In my latest book, one of my passions makes an appearance: sourdough!
Throughout most of human history, sourdough breads were the norm. Baker’s yeast only appeared on the scene in the mid 19th century, preceded by barm (also lovingly known as beer scum!) from the European Middle Ages onward. But getting your hands on some professionally vetted yeast was a hard proposition for most people, so all across the American west pioneers were making sourdough. It was especially popular among men forging out on their own, which is why it took on such important cultural roots in places like San Francisco, the Alaskan Klondike, and remote regions of Montana.
Any pioneer woman worth her salt would know how to make a loaf of sourdough, lest she find herself with a heap of trouble when she couldn’t get to a likely distant mercantile for leavening agents. Sourdough is the result of a combination of local wild yeast strains and a Lactobacillus bacteria culture working together in a symbiotic relationship. The bacteria are similar to what you’ll find in yogurt and give the sourdough a similar tang. They help prevent other, nastier bacteria from taking over the dough, so that the wild yeast has a chance to grow. The wild yeast in a sourdough isn’t the same as what you’d get in a store, taking a much longer time to work its magic on the dough, so it’s very important for the Lactobacillus to be present in the right amounts.
In Highlander’s Heart, my heroine Ivy finds a glazed crock with a sourdough starter, likely left behind by Pierre when he returned to Paris. A little bit of water and flour feeds her starter and then she’s ready to make bread, albeit over the course of many hours. Just how easy is it in reality to make sourdough, though?
The easiest (and safest!) way to start is to purchase a starter or get one as a gift from friends or family. If you’re an experienced baker and like to live on the wild side, though, you can try it the way I did: capturing your own wild yeast and bacteria. That link has one method for beginning a starter of your very own, though it’s hardly the only tutorial on the subject.
However you get your starter, once you have it you can bake with it and you’ll feel pretty darn talented when you do. No matter how it begins, each starter is unique, taking on strains of yeast and bacteria from its environment, so take care of it and it’ll take care of you. Ivy in my book compares it to livestock, in need of feeding and watering every day and in return it’ll provide for your family for a lifetime. Or longer, if you’re really good at maintaining your starter! (Check out this amazing story of one family’s heirloom sourdough starter.)