Stories abound about everyday life during the Klondike gold rush in Alaska that began in 1898. This is unsurprising, considering the extraordinarily harsh environment in which men worked. One such tale involves a group of miners who discovered, during a typically bitter winter, the frozen remains of a colleague. Once over the initial shock of this gruesome discovery, the men’s spirits rose when they recognised the lumpen mass their deceased comrade was still clutching in his hand. Unfrozen and pliant to the touch, they identified it as his precious sourdough bread starter. Without further ado, so the story goes, the men immediately converted this unappetising material into their favourite biscuits, using a trusty Dutch oven.
Any cowboy, and the ‘cooky’ that fed him on the High Plains which included parts of Wyoming, Kansas and Texas, would have nodded in approval and understanding. Cowboys, like their mining counterparts, lived rough, uncompromising lives so they needed food that was tasty, substantial and straightforward to eat. The cook valued ingredients that were cheap, very portable and simple to cook. Bread fulfilled those needs and added balance to a regular diet that included meat and beans. No campfire meal was complete without hot bread or, the cowboy’s favourite, biscuits.
In the colonial era and early nineteenth century this staple fare was based on flour milled from corn grain. Wheat flour was not only prone to mildew rust, it was expensive. But by the time the American West opened up in the 1850s, milling practices had improved; new, hardier wheat strains had been introduced, and rapidly improving transport links ensured a ready supply. The booming West also brought an influx of immigrants. Among them were French master bakers who brought with them Europe’s oldest form of leavened bread, sourdough. Its origins lie in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia (what is now Iraq) nearly four thousand years BC.
These new immigrants, such as the Boudin family who settled in San Francisco, started making this bread using a recipe that had undergone few changes in the intervening millennia. Urban American, cowboy and miner all loved it. The bread’s appeal lay in its flavour, a distinctive sour taste echoed in the name, and in an attractive chewy texture, both caused by the way it is made.
True sourdough bread has only three ingredients: flour, water and salt. Lying dormant within the flour are wild yeasts and lactobacillus bacteria that, in contact with water, suddenly come alive in a fermentation process that lasts for over twelve hours. This resultant ‘live starter’ then forms the basis for successive bread mixes. As Pliny the Elder observed, dough could be “kept over from the day before; manifestly it is natural for sourness to make the dough ferment.” The yeasts in this retained dough stayed alive through warmth. It explains why trail cook and miner alike kept their precious cache close to their person, either in a pouch round their necks, or stowed away in their bedrolls. This was a food source the cold couldn’t kill; only extreme heat could do that. The resultant bread even tasted good when it was stale. It is little wonder the old hands at the mines guarded their dough so jealously, earning the nickname ‘sourdoughs.’
The drawback to sourdough was the time it took. Cooking bread using ‘live’ starter dough has never been a quick process. Trail cooks and miners commonly buried the mix in their three-legged Dutch ovens in the fire’s embers overnight. The conditions in which they cooked were rudimentary and never easy. When new leavening agents came on the market, such as baking powder, which significantly cut baking time, many took advantage. Biscuits, for example, could be made in as little as thirty minutes. By the outbreak of World War One the art of sourdough cooking seemed to have been lost. But it had not entirely disappeared.
Today, on both sides of the Atlantic, traditional sourdough bread is making a comeback as consumers yearn for something with real taste.