Wild Culture: A History of Sourdough

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Wild Culture: A History of Sourdough

If you’ve ever bitten into a slice of true sourdough bread, you know that it can’t be beat. Good things take time, and baking sourdough bread is a long process, proof to the love and passion of the baker, who knows that patience will pay off. It is one of the ultimate slow foods, the antithesis of bright white breads filled with preservatives. A freshly baked loaf of sourdough is a beautiful thing, its crust holding a story of the symbiotic relationship of yeast and bacteria that has been taking place for centuries.

As Julia Child once said, “How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?” After decades of industrialized, cheap, white and unflavorful bread, we are finally coming back around to taste and embracing the art of sourdough (through wild culture we develop actual culture?). But while sourdough might be having a bit of revival, it’s anything but new.

The tangy bread is the oldest form of naturally leavened bread, dating back to the ancient Egyptians. Take a look at the components of sourdough bread, and this long history is no surprise. Like wine and beer (which also date back centuries), the making of sourdough is a natural – one could say, inevitable – process, one that relies on wild yeast, something that exists all around us. Let a bowl of flour and water sit for a few days, and the natural process of fermentation begins, thanks to the wild yeasts (Saccharomyces) and different bacteria species (Lactobacilli).

In the United States, we have our own particular sourdough history. Fast forward from Ancient Egyptian times a few thousand years to the American West, and you will find some of the foods that many of us associate with sourdough, like sourdough pancakes and sourdough biscuits.

Sourdough was a popular staple with the pioneers, who carried their sourdough with them, an easy way to kick start flour recipes when other leavening agents (like yeast cakes) weren’t available in the untouched landscape of the West, where groceries were but a long lost memory. But if you had flour and water then you could make a bread rise (pioneers would also often use potatoes and potato water for their starter). Beyond the usefulness of sourdough starter, it also added flavor, as well as ensured nutrition, which was essential in an era of hardships. You know what I’m talking about; we all played Oregon Trail back in the ‘90s and got cholera.

No place in the American West however embodies sourdough quite like San Francisco. In the mid-1800s, as the city grew, sourdough grew with it, a popular staple food during the time of the Gold Rush. That particular sourdough bread with its unique tang was popularized partially thanks to the French family Boudin. They made their bread in the traditional French way, but found that with time in San Francisco, their sourdough starter developed its distinctive tang. As industrial baker’s yeast came to be the baking norm in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Boudin family stuck with their sourdough starter instead. The starter was so valuable to their business, that when the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 hit, resulting in widespread fires across the city, Louise Boudin is said to have saved the starter in a bucket.

As prospectors moved north to the Klondike, sourdough starter followed along, eventually becoming a staple of the Alaskan pioneer diet. Sourdough is so closely linked to that time period, that “sourdoughs” even became a nickname for prospectors, and today we are left with many cookbooks devoted to the popular sourdough recipes that date back to this time, like Alaskan frontier sourdough hotcakes. The tome on the topic is Ruth Allman’s Alaska Sourdough. In reading Sandor Ellix Katz’s Wild Fermentation, I came across an excellent Allman quote: “A true Alaskan Sourdough would as soon spend a year in the hills without his rifle, as to tough it through without his bubbling sourdough pot.”

Even naturalist John Muir wrote about sourdough, which he encountered in the Sierras, an experience he later documented in his book Nature Writings. “Sheep-camp bread, like most California camp bread, is baked in Dutch ovens…. The greater part, however, is fermented with sour dough, a handful from each batch being saved and put away in the mouth of the flour sack to inoculate the next.”

Today, in a fast paced world, the return to sourdough can be a way to not only link with the past and take part in a centuries-long tradition, but also a way to slow down. Good things do take time, and if you’re lucky enough to bake with sourdough, you’ll know that there is joy to be had in that funky, bubbly, tangy jar of starter.

Anna Brones is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break and runs Foodie Underground, a site about real food for real people. Wherever she is in the world, she can often be found riding a bicycle in search of excellent coffee.

Inset: Sourdough Starter by andersbknudsen

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