A recent trip to San Francisco reinforced my feelings about, of all things, sourdough bread. Seeing tourists eagerly clutching their Boudin bags while I picked at the pasty remains of the bread bowl that held my wife’s seafood-bisquish glop made me wonder all over again: What’s with the artisanal sourdough-bread thing?
See, where I come from sourdough isn’t gourmet. It’s survival.
I was raised in Alaska – Fairbanks, specifically, a north Alaska town named after an ancestor of mine that isn’t the end of civilization but you can see it from there. Even though we lived in an apartment we did sourdough, and so did our friends. We usually used to it make pancakes, though occasionally my mom made bread. It wasn’t very good bread – my mom wasn’t the greatest cook, and Fairbanks in the ‘60s, like every other place in North America, was deep into its infatuation with TV dinners and Wonder Bread – but it was sourdough all right, with that hard crust (which in the case of my mom’s bread went almost to the core, so that eating a piece of her sourdough was like biting into an asteroid) and distinctive tang that seemed otherworldly to a kid whose idea of good bread was something you could smush into a ball and eat like an apple.
However, you didn’t have to look far in Fairbanks to find someone for whom sourdough held an entirely different meaning. Old prospectors still roamed downtown in those days, with sacks of gold dust bulging from the pockets of their “Alaska tuxedos” – Filson whipcord jackets. To them, bread was truly the staff of life, and sourdough was their bread. That was even the name they went by – “sourdoughs.”
To them, a good sourdough starter was as valuable as a good ax or a good lead dog. The sourdough starter got the prime spot by the fire. When a sourdough broke camp in midwinter the starter traveled inside his shirt. When he made a new camp the starter was the first thing broken out after the fire was going strong, and when he went to sleep at night the starter snuggled up with him. Plenty of sourdoughs didn’t make it through the winter after they were careless with their starter.
We heard their stories in school, where sourdough was part of the local history. It was part of Alaska’s contemporary history, too, and I was reminded of that recently when a friend – Mike Lintal, our food blogger – asked me for some sourdough recipes.
Of course I have sourdough recipes. I dug out a photocopy of a 60-year-old booklet on sourdough produced by the Alaska agricultural-extension agency. (That tells you something right there. Has your ag-extension agency come across with any booklets on cronuts or challah lately?) I was fascinated all over again by some of the stories it told about sourdough and just how versatile it is.
Here’s a story from the ag-extension booklet. When people ask me why I love Alaska, I think of stories like this:
“In 1900 an Alaskan prospector married an Indian girl. They started a sourdough pot and kept the starter going by using it regularly. When she died and the husband became ill, he refused to go to the hospital if he had to leave his sourdough pot. ‘It is all I have left of my wife,’ he said. It was given to a woman friend to guard. She kept her promise and used the starter once a week. From it, she gave starters to countless other Alaskans. It is an especially good starter with a clean aroma and flavor.”
Okay, outside of the stories, what else is today’s Lower-48 sourdough culture (so to speak) missing? To me, the answer is easy: variety and versatility.
Most commercial sourdough breads are fine, though an old sourdough would tell you that really good sourdough bread is not overtly sour. (And incidentally, Boudin does make a fine Lower-48-style sourdough bread.) However, for me the best sourdough creations are not the French-style baguettes and boules but sweet breads, pancakes, doughnuts, rolls, muffins, and cakes. Adding sugar and soda to a sourish yeast mixture delivers a pleasant balance of flavors and makes sourdough a welcome guest at breakfasts, brunches, and dessert time.
This is where sourdough differs from its drinkable second cousin, beer. While a less sweet beer pairs better with more kinds of foods by enhancing flavors instead of supplying them, sourdough, because of its place on the plate, has to be a flavor supplier and not just a flavor enhancer. So sour-sweet, which doesn’t work as well for beer, really works for sourdough.
Pancakes and waffles in particular. In their non-sourdough incarnations, pancakes and waffles are bland, benign breakfast breads. Sourdough pancakes and waffles juice the flavor quotient dramatically, and pair especially well with nuts, bacon and maple syrup.
In a chocolate cake, sourdough can supply an earthy oomph that’s vaguely reminiscent of sour cream. These characteristics are also welcome in doughnuts – jelly or jam doughnuts especially. Another old sourdough cookbook of mine has an recipe for incredible sourdough thumbprint doughnuts filled with rose-hip jelly. Find a restaurant that serves either one these days.
And that’s a big problem, from a traveler’s standpoint. If you’re determined to span the globe in search of a place that can serve you a steaming plate of sourdough pancakes or waffles just like the prospectors used to make, plan on spanning a while. By its wild, yeasty nature, sourdough is unpredictable, and unpredictability is the hobgoblin of executive chefs everywhere. One day’s batch of sourdough pancakes can almost float away; the next day’s batch could double as ballast.
If a chef decides to start their own starter from scratch, it can take several years for the yeast to develop the punch needed to raise breads or cakes on a day-in/day-out basis.
The large sourdough bakeries aside, sourdough cookery is ultimately a small-batch thing, best conducted at home with a Mason jar of starter dumped into a ceramic mixing bowl and set by the fire to rise overnight, so it can do its magic in the morning.
One thing I can recommend: The last time I visited Fairbanks, the ag-extension pamphlet on sourdough was still in the racks. Summer in Fairbanks is wonderful; take the train from Anchorage, spend the night in Denali, and when you get to Fairbanks head straight for the university. Find the agricultural-extension office and ask for Publication No. 61.
Take it and read it, and then, when you get home and find you have some hides that need tanning, you’ll know that sourdough can handle it.
Try that with your garden-variety bread dough.