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Humble Beginnings From A Jar Of Sourdough Starter

I WAS pretty busy, so the jar of sourdough starter Nancy brought stayed in the refrigerator almost two weeks. Starter left too long will rot, but when I took the cap off, it smelled like good, very sour starter, so I mixed flour and water and stirred about two-thirds of the starter into it, then renewed the starter with more flour and water. I put the starter back in the refrigerator and left the mixture of flour, water, and starter on the kitchen counter to work.

When I was a boy, my family used to go to visit my mother's parents on the mining claim where they lived, near Jacksonville, Oregon. They kept their food cool in a spring house. They dug dirt and rock from the hill with pick and shovel and used a wheelbarrow to take it to a wooden long tom and work it with water from the creek. They took out enough gold to provide them a small amount of cash and legal rights to their claim.

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And Grandpa baked sourdough biscuits every morning for breakfast. They were light, fluffy, and delicious, without a trace of sourness. I didn't understand then that sourdough starter can be used sparingly as leavening without imparting a sour flavor.

Because sourdough starter can provide leavening with nothing needed but careful attention and flour and water added periodically, cooks carried it in their chuckwagons on cattle drives; miners used it. Where yeast was hard to get and keep and leavened breads were desired, there was sourdough starter.

But sourdough starter can also be used to make the bread taste sour, and that is what I achieved 20 years ago, when I first started working with it on Nimshew Ridge. Joe brought me a small jar of starter. A friend brought it to him from a starter that had been kept going in Alaska for more than 50 years. Joe said he didn't know what to do with it, but he didn't want it to go to waste. I didn't know either, from experience, but the brief instructions Joe had received made sense to me: ``Mix it with flour and water and keep adding flour and water to the starter,'' so I took it and started making bread.

I like very sour bread, so that's what I aimed for. My nose was my guide. I quickly learned that the flour-and-water mix that will become the bread has to be more liquid than bread dough or it will rise before it sours, expand out of its container, onto the table, over the edge, onto the floor, and is very hard to clean up. Flour and water makes an effective paste, and if it is slightly sour, it doesn't inhibit the adhesive quality. So the mix had to be just fluid enough that bubbles would rise through it. When it smelled sour enough, I added flour until it was kneadable and kept adding flour until I could knead it without sticking to it, shaped it into a loaf, let it rise, and baked it in the oven of my wood-fired stove. Very good. Very sour.

The next lesson I learned was, if bread is left rising in the house, be sure the doors are tightly shut. Friends came for a visit, and we went for a hike up the ridge, and my dog, King Edward, ate both rising loaves. When we came back, we couldn't figure out what was the matter with him. He seemed quite happy, but he could hardly walk. He staggered, fell, dragged himself along, worked at it a long time to stand, and fell again. I took him to the vet, and the vet said, ``This is a drunk dog.'' I hadn't realized alcohol was part of the sourdough process, but the vet assured me that it is, though it evaporates during baking. Edward slept off his ``binge,'' and I started another batch of bread.

I moved to the cabin by the reservoir in early summer. Baking inside made the house unbearably hot, so I dug into a bank above the cabin, set in a 20-gallon steel drum, covered it with two feet of dirt, with a pipe coming up from the back and a sliding asbestos door in front, bricks on the bottom to level it, and I had an earth oven. I built a hot fire, let it burn about half an hour, raked out the coals and ashes, capped the pipe and covered the cap with dirt, put in bread dough, and slid down the door. I waited about 45 minutes, opened it up, and took out beautiful loaves of bread.

I made sourdough rye, white, and whole wheat. I brushed egg whites on the loaves and had a glazed, golden crust. I brushed on butter and had a softer, golden crust. I added food yeast to my dough, or oatmeal, finely ground cornmeal, bran, wheat germ - anything that seemed like it would work. Everything I baked was delicious. The whole-grain flours made a dense, heavy bread, but I liked that quite well, as did most of the people who tried it. Fans of light, fluffy bread were winnowed out and didn't get a second helping. Bread became a major part of my diet and the diet of my most-frequent visitors. I had no refrigeration, so I had to keep producing a lot of bread to keep the starter from souring.

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I'VE had a few short involvements with sourdough since then. Sometimes, I've developed a starter just by mixing flour and water and letting it stand. Here again, my nose is my guide. If it develops a sour smell without smelling like rot, it's good.

But it's been years since I've done anything, and I don't remember all of it, so now it's a process of jogging my memory and experimenting again. The first loaves of white bread were popular with my wife and daughters. The second batch, a loaf of white and a loaf of whole wheat, went rapidly. I tried half barley flour and half white the next time. We ate it, but it wasn't as popular, a little too sweet.

We haven't been able to get rye flour at local stores. I mean to speak to the managers. Meanwhile, a bowl of whole wheat and a bowl of white are souring on the mantel. Sourness is a function of time and temperature. The more of either, the sourer, though too long or too warm will overproof, and the starter will die and the bread won't rise.

I mean to find out more about starters. I'd like to know if the 50-year-old Alaskan starter was any different from what I have now. I'll see what I can find at the library. Meanwhile, primary research - in the jar, the bowl, the oven, through the nose, over the tastebuds, proceeds full speed.

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