The History Of Sourdough Yeast

Learn about the history of sourdough bread. Living organisms used today to lighten a loaf of this popular bread probably contain bacteria first used hundreds of years ago.

Halfway through a recent year of family disasters, I inexplicably began yearning for sourdough bread. Although I've always been crazy for the sour rye of my grandmothers' tables and enjoyed the "real thing" San Francisco version, this longing had cosmic roots; it wouldn't go away, and the supermarket's crusty loaf didn't cut it.

Just when I was ready to get some starter and begin baking, both my arms were broken in a mugging event far from home. With kneading, (and gardening and cooking!) temporarily impossible, my serious training for patience, a prerequisite for sourdough bakers, was nonetheless begun.

But when I could, I accumulated a book of recipes, and some commercial sourdough starter, and began some serious baking. Around the same time a friend synchronously offered me her French bread pans, and I was on a roll (loaf!). Sourdough French bread now ranks with summer tomatoes and watercolor paints as my favorite raw materials in the world.

What's the appeal of bread leavened with "starter" instead of yeast that comes in packets, jars or cakes? First, a tangy, fullsome taste; second, a certain mystique, although starter is nothing but particular microscopic fungi living in the friendly environment of flour and liquid. One "keeps" a batch on hand, using a spoonful, cupful or whatever for a recipe, feeding the starter with equal parts flour/water in the same amounts as that removed, and letting it ferment before using again. Ecologically sound, and cheap, too!

Sourdough is no upstart kid, either; the Egyptians record its use 6,000 years ago! The Jews used it as leavening long before their famous flatbread flight. Too, it appeals to me that starter is made up of "wild" yeasts, similar to the living growths that make cheese and yogurt out of milk, beer and wine of grains and fruits. I'm impressed by that kind of versatility.

Also, just when you want to bake bread, any packaged yeast you find in the cupboard always expired last July, whereas wild yeasts are rugged individualists with phenomenal survival skills; with proper care, they approach immortality! In olden days, people coveted and fought over their starters""prospectors to California and Alaska protected theirs with their lives. My particular batch is made of a blend of three starters with a history: one that crossed the American prairies in a covered wagon in the last century, one from Alaska in the early part of this century, and one that originated here in New England 250 years ago!

Whoever "kept" these sourdough starters are heroes/heroines to me. They represent all those good folks who've valued the food of their people and passed it on for the future of humankind. Old wine, heirloom vegetable, aged cheeses""these foods, and the special care they're given, elevate the activity of feeding ourselves to art and prayer. Is it any surprise that elemental foods like unleavened bread and good wine hold center stage in faith rituals?

Tending live micro-organisms for bread is perfect for dark winter days. Try it, but remember three simple directions for this ancient way of breadmaking: USE your starter often, every week or two, and FEED after every use; finally, WAIT patiently during risings, because wild yeasts, being brought up years ago, work more slowly--another lesson for hurried times.

The best sourdough bread today admittedly comes from the SanFrancisco area, which has mastered the technique of fine and varied loaves from sourdough culture. But any place you find a specialty bread maker, you are likely to find sourdough bread offered atleast occasionally. Even the supermarket types are worthy, these days, though with less of the pungent sourdough scent and nose.

Starter can be obtained from bakers' supply companies, such as King Arthur Flour which also has a catalogue for home bakers, your local sourdough baker, or, if you're lucky, from a friend who has one with a personal history. Personally, I think that's the best kind. I like to know where my wild baking partners come from!Think how far into the future our simple lives can reach if we leave "our" sourdough starter to others along the way?

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