View Full Version : Sourdough starters?

Jake Marley
07-20-2004, 09:49 AM
Someone not affiliated with the "the hobby" and well-read on the War claims that somewhere, he read that a soldier carried some sourdough starter in his haversack to make bread. Has anyone ever come across this in his or her reading? Are there any A-C threads on this topic?

The search engine yielded no results.

Nic Ellis

07-21-2004, 08:08 AM
I've heard of pioneers, prospectors, and mountain men doing it, but not WBTS soldiers.

-Dave Eggleston

Johan Steele
07-24-2004, 11:13 AM
Yes, I have heard f some ACW soldiers carrying starter, in particular Arty units. sourdough bread was well known to the men prior to the war and many knew how to make it. It isn't much of a stretch to imagine a soldier setting up a sourdough starter, especially arty who would have had room for a little baggage and fresh bread would certainly be considered a luxury worth making a little room for.

07-24-2004, 05:51 PM
I'd be very interested in the references for such, if those who've read this wouldn't mind sharing the book/document from which the anecdote is pulled.

That's generally a good recommendation for someone who makes statements that seem unusual, or just something you've not come across before: ask them politely to help you find the original source, so you can add to your knowledge base first-hand.

Imagination is one thing--but documentation is the goal of the forums.

Justin Runyon
08-03-2004, 04:46 AM
Most Starts I have made in the past require the addition of certain ingredients over a period of time. In the case of sour doughs, among others, this generally means Milk and Sugar. Im not saying this is impossible, or no one ever did it...but how often are you going to ahave easy acsess to the addtional ingredients while in the service? Just a question to ponder from a guy with several starts right now.

Johan Steele
08-03-2004, 07:48 AM
Justin, the recipe my wife uses requires only the addition of flour & IIRC salt.

I have read specific info on 2nd MN Lt Arty carrying a starter pot in a cassion but I can't seem to find it.

A regular after the battle of Shiloh. "I'm not certain what was more disturbing, burying the men or finding two laundressess killed in their camp by stray shot. One was angelic in her contenance and would have made any son proud, serving her sons with a washboard and bread pot. I think the men would have liked having women present, but the fear of their death would stop me..."
This spring I was doing quite a bit of research on the 4th MN as I was going to be portraying a member. This is a snippet from a man w/ 4th MN. I believe the letter was written in late 64, though I'm not sure. "We was some aggravated at the enemy as in a skirmish they killed a corporal who cared for our company bread starter. Nobody liked him much but the shot ruined the starter..."

08-03-2004, 05:45 PM
This may not necessarily be a reference to sourdough bread. In biblical times, as reported in The Learning Bible (CEV), women would grind their flour, add water, and then add leftover dough from the previous day, which contained the yeast necessary to raise the bread.

I'm not saying that your reference isn't sourdough bread, but it's just that if they did it in biblical times, maybe setting aside some leavened dough each day you made bread was practiced by Americans in the 1800s.

Just a thought as I read your quote.

Hank Trent
08-03-2004, 07:16 PM
I'm not saying that your reference isn't sourdough bread, but it's just that if they did it in biblical times, maybe setting aside some leavened dough each day you made bread was practiced by Americans in the 1800s.

What would be the difference between doing that, and using a starter for sourdough bread?

To back up a little here, the basic thing that any baker is trying to accomplish is keeping some yeast alive. Dry yeast was around in the period, though keeping yeast in liquid form was fairly common, but Henry David Thoreau explained one problem with transporting it that way when he wrote in Walden about "carrying a bottleful in my pocket, which would sometimes pop and discharge its contents to my discomfiture."

So it makes sense that travelers would keep non-dry yeast the simplest way to transport, in dough form from the previous loaf, while bakers at home, who wanted more control, would keep it in bottled liquid form.

What makes sourdough yeast unique is the wild yeast from the air and elsewhere that contaminates liquid or starter yeast over time if it's not perfectly isolated. Or you can just catch the wild yeast to start with. Most references that I've seen to bread-making in the period describe sour bread as a bad thing, not an alternative flavor. For example, from Miss Leslie's Directions for Cookery, 1851: "When you are going to use the [liquid] yeast, if it has been made two or three days, stir in a little pearl-ash dissolved in warm water, allowing a lump the size of a hickory-nut to a pint of yeast. This will correct any tendency to sourness, and make the yeast more brisk."

Seems like the concept of deliberately choosing to make sour bread became more common around the turn of the century, when the Alaska goldrush was kewl and people wanted to eat what the miners ate. But in adverse conditions, wild (sour) yeast is better than none.

Hank Trent

08-19-2007, 03:59 PM
I know this is an old thread, but the topic has come up on the West Coast Campaigners' forum and I decided to look into sourdough bread. My references are primarily for the east, but I'd love to hear thoughts from both coasts.

The more research I do the more I'm beginning to wonder about something. Is sour dough bread a source of pride, similar to the Homespun Dress? What I mean is, the majority of cooks in the 19th century detested sour bread. Chemists were even working on how to neutralize the acid flavor and scent when the dough accidentally soured. The neutralizers were "carbonate of magnesia," "carbonate of potassa" (pearlash) or "bicarbonate of potassa/soda" (saleratus).

Time after time in period cookbooks I see things similar to what Miss Beecher wrote (1850):
"If the bread is sour, on opening it quick and deeply with your fingers, and applying the nose to the opening, a tingling and sour odor escapes. This is remedied by taking a teaspoonful of saleratus, for every four quarts of flour, very thoroughly kneaded in, or there will be yellow streaks."

I've found several different sources where northern soldiers complained about the treatment they received in Southern prisons where they received rations of sour bread and rancid meat, and "hungry as we were, we left it upon the ground untouched." Soldier or not, it seems like sour bread and bad meat were partners in crime throughout history.

I also found this and this brings out my point. "From the Farmer's and Planter's Encyclopedia of Rural Affairs (http://tinyurl.com/ypgguu)...
"Leaven... A piece of sour dough, used to ferment and render light dough or paste. It is a very imperfect substitute for yeast; and as it communicates to the bread an astringent taste, which few persons relish, it ought to be used only where yeast cannot be procured. As, however, the latter ferment cannot always be obtained, especially during winter, I shall state the most simple methods of preparing, as well as preserving it, under the article Yeast (http://tinyurl.com/2fcger). [p. 706]

The homespun dress has become a symbol of what southern ladies did for the cause. I wonder if sour dough bread has become the same sort of thing, that the miners were proud of the fact that they survived on sour dough bread, and thus it has it's own place in history much like the homespun dress.

When did sour dough bread become common everyday desirable? Dunno, that's something that needs to be looked into. There is documentation for CW and before that it existed, but that it was definately not wanted. It's popularity seems to esculate around the last decade of the 19th century and increase as the years passed. Was this because suddenly we were approaching the 50th anniversary of the 49ers, and they were telling tales of surviving on this bread? Dunno, I'd love to see more research. Anyone been researching sourdough bread?


08-19-2007, 06:06 PM
Found this on www.foodtimeline.org:

Sourdough. A white bread made with sour starter made from flour, water, and sugar. The use of a sour starter is a method of bread baking that goes back at least six thousand years, for yeast had to be sustained from bread batch to bread batch. Legend has it that Columbus brought a starter with him to America, and the technique was certainly a standard method of baking in the early days of this country. With the advent of commercially available yeast and baking powder in the nineteenth century, the use of such starters was confined to those pioneers who moved farther and farther from settlements. These included the gold prospectors of nothern California in the 1850s and the Yukon in the 1890s. The first sourdough purveyor in San Francisco, called the French Bakery, opened the year the Gold Rush began--1849--and it was because of the bread's popularity among miners that "sourdough" became the slang term for the prospectors themselves, and later, by extension, all Alaskans. Because many of these prospectors set out by boat from San Francisco, sourdough bread is often associated with that city to this day, and it is still a San Francisco specialty."
---Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, John F. Mariani [Lebhar-Friedman:New York] 1999 (p. 304)

08-22-2007, 12:35 AM
Hi Kimberly,

Thanks for the link. As I said, I have no doubt that sourdough bread existed, but what I'm curious about is whether or not it would have been found desireable by people in both the east and west by the time of the Civil War, and if so by whom? From my research, cooks, doctors, soldiers, individuals found sour bread to be undesireable. A food for peasants, in England. What I'm curious about, (and this isn't a moot point because Hank now has two characters who were in the California gold mines, and I'm curious how his characters would have felt about it), would they be happy to have the fresh yeast, or chemical leavening bread? Or would they reminisce about the sourdough bread? Somehow my feeling is that it really came back into fashion in the latter part of the 19th or early part of the 20th century when the 49ers were reminiscing on how they survived on those loaves of sourdough bread, and then it became legendary. But I have nothing to really back this up with, other than the scant references before the 1880s and the abundance of sources springing up around the turn of the century.

Thoughts? Opinions? I'd like to see some primary source documentation, or some really good solid secondary sources with footnotes.

Thank you,


cap tassel
11-19-2007, 07:47 PM
Since this is one of my passions I thought I'd add this little bit on sourness. Rose Beranbaum says in her book The Bread Bible that the sourness in sourdough bread isn't a constant. One factor is whether your using a liquid or a stiff starter. Some people believe a stiff starter makes less sour bread than a liquid one. A stiff starter produces more acetic acid while a liquid produces more lactic. So if that alone is true other people think a liquid starter is less sour.

Moving on... A higher % of starter used in the final dough will make the bread more sour. She says the starter can range from 15% to 40% of the weight of the final dough. I guess it'd be nice to look at the recipes and figure the % they might have been dealing with.

One of the tricks to lessen the sourness is by increasing the amount of flour and water you use for the last expanding of the starter right before it's used in the actual bread dough. Other things that vary the sourness are how often the starter is refreshed, temperature of the dough when it's proofing, and how old the starter is.

How much these work is subjective, not to mention the sour flavor in the first place. So sourdough bread is pretty much like quantum physics. ;)

Just one other thing I'd like to say is that some of the hip artisan breads like baguette were originally sourdough breads. Baguette type bread hit the scene in the mid 1800's in Europe.

cap tassel
11-24-2007, 02:58 PM
I thought of this thread today when I poured a starter I had down the drain. The bread it made was hardly sour at all. In fact it was almost not detectable as sourdough. That was due to the particular strain of yeast and bacteria I got on that try. It just was a poor starter and took forever to rise. And I'm done playing with it!! :mad: