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Homemaking and Other Practical Topics

Baking from the Last Frontier: Sourdough
By Shawna Howes
Feb 28, 2007 - 4:11:52 PM

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Like to bake bread, but the price of yeast getting you down, or you think it takes too much of your already filled time? Imagine what it was like for our ancestors who braved the way to California and Alaska. The prospectors and their families were weeks to months away from any store-bought leavening. Instead, they found that, by allowing dough to ferment slightly, they only had to add a little to a new batch of bread to make it rise. They transported their ďstarterĒ by adding enough flour to make a ball of dough, then buried the ball deep into their flour sack. Heat and water ďfedĒ the starter and kept the yeast alive until the next camp. People boasted about how long they kept their starter going, sometimes for months or years.

The resulting bread was slightly sour in taste, which is where the term ďsourdoughĒ comes from. In Alaska, a common wedding gift to the bride was a crock with sourdough starter and enough flour to keep the new family fed for weeks. To this day, long-term residents of Alaska are known as ďsourdoughs,Ē and the sour bread is well loved from Anchorage to San Francisco and all throughout the world. I developed a taste for sourdough when my family lived outside of Anchorage for five years.

When I got my first apartment, I tried my hand at sourdough baking. Over the years, Iíve learned that sourdough can be a little finicky, but if you experiment, it can last a long time. The current starter I have has been active and working for almost six months now. You can use sourdough for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert, so itís very versatile. Why not try making some sourdough starter, and then you can treat your family to this 200-year-old tradition?

The Starter

Many people first get into sourdough baking when a friend gives them starter. This is probably the best way to start out, because you know that the starter is fresh and has leavening ability. If you donít know anyone who makes sourdough, youíll have to make your own. There are as many ways to make starter as there are cooks, but this is the method I use for white bread, as found in The Tightwad Gazette III: The Final Edition:


1 tablespoon yeast (people have found different brands act differently: Iíve gotten good results from both Fleischmannís and Red Star yeasts)

2 cups water (some people prefer to use chlorine-free water: if youíre on city water, let the water air out for a few days)

2 cups white flour


Mix all together until you have something like a thick, runny batter. Now you have to store it. DO NOT use anything metal. Glass (large Mason jar), plastic (Iím using a tall plastic canister I used to store pasta in), or the aforementioned earthenware crock are all good. Make sure that your starter only fills the container halfway up. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, crock lid, or canister lid loosely attached and allow to sit at room temperature for 48 hours for the yeast to work. Youíll know itís done when the volume has risen, the top of the starter is foamy and bubbly, and the smell is pleasantly sour. After 48 hours, you can store the starter in the refrigerator.

Itís common for the starter to separate, with a darker, more liquid layer on top of the thick, white batter. You can drain that layer off; I mix mine back into the starter. Or, you can do what the prospectors did and drink it, but Iím not that brave!
Many people like to take the starter out of the fridge the day before baking and let it come to room temperature before using, but you can use it straight from the fridge if you like.


After removing starter for baking, put back equal amounts of flour and water into the starter, allow to ferment, and put back into fridge.  The same applies if you give starter to a friend. If you donít bake often, drain off about a cup and a half of starter every week, throw it out and feed the starter. If the starter ever turns colors, grows fungus, or smells foul, THROW IT OUT! You can always make more.

The Bread


Iíve seen many different recipes for basic sourdough bread, but this is the one that works the best for me, which I got from The Tightwad Gazette III: The Final Edition:


5 Ĺ cups flour (you can substitute whole wheat flour for 1 or 2 cups)

2 cups starter

1 tablespoon salt

1 cup warm water


Dissolve salt in water in mixing bowl. Iíve read some people say you shouldnít mix the bread in a metal bowl, but many people use their Kitchen-Aids with no problem, and I use a metal bread bucket and have had no problems. Add starter, then the flour. Stir, then knead into ball. Cover with damp towel and allow to rise OVERNIGHT. In the morning, punch down, and divide into two round loaves. Place loaves on greased baking sheet, slash tops with an X, cover again with damp towel and allow to rise 4 more hours. Place a pan of steaming water in bottom rack of oven, preheat over to 400 degrees and bake loaves for 35 minutes until light brown.


Youíll notice that the rising times are very long compared to other yeast breads. This frees you to accomplish other tasks instead of keeping you glued to a timer.


This is, by far, one of the cheapest breads you can make, as it only needs flour, salt, starter, and water. If you have an electric bread maker, you can make sourdough bread in it too, so check cookbooks such as Electric Bread. Many all-purpose cookbooks have their own recipes for sourdough. For sourdough recipes from morning until night, try the book Alaskan Sourdough Cooking: Recipes from the Last Frontier.



Iíve been making sourdough off and on for 10 years now, but itís only been recently than Iíve gotten into the habit of baking with it at least once a week. Iíve also gotten into the habit of giving away the second loaf of the batch. My next-door neighbor loves the stuff, especially because he has no time or talent with baking. My godson requests it frequently, and the hot bread slathered with butter is one of my fiancťís favorite snacks. I shared starters with several women when I was in college.


Sourdough is wonderful for all kinds of baking. Iíve made pizza crusts, cobblers, and biscuits, just to name a few recipes that have been hits in this house.  Itís been a blessing during lean months when I couldnít afford more yeast. Because it leaves you so much time to do other things, sourdough might be a good introduction to making your own bread if you think it would take too much time.

Photo from The Prepared Pantry , which has more sourdough resources!

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