Sourdough is the oldest known form of leavened bread and consists of just flour, water, lactobacillus bacteria, and (traditionally) wild yeast. Ancient Egyptians discovered how to make it and the French have also long used sourdough. The Boudin family, master bakers in their native France, discovered upon immigrating to San Francisco in the mid-1800s that the indigenous yeasts of the region produced particularly tasty bread. The Boudin Bakery chain is still thriving in the Bay Area and has been using the same starter culture since the Gold Rush began in 1848.
Miners in particular loved the Boudin’s bread, so much so that prospectors—and eventually Alaskans—became known as “sourdoughs,” because men in the frigid Klondike carried starter on their persons to keep the yeast alive (some even slept with it in their bedrolls).
Chuckwagon cooks of the late-19th century used their starter to make stick-to-the-ribs foods like biscuits and pancakes to feed hardworking cowboys on the trail. Farmwives relied upon sourdough starter for the same reasons, and many are family heirlooms that have been passed on for generations. This biscuit recipe originated with Richard Bolt, a cook at the renowned Pitchfork Ranch near Guthrie, Texas, for more than 40 years.
• 4 cups sourdough starter (see below)
• 4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 2 Tablespoons sugar
• 3 heaping teaspoons baking powder
• 4 Tablespoons shortening
Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, form a hollow in 4 cups flour and pour in 4 cups sourdough starter. Add salt, sugar, baking powder, and shortening. Mix well. Pinch off balls about the size of an egg and place in a well-greased 14-inch Dutch Oven or cast-iron skillet. Grease tops generously and set aside in a warm place to rise, about 5-10 minutes. (The closer the biscuits are crowded in the pan, the higher they will rise.) Bake 30 minutes or until nicely browned. Consistent heat is crucial when using a Dutch Oven.
• 1, 2-ounce cake of baker’s yeast or
3, 1/4-ounce packets dry yeast
• 4 cups warm water
• 2 Tablespoons sugar
• 4 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 raw potato, peeled and quartered
Dissolve yeast in warm water. Add sugar, flour, and potato. Mix in a ceramic crock and let rise until very light and slightly aged.
Never add yeast after the first time, but keep adding raw potato chunks as food for the starter.
Store lightly covered, feed daily, and do not refrigerate while the cultures develop (about 30 days).
Once established, feed it every time you use it or once every other month; whichever comes first.
Keep loosely sealed in the refrigerator for long-term storage in a sanitized Mason jar, ceramic crock, or heavy-duty plastic container (no metal).
To reactivate, bring to room temperature and add 1 cup warm water, 2 teaspoons sugar, and enough flour to mix to consistency of original starter.