Thursday, October 9, 2008

sourdough, applied

Alright class, are we all together now? Each of you has followed directions and created your own sourdough start using potato water and sugar. Last time we met, Mrs. Titus told us that she made bread on the trail using her start to make a sponge. At left, we find a little more detail about making bread from a sponge, taken from The Great Western Cookbook, or Table Receipts Adapted to Western Housewifery by Mrs. A.M. Collins (1857). Collins calls for using yeast, but your starter already has yeast. Mrs. Collins also assumes that the reader knows enough about bread-making to know how to make a sponge into dough. Modern readers are probably less familiar and will require more specific directions.

A more simple application of sourdough might be the "cakes" or biscuits that Mrs. Titus described. Once again, Mrs. Collins left us an interpretation of chemically-leavened biscuts, at right. In this receipt, Mrs. Collins illustrates the state of technology of her day: there was no "baking powder"-- instead she mixes soda with cream of tartar. The acid of the tartar activates the base of soda.
Mormon pioneers also used soda to make biscuits. The "Mormon biscuits" that show up in so many volumes of Mormon cookery are simply soda biscuits with an ego attached. To make these with sourdough, we eliminate the "cream tartar" and "pint of warm water" and instead add two cups of the sourdough start. The start has a naturally acidic character, to activate the soda. The start is also liquid in nature, so we don't need water to mix the dough. Some bakers like to let the biscuits raise for 30 minutes after cutting them out; others put them to the oven immediately.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Sourdough Starts

The other day I was at the library and I stumbled across an excerpt from the diary of Mary Clayton*, a Mormon pioneer settler. Here, she explains her method for starting a sourdough culture:

“Boil one good-sized potato until mealy. Mash about ¼ of the potato real fine and add to approximately two teacups of the water in which potato was cooked. Add one teaspoon sugar to lukewarm potato water. Add enough flour [about two cups] to make a sponge and put it in a warm place and let it work. Let it stand for 5 days. For pancakes pour off what you would like for breakfast and leave a starter of the sponge. Store starter in a cool place.”

In this method, Clayton relies on airborn yeasts and bacteria to settle on a nutrient-rich environment to begin working. The potato water attracts yeast in the same way as a ripe grape or apple. On the grape we see wild yeast as a dusty film attracted to the sugars of the grape. In Clayton's petri dish, the yeasts settle on the potato water and begin eating the starches. Once the culture has begun to work, it creates a colony we can use for leavening bread, biscuits and cakes. Give it a try at home, and see what happens!

*Mary Clayton's diary excerpt was found in Kitchen Treasures, 1830-1980: 150 Years of Mormon Culture. Produced by the Roy 13th Ward, found in the Special Collections of Weber State University. If anyone knows the whereabouts of the original diary, I'd love to take a peek at it.