and the batter starts going flat before I got them all cooked...

First I make a dry mix that I store in a jar ("Felix"):
2 c flour
1/2 c sugar
2 T salt
2 T baking soda

To make Pancakes, I use a container that holds at least 4 c liquid (beware of expansion!)
1 c starter (room temp, etc)
1 egg (optional, but makes darn good pancakes)
tad of oil (about 1 T)
tad of milk or buttermilk (1-2 T)
1/2 c of my dry mix

Proceed the same as above, with griddle hot and ready before the soda-containing dry mix gets stirred in. This should start expanding immediately if you're sourdough is good & sour!

Sourdough Bread without added yeast

2 c sourdough starter (proofed: freshly fed, bubbly and frothy, called a "sponge")
this may take several hours depending on your starter (if starting with refrigerated starter, this may take 6-8 hrs).
When the sponge is ready, start adding flour and mixing it in 1/2 c at a time --this takes
approximately 3 c unbleached flour (amounts can vary greatly).
Also, as desired, add up to 2 T olive oil, up to 1 T sugar, and 1-2 t salt.

Knead the dough until it feels right (flexible, not too heavy).
Let rise in a warm place, covered with a dishtowel (preferrably a clean one!) until doubled in bulk -- again, this may vary greatly, but will probably take longer than yeast breads you might be used to baking.

Punch down the dough, knead a little more, form loaf, and let rise until nearly doubled in size. Bake at 350F for 30+ minutes. I check mine when it has a nice crust, and thump the bottom and if it sounds good and "hollow", it's ready.
Cool on rack, resisting cutting right into it!

I tell ya, it felt like a great achievement when I baked my first loaf of successfully risen sourdough bread without any added yeast!!!

Sourdough Rye Bread
Rye lends itself better to sourdough baking than just plain yeast-- in fact, most Northern Europeans still make their Rye bread with sourdough. And good German "Roggenbrot" is one of the foods I still miss the most from Germany, so, I gotta make my own. I've made rye bread with yeast, but I'm hoping to embark on sourdough rye baking soon!
Searching for a good rye bread recipe, I came across a very interesting story and recipe from a Lithuanian American at
For a NY Jewish Sourdough Rye recipe (using a special rye sourdough starter, and old rye bread) , go to Recipe Rascal.

Finally, check out this blog dedicated to sourdough baking,

1 comment:

  1. I just fed my mother starter today! Bought myself Peter Reinhart's latest "Artisan Breads for Everyday" for Christmas, and have been enjoying the yeasty goodness ever since. :)