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Sourdough: More than a Bread

Just the mention of sourdough pancakes makes my mouth water. I've flipped thousands of those light-as-air, moist and slightly tart pancakes over the years, and they still have a hold on me.

I love sourdough anything, actually: sourdough bread, sourdough biscuits, sourdough chocolate cake. Yes, chocolate cake. I've used it in brownies, too, and transformed my favorite Thanksgiving pumpkin roll with sourdough. Sourdough can be incorporated into just about any recipe.

I tried several recipes for sourdough starter until I hit on one that had the right amount of tanginess and yeastiness. At the time, I cooked on an old wood cook stove, a throwback to a time when sourdough was common in home kitchens.

Early settlers in the West, especially those adventurers who traveled north to Alaska, relied on sourdough to leaven bread before commercial baking powder and yeast were readily available.

"Sourdough" even became the nickname for California Klondike miners at the turn of the last century because they carried starter in their backpacks to make bread without having to find a town, let alone yeast.

Vermont's King Arthur Flour offers a history of sourdough, including notes from the son of an Alaskan miner. The son writes that every miner's cabin had a "tin full of fermented dough, used in place of yeast in making bread, biscuits and flapjacks" hanging over the hot stove. Alaskan miners supposedly slept with their beloved starters to keep them from freezing in the north country's frigid climate.

The history of sourdough, however, begins long before miners came to Alaska. Sourdough is the oldest form of leavened bread and was used at least as early as ancient Egypt. It was probably discovered by accident when bread dough was left out and good microorganisms -- wild yeast -- drifted into the mix. The resulting bread had a lighter texture and better taste.

All sourdough recipes begin with a starter -- a mixture of flour, water and a little sugar. Sitting at room temperature, wild yeasts in the air and on the grain settle into the mix. The fermentation that occurs after a few days gives the starter its sour smell. Then it's ready to use, for years if treated with respect.

A starter, or "sponge" as the pioneers called it, feeds many families over many years. Starters have always been passed through families and from friend to friend.

I have kept my starter alive for more than 10 years, and there are stories of starters that are much older.

Starters can be kept thriving simply by adding equal parts of water and flour to a portion of the starter every couple of weeks. Replenish it, keep it stored in the refrigerator, and it will last indefinitely, acquiring more tanginess and personality as the years go by. The extra tanginess that comes with age is highly prized, and is why older starters become treasured members of the family for sourdough junkies.

Be careful, though. If your starter turns pink or orange or it just smells "off," toss it. It's breathed its last.

The cooler weather seems like a good time to make a sourdough starter, flip pancakes, bake bread or roll out biscuits. Just remember, sourdough can be addictive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sharon Vail