A sourdough starter is basically a method of growing yeast. The starter is a flour and water mixture—a basic unleavened dough—that serves as a medium for growing either commercial yeast that is added to the mixture or the ever-present wild yeast that is “captured” by the mixture from the air we breathe. (Yogurt is also sometimes added to provide yeast).
This mixture is allowed to “sour” through a fermentation process that produces a gas and an acid.
It is then used as a “starter” to leaven other breads: the gas produced by the fermentation is trapped in the elastic gluten structure of the dough, causing it to rise, while the acid imparts the final product with a tart flavor.
History: Thought to be the very first instance of leavened bread, sourdough dates back to 4,000 B.C., when ancient Egyptians are credited for discovering yeast’s leavening power. Since then, it has spread to many cultures and has a solid place in U.S. history and folklore.
In the Old West, sourdough was the only continuous supply of leavening in the wilderness areas, earning the mountain men, sheepherders, pioneers, prospectors and miners of the time the nickname “Sourdoughs.” To carry the starter from camp to camp, they would add enough flour to make a ball of dough that was then buried deep in the flour sack. Water and warmth at the next campsite started it growing again.
Tales tell of the cherished sourdough crock with starter given as a part of a bride’s dowry and of the starter going to bed with its owner to assure its survival through the long, cold winters.
Wheat Foods Council www.wheatfoods.org
Cowboy cooks would take their sourdough starter to bed with them to keep the cold night air from stopping the crucial fermenting process.