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  • Michele Genest

Sourdough Bootcamp--An Introduction

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

Excerpted from The Boreal Gourmet, Adventures in Northern Cooking, with some updates for our times

Sourdough Ciabatta and Basic Sourdough Bread

Cooks! It’s minus forty [or the middle of a pandemic] you’re housebound, you want to bake bread, you can't find yeast, you need a project...

You need Sourdough Boot Camp.

It’s time you got to know that stalwart, faithful, life-saving ingredient the gold-fevered Klondike stampeders brought with them over the Chilkoot Pass, rolled into a tight ball and buried in a sack of flour or tucked into the bedroll at night; time to test yourself against that combination of wild yeast, water and flour on which Yukoners have fed for a hundred years, and by which newcomers who survive the winter still define themselves; time to tame the ancient leaven that creates bread with a lovely, elusive tang and is easy on the stomach, too.

I first tackled sourdough in the spring of 2009, and am now a total sourdough convert. Once you’ve gotten through the starter-building phaseyour sourdough will become your lifelong pal, producing loaf after loaf of exquisite artisanal bread, melt-in-the mouth pancakes, light and tender scones, and endless, delicious variations on the classic cinnamon roll.

A Yukoner cannot discuss sourdough without calling on Ione Christensen, formerly Mayor of Whitehorse, Commissioner of the Yukon, Senator, Member of the Order of Canada since 1994 and always, keeper of the starter her great-grandfather Wesley Ballantine carried over the Chilkoot Pass. Ione thinks her ancestor and his four sons probably acquired their sourdough at Dyea in 1898: “They were all men,” she says. “I can’t see them thinking, ‘We’re going to need sourdough starter,’ when they set out from New Brunswick.’”

The lump of sourdough the Ballantine clan and other gold seekers kept in their flour sacks was technically a “levain”—a piece of dough pinched from their last batch of bread or bannock. At night they’d add water to the levain for the next day’s baking, and keep the mixture warm by the fire in the tent if they had one, or in the blankets with their own body heat if they didn’t. In the morning they’d add enough flour to make a dough, some bacon grease, maybe throw in some currants, and whip up a batch of bannock for the day’s journey.

From those early days the sourdough starter evolved in its own way in each Yukon household. Though Ione’s sourdough was brought over the Pass by the men in the family, it was kept alive and handed down through the decades by the women, from mother to daughter to granddaughter. Ione’s grandmother kept a sourdough starter going all the time, and refreshed it with the leftover breakfast porridge. (Ione says, “Starter seems to love oatmeal.”) Ione’s mom stored her starter in a blue-speckled pearl enamel pail hung from a ceiling rafter in their kitchen at Fort Selkirk on the Yukon River.

When Sourdough Goes Bad
“Before refrigeration, you had to use starter fairly regularly or else it would go bad,” says Ione Christensen. “My mother used to keep the pot of starter hanging from a nail on the beam in our kitchen in Selkirk. She forgot it up there once. Totally forgot it. There was this godawful smell in the house, and mother liked to keep her house smelling nice and really clean. So she started housecleaning, and she went from head to toe and she could not find what the smell was. She had my dad taking things out and shaking them and it was a week of this housecleaning, you know.
Finally my dad happened to look up and he said, ‘Martha, what’s that pail up there?’ That was what the smell was. Oh it was awful. So it got thrown out, and she got some more from my grandmother.”

Ione is now the last remaining source in her generation for her starter; her kids have some but they still come back to her for replenishment. So do the rest of us—Ione’s starter is a sourdough celebrity, the subject of numerous articles, radio programs, interviews and a Martha Stewart television special. After Martha Stewart, Ione received so many requests for her starter, and her recipes, that she composed a two-page handout that includes a short history, feeding instructions, and recipes for hotcakes, waffles and bread. Ione's starter is now a guest of honour in the Purtatos Sourdough Library in Saint-Vith, Belgium.

Ione is generous with her sourdough starter. When she gives it away, she gives it away for free. There are several custodians of Ione's starter in the next generation, who are just as generous, in the spirit of Ione. Yukoner Cat McInroy is one such custodian; she runs the Wellbread Culinary Centre in Whitehorse, a new but much-loved private cooking school where Chef Cat gives lessons in everything from making the perfect cabbage roll to baking with sourdough.

Those lessons will continue when we all emerge from isolation. But in the meantime, if you would like to get some of Ione's starter, Cat is your source; simply write to her via her website, and she will mail you dried starter with instructions on how to revive it. The generous spirit lives on.

During the summer of 1998, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Klondike Gold Rush, Ione, her friends Pat McKenna and Judy Dabbs and folks from the Yukon Outdoors Club set up camp in a wall tent at Bennett Lake on the site of an old bakery, where over the course of the summer they served sourdough hotcakes to 2,400 hungry hikers fresh off the Chilkoot Trail. Ione remembers that summer as one of her best ever—cooking in the morning, hiking and kayaking in the afternoon, hard-earned rest at night.

When she was Senator Christensen, from 1999 to 2006, Ione took some starter with her to Ottawa. “I could never get it working properly in Ottawa. I just didn’t like the taste.” And this is one of the most interesting (and sometimes vexing) things about sourdough: it takes on the characteristics of its environment, whether that be Dyea, Dawson, Ottawa or your own kitchen. As Ione says, “Sourdough is very environmentally sensitive.” So if you get some starter from a friend, feed it in the unique environment of your private ecosystem and bake with it regularly, it will incorporate the wild yeasts in your kitchen and become entirely yours; it’s no longer the starter you got from your friend. How cool is that?

On to the new artisanal approach: in recent years [and weeks!] the interest in wild yeast has exploded in the baking world. Many commercial bakers incorporate sourdough starter into their breads, rolls, pretzels and cakes, augmented with commercial yeast, because they like the sourdough taste. Others, including many home-baker-bloggers, are total purists, and won’t allow commercial yeasts anywhere near their starter. The community of bakers is as diverse as the breads they produce. But both purists and the more easygoing types are producing great breads and other baked items and publishing their recipes on the internet.

A two-week stint in Sourdough Boot Camp is designed just to get you started on the long sourdough road; it’s really only the beginning.

I hope you enjoy the adventure.

Sourdough Boot Camp

Sourdough Popovers or Yorkshire Puddings; a Sourdough Bootcamp Day Five project

There are lots of different ways to build a starter, and plenty of advice available on how to do it. Back in 2009 I found Nancy Silverton’s book, Bread from La Brea Bakery really helpful in breaking the process down into steps. Silverton uses grapes and some fairly intense science when she builds her starter; I wanted a simpler approach, using only unbleached white flour and tap water.

I thought I found it on an online video whose formula started with a tablespoon each of water and unbleached flour. But the author suggested that the starter would be ready in only four days. Oops. My first attempt at cinnamon rolls, using a four-day-old starter as the only leavening, turned out like lead. The lesson: you need to put in the time to build a strong starter.

So the method here is a combination of that simple formula of unbleached flour and water, and Nancy Silverton’s slow two-week-build approach. If you follow this method you will end up with a starter made with equal parts flour and water, commonly described as a “one hundred percent hydration” starter, a term you will come across if you explore sourdough territory more thoroughly. In that territory you will also find whole wheat and rye starters and many different ventured.

A note on Sourdough Boot Camp: I was an unwitting camper, and it was only in retrospect I realized I’d been through a process that might work for others. After the cinnamon bun fiasco, I retreated to recipes that used sourdough starter for flavour and an additional leavening agent like commercial yeast, baking soda or baking powder for a guaranteed rise. I gained confidence with each project, and between projects I kept feeding the starter, adding in equal parts flour and water every time I removed starter. It seemed to work.

But I didn’t attempt to make bread using starter as the sole leavening agent until Doug Fesler, an Alaskan friend, sent me his recipe for a sourdough bread that only rises once. His breezy instructions didn’t include measurements, but gave the cook total permission to experiment with flavours, and to add flour and water according to the look and feel of the dough.

After a few trials I developed a formula that worked, with measurements (because I still need them), based on Doug’s excellent template, and that’s what you’ll find here on Day Thirteen of Sourdough Bootcamp. With this recipe I’ve successfully “raised” many delicious sourdough loaves, with hard, tasty crusts and moist interiors with small to medium holes and a nutty-textured crumb. This is a great basic recipe for both the beginner and the experienced baker; it’s sturdy, adaptable, forgiving and it just keeps on churning out excellent bread.

It’s a good way, too, to end Sourdough Boot Camp, which is simply an attempt to formalize the hazardous, anxiety-provoking but eventually successful route I took.

Sourdough starter—what is it?

Sometimes I wonder if the character of the djinn or genie, like the one in Aladdin’s Lamp, was modeled on sourdough starter—dormant when contained, expanding to many times its size when woken up, powerful, unpredictable, able to grant wishes, and liable to go bad if not treated with the correct protocol.

For the chemically-inclined among us, here’s a basic explanation of the science: flour and water act as a medium to which wild yeasts and bacteria present in the air are attracted, and in which they join the bacteria and wild yeast already present in the flour to live, multiply and grow in a mutually beneficial arrangement. The wild yeasts present digest sugars and produce ethanol and carbon dioxide, or gas, which helps the bread to rise. The “friendly” bacteria of the lactobacillus family convert simple sugars into lactic and other acids; this creates an acidic atmosphere that wild yeast likes, but other bacteria do not. (The wild yeast and bacteria in the famous San Francisco sourdough starter have both been isolated, and are peculiar to that neck of the woods.)

When sourdough starter goes bad, it usually means that the balance between the yeast and the bacteria has somehow gone off; the best way to keep this from happening is to keep all your utensils squeaky clean, and to feed the starter regularly.

A Note on Measurements

Most professional bakers measure by weight, not volume. Originally I measured with volume because I found it easier, and that’s the way I developed and tested the recipes, with the exception of the cinnamon rolls. There, I included weight measurements. Now I'm tending more toward measuring by weight.

The method here, online, is a hybrid of weight and volume that I hope you don't find too confusing. Volume is less accurate than weight, so sometimes measurements are approximate. You may need more or less flour than the recipe indicates—I reserve the last cup of flour and add it slowly, rather than adding liquid if the dough gets too stiff.

Gradually you get to know what the dough should look and feel like. If the dough is unusually sticky (cinnamon buns!) the recipe will say so.

When is dough ready?

After kneading, the dough:

Holds together in a ball, is soft and smooth, but not dry;

Is elastic—it springs back when lightly pressed with a finger;

Stops sticking to your hands and the work surface.

Exception: Doughs that contain eggs and butter tend to stay sticky even after kneading, and so do doughs with higher hydration like ciabatta.

After proofing:

When you press the dough with a finger, it doesn’t spring all the way back, but keeps the indentation mark.

If you'd like to enroll in Sourdough Bootcamp, all you have to do is scroll through the blog entries recipes until you get to Sourdough Bootcamp Day One, and then you're off.

Good luck!

Sourdough Buttermilk Cranberry Scones; a Sourdough Bootcamp Day Four project

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