Sourdough is the best and most distinctive of “native” American breads, itself a hybrid of the portable dough carried by prospectors to the Yukon in the 1890s, called “sourdoughs,” and of the traditional baking methods of French and Italian immigrants to Gold Rush ports like Seattle and San Francisco. Some Alaskans today claim that they possess sourdough “starters” a century old, passed down from generation to generation, and feeling runs high about the precise rules for the care and feeding of a family-inherited starter. By the same token, some San Franciscans today claim that the reason for the superi ority of San Francisco sourdough to all other sourdough breads is the peculiar bacterial microclimate of the bay area, which cannot be duplicated any place else in the world.
The truth is that anybody can make a starter. But because the yeast is “wild,” in comparison to commercial yeast, its effects are less predictable. The major ingredient of any sourdough bread, however, is time: time for the starter to do its work, then the sponge, and finally the dough. To make a starter from scratch, you need four to five days; for the sponge two days; for the dough a mere four to five hours.
Any grain or starchy vegetable, given time and warmth and moisture, will begin to ferment and produce wild yeast. Adding commercial yeast to the starter helps to control the wildness and therefore the degree and quality of the sourness. A Yukon prospector could have started his bread with no more than a raw potato, but what he probably longed for was a sweet white delicate loaf fresh from the hands of a city baker, who had gone to some trouble and expense to obtain a “refined” yeast from the brewer.
Once the starter develops its own yeast, this yeast needs to be fed with more starch or grain to develop its gassy powers. From the starter, the bread-maker makes a “sponge,” which multiplies the power of the yeast to expand each glutinous particle of the flour when it is turned into dough. Any kind of flour can be used—rye, whole wheat, white—and any kind of liquid, such as milk, water, vegetable juice, fish broth. You can mold the dough into any kind of shape, but the long thin loaves we call French or Italian give a good proportion of crusty outside to inside crumb. Sourdough crumb tends to be heavier and more dense than that of sweet-yeasted breads.
Here I’ve mixed whole wheat with white flour in about equal proportions and added a cup of soaked whole wheat berries because I like their sweetness and crunch. Sometimes I use sprouted wheat berries because their extra sweetness nicely balances the sourness of the dough. But there’s almost nothing you can’t add in the way of flavorings, from herbs and cheese to cinnamon and raisins and nuts, or if you’re all-out Alaskan, a little whale oil.
For the starter, dissolve yeast in the water, stir in the flour, and mix until smooth. Put in a deep ceramic or glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and put in a warm place until it is very bubbly and smells ripe, 4 to 5 days. It will then keep in the refrigerator in a lidded jar for weeks, or in the freezer for months.
To make the sponge, add
When you are ready to make the dough, dissolve yeast in the water, and add, in order, the salt, soda, butter, sponge mixture, and flour. Knead thoroughly, at least 10 minutes by hand or 5 minutes by electric mixer with dough hook. When the dough is glossy and elastic, put in a well-greased bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled.
Punch the dough down with your fist and shape it into 2 balls. Press each ball flat into an oval. Fold ovals in half lengthwise, flatten again, and repeat. Indent each piece lengthwise with the side of your hand and fold it in half, sealing the edges. Lengthen loaves by rolling them back and forth with your palms. Place each loaf in a greased trough in a French bread pan or aluminum foil shaped into troughs. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise again.
Put a baking pan of hot water on the lower shelf of an oven and heat to 425 °. Slash the top of each loaf with a razor blade in three parallel diagonal cuts. Brush the tops of the loaves with water to make a brown glaze. Bake until tops are brown and loaves sound hollow when rapped on the bottom, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool on a rack.
© 1986 Betty Fussell. All rights reserved.