An Ol’ Sourdough Talks about Sourdough
First, you need to know to always take care of your sourdough. It requires care and feeding. The Ol’ coussies were known to even tuck their sourdough in their bed role with themselves at night to keep it warm. So, what’s up here? Did these Ol’ coots have some sort of warped relationship with this stuff. Well, it is a living organism – sort of. But, no, these guys were not slipping off the ol’ rocker.
Historically, sourdough has been around for centuries. and referred to by different names. The name Sourdough is a recent name, considering how long this stuff has been around. It came about, so I’ve been told, when a French family moved to San Francisco and opened a bakery in 1849. They promptly began preparing bread with this culture that was popular and well known in Europe. In 1848, miners began flocking to San Francisco as it was the port of entry on their way to the California gold fields. Once Boudin opened up in 1849 the miners, as well as the locals, found this bread so desirable that the Boudin Bakery became the premier bakery in San Francisco and is still in business today. The miners flocked to this bakery every morning for this special tasting bread. Since 1849, the Boudin’s have been using the same sourdough culture, which they call a “Mother Dough”, and the same recipe. It was called the “Mother Dough” because in 1906 Louise Boudin saved the original starter in a bucket during the Great San Francisco Earthquake.
The Boudin family discovered that their culture produced a bread with unique characteristics that they didn’t have back in France. Must have been somethin’ in the air. Well, that’s exactly correct, there was. No matter what part of the world where sourdough starter is made the flavor will be unique. This is because of the wild yeast found in the air. In each geographic area the composition of the wild yeast will be dependent on the unique environmental conditions. In the San Francisco area the bacteria found is such that it creates the unique aroma and distinct tangy flavor we know as San Francisco sourdough. But, the credit goes to the Boudin’s.
So, why was this so important to the chuck wagon cook? It’s all got to do with the rise or what the old timer’s called proofing. All ya’ll might also know it as the leavening process. Without a concoction that allows the bread to raise the ol’ coussie would have been restricted to making flat breads (to be read tortillas) which the cowboys might tire of over time. Although baker’s yeast was available during the last quarter of the 19th century it was expensive and not readily available on the trail. So, enter sourdough.
Sourdough, when used in bread and other dough based recipes, lowers the pH level of the dough, causing the starch to partially gelatinize, and enabling it to retain gas bubbles. It was much easier for the coussie to mix a batch of sourdough starter and keep it fed thereby making it generally available whenever he needed it.
Alright, recipe time. If you ask a sourdough purist, this recipe would be called cheatin’ ’cause it uses yeast. I call it makin’ a starter overnight.
There is another version of a 12-hour starter recipe and it is a starter on steroids. I learned this one recently from Kent Rollins book, "A taste of Cowboy, Ranch Recipes and Tales from the Trail". Keep everything the same except add two more tablespoons of sugar and add a peeled and quartered russet potato.
- 4 cups warm water
- 1 1/4 teaspoons yeast
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 4 cups flour
- Mix the yeast in the warm water and let it sit for 5 minutes.
- Place the flour in a large plastic, glass, or crock bowl or container. Stir the liquid into the flour and mix well. It should be the consistency of a slightly thick pancake batter.
- Cover container with a towel or plastic wrap but make sure the mixture can breathe. Allow to stand in a warm place for at least 12 hours or more. Make sure your container is deep enough because the yeast will cause the mixture to raise. If the starter gets too close to the top of the container just stir it down.
Use whatever is called for in the recipe yer usin' but make sure to feed it. That means that if the recipe calls for 1 cup of starter then make sure you replenish it with equal amounts of flour and water.
If you keep it fed it will serve a bunch and it will get better with age - kinda like your ol' Splatterdab here. Oh yeah, don't forget, if it gets really chilly at night you can keep your sourdough warm and alive by tuckin' it in the bed roll with ya. Well, maybe not.