The Sourdough Battle: After Three Days

After three days, the Alaskan Sourdough was ready to rock. It smelled sweet and yeasty. But I’m not really surprised, since the yeast culture is actually the result of the beer. Still, I’m looking forward to baking with it.What I’m really excited about is the New York Sourdough. As promised in the Science of Cooking Recipe, after three days the bread was dry on the outside, but inside it was bubbly with the arrival of transient yeasts making a home! And the best part? It does not smell like cat puke. It smelled “slightly sour,” the way it should.

Continuing to follow the recipe, I added 1/2 cup of flour and enough water to work it into a dough. I placed it back into the mason jar for another two days, and when I came back it was a blob of yeast bubbles.
And the best part? IT STILL DOES NOT SMELL LIKE CAT PUKE. It smells like a ripened cheese.
The only disheartening bit: after I pulled off the dried outside, there was a mysterious greyish spot in the center. I decided to continue the experiment, at a possible risk to my personal health. I added another cup of flour and a cup of water, and let it rise another twelve hours.
Mike, who comments here, made a very astute observation. He suggested that perhaps the reason bakeries keep the same starter for a hundred years is that is may be difficult to grow a starter that is appropriate for baking. Additionally, even the Science of Cooking notes “Working with starters takes practice. Many variables—for example, the amount of yeast in the air and the temperature of the room—will affect the fermentation process. It might take a few tries before you get the flavor you like.”
Both of the starters are ready for baking, but unfortunately I am leaving town for the weekend. I plan on baking two loaves of bread, one from each starter, when I return.
I feel as though I am one step closer to surviving on the Oregon Trail. Next, I’ll practice typing BANG really fast.
In the meantime, I’ll be baking apple pies with my mother in Ohio, using 17th, 18th, and 21st century recipes.

Alaska Sourdough vs. New York Sourdough

Let the competition begin!

I am giving this sourdough starter thing one more chance. Please bare with me. I’m obsessed with making sourdough for two reasons: 1. Because I feel like a magician. Making bread appear–out of thin air!– in my mind is akin pulling a rabbit out of a hat. 2. Because I know it was done in the past, so I am determined to figure out how it was done. My mother thinks that some 19th century knowledge, like wild yeast starters, have just been lost to the ages. But I’m determined to rediscover it. So off I go to grow some pet yeasts.

This time, I’m attempting to make a yeast starter using two different methods. The first is courtesy of my friends Kristina and Chris in Alaska, who discovered a local woman who makes bags of pre-packaged yeast starter. They cornered her with questions on my behalf, and purchased a bag of her started as a gift to me.

I don’t know what the ingredients in her dry starter mix are, but I followed her instructions added a 1/4 cup of luke warm water and 6 ounces of beer. I had a Sam Adams Boston Lager in the fridge, so I poured half of it in a mason jar (I poured the other half of the beer in my roommate), and mixed it thoroughly with the dry ingredients . I placed the cover loosely on the mason jar, and set it on my windowsill to warm up and catch some yeast. In three days, it should be ready to roll.
The second method I’m trying is from The Science of Cooking. It’s slightly different than other wild yeast starters I’ve tried: you take a small mound of flour and mix it with a little water until it turns into a paste. Continue kneading it, 5-8 minutes, until it become a springy ball of dough.
I tossed that in a mason jar and covered it with a damp towel. In a few days, it should start to get yeasty, and I’ll add more flour. It will hopefully catch some New York yeast, so I’m calling it New York Sourdough.
A little ball of love.
So, we’ll see what happens. I learned recently that the bacteria present in sourdough is actually named Lactobacillus sanfrancisco, after the gold mining region in which sourdough bread was born. The Boudin Bakery is the oldest in San Francisco:

“In 1849, the Boudin family struck culinary gold. Wild yeasts in the San Francisco air had imparted a unique tang to their traditional French bread, giving rise to “San Francisco sourdough French bread.” Today, the Boudin family’s initial recipe lives on in the hands and hearts of our expert bakers, with a portion of the original mother dough still starting each and every sourdough loaf we make.”

They still use the same recipe as they did in ’49, and little molecules of 1849 yeast are still awash in their starter! Awesome! I am really looking forward to visiting the bakery someday.

The Great Alaskan Meat-Off

I just came back from a two week trip to Alaska, where I staid with my friends Chris and Kristina in Girdwood, a suburb of Anchorage. I wanted to share with you some of the food I consumed.

Because of my continuing obsession with sourdough bread, Kristina took me to the local bakery, The Bake Shop. As we arrived, so did a busload of tourists: The Shop seems to be the go-to breakfast stop for locals and tourists alike. I purchased a loaf of sourdough bread, which was surprisingly mild and delicious. Sourdough is associated with gold mining regions, like Alaska and San Francisco, because the miners could make it without taking a “sponge,” or yeast culture, with them. It could be created from yeast spores in the air.

Kristina gifted me with a bag of locally-made sourdough starter, which gets going after you add a can of beer. I’m excited to try it, but I still want to try to create a starter from air-borne yeast.

I also had “Sweet Roll with a Side of Butter,” also made of sourdough, and also delicious. It had cinnamon and almonds, but also mysterious notes of brandy and anise. I had two over the extent of my stay.

Kristina, who was a vegetarian when I knew her in college, took me on a shopping trip to Indian Valley Meats. Another local vendor, they specialize in breaking down and preparing carcasses for local hunters, and sell a variety of locally raised game meats. Kristina selected and prepared a menagerie of local animals for me to ingest:

Clockwise, from left to right: Moose, Buffalo, Caribou, Elk, and Reindeer. Caribou and Reindeer are actually the same thing, the latter being wild and the former being farmed.
I also ate wild boar jerky, which was covered in some sort of garlic glaze I wasn’t too keen on, and salmon that Chris had pulled from the river days earlier. This fish was delicious–and I hate fish.

In my second week, while on our way to Denali National Park, I finally acquired the object of my true desire: The Mc Kinley Mac. I had seen a poster for it as soon as I stepped off the plane, and had fantasized about it since. The Number 12 on the menu, this double-stacked McKinley Mac is only available in this state. Which is ok, because as I excited as I was to sample it, it just turned out to be a big gross burger.

The McKinley Mac and I zoom towards Mt. McKinley, on our way to Denali national Park.
On the way back from Denali, we stopped at a Burger King in Wasilla. The BK menu included a Sourdough Whopper, but after a week in the wild, I wasn’t in the mood to take a risk.

Lastly, I made up a batch of Spruce Tea, after harvesting a few limbs from Alaska’s State Tree. It did not just taste like pine needles, but had a richer, spiced flavour. The batch I brewed was fairly weak, and I wanted to make a proper pot of tea when I returned to New York, but I forgot my bag branches in Girdwood. Perhaps Kristina will be kind enough to ship a few stateside–I’m curious to pass some along to my beer brewing friends, so they can make an authentic Spruce Beer.

At every restaurant we went to (three in the small town of Girdwood alone) the food was excellent, something I definitely didn’t expect when coming to Alaska. Additionally, there were very few chain restaurants; the ones that were there hadn’t even popped up until the last decade. Alaska’s relative isolation seems to have resulted in a bevy of independently owned restaurants with excellent food.

If you’re interested in my non-culinary Alaskan adventures, you should look at my photos here.

Continuing to Try to Make Yeast Appear from Thin Air

While I was vacationing at my summer home in Cleveland (I staid with my parents), my mom and I decided to try to grow a yeast culture.  We were inspired by a book my friend Kristina sent me from Alaska: a little pamphlet about the history of sourdough bread.  It carried these instructions on making your own starter:

Traditional Sourdough Starter
From Simply Sourdough — The Alaskan Way– by Kathy Doogan
2 cups Warm Water
2 cups Flour

Place ingredients in a glass bowl and blend well with a wooden or plastic spoon.  Cover loosely with a clean towel (this allows air to enter the bowl so your starter can pick up wild yeasts from the environment) and place it in a warm spot.  Once a day, remove half the starter and throw it away.  To the remaining starter, add 1 cup flour and 1 cup warm water; stir in well until lumps are gone.  After 3 or 4 days of replenishing the starter it should be bubbly and have a pleasant sour smell.  It is then ready to be used immediately or it can be placed in a clean container with a loose cover and refrigerated for later use.


We followed the recipe, and place the bowl of flour and water out on the driveway to warm up.  If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that last time I tried growing yeast in New York, I ended up with something that smelled like cat puke and looked worse.  I hid it in the back of my refrigerator and eventually threw it away, too scared to make anything from it.  This time wasn’t much better.  Although the starter looked like a starter should, it again smelled exactly like cat puke.  The stink of it made a friend dry heave.

However, having now attempted this operation twice with the same results, I was willing to try to make some cat puke bread.  Mom, after listening to my father going on about some kind of deadly yeast, decided to throw it out.  The decision was made for us when, after forgetting to bring the bowl in at night, some creature came along and ate it.  I imagine the creature looked like this:

Simply Sourdough comes with a packet of yeast starter; I think I might try to make it and compare smells.

Yeast Infection!

Left: The fresh starter. Right: After 48 hours.

I never updated you on my yeast experiments from last month.  Here’s the recipe I used to start my own yeast colony:

Except for some reason I didn’t boil it…I don’t know if I didn’t read the recipe close or what.  Here’s what I did:  I took a cup of flour and mixed it with 1/4 brown sugar, a pinch of salt, and a cup of water.  I let it sit out uncovered for 24 hours, the covered and let it sit another four hours.  Now despite the fact I didn’t follow the recipe, according to those in the know at Orwasher’s, this should still work.  After 48 hours, there were definitely some yeasty-looking bubbles.  But it also smelled horrible; Like cat puke.  I closed it up and hid it in the back of the fridge, where my roommates wouldn’t find it and ask “Lohman…What’s this?”

Needless to say, I haven’t tried to make anything from it. I’ve been too scared.  And that’s where it stands.

If you’re looking to try to make your own yeast, I also find many recipes, like this one, that use a combination of hops and potatoes.

Try This At Home: Make Yeast Appear–OUT OF THIN AIR!

This week has taken on a bit of a bread theme; I don’t have much experience with bread, but I’ve always been fascinated by it. It seems magical, the way the dough puffs and doubles in size. The smell of yeast dough rising has always been appealing to me.
But there was a question that had always bugged me. Before packets of commercial yeast, where did yeast come from? How did a woman living on the frontier in the 19th century make bread, the most basic and essential of items?
The other day I got the unique opportunity to hang out behind-the-scenes at Orwarsher’s Bakery, an upper east-side institution for the last 100 years. I had more fun with bread than I ever thought possible, and I also found time to ask them my burning question: where does yeast come from?
The answer? From thin air.
They told me: if you set out a bowl of water, flour, and sugar; yeast will come and live in it. That’s called your starter. Over time, you scoop out what yeast you need, and add sugar, flour, and water back in to “feed” it. In this fashion, a yeast colony can be kept indefinitely. In Orwasher’s case, their starter has been around since the bakery started over 100 years ago. So if you go into Orwasher’s today, you are eating bread made from the great-great-great-(etc) grandchildrens of yeast that was floating around in the New York air in 1900.
Kinda weird? A little, maybe. But also kinda awesome!
Additionally, Orwashers is reviving a very old (see: medieval) technique of bread making which involves building a yeast culture from grapes being fermented for wine. The resulting bread is dark and crusty, and looks like a loaf of bread out of a medieval banquet. They have several varieties available, and are great adorned with a smear of soft cheese or soaked in a bowl of hearty soup.
I’m giving yeast growing a try at home. I referenced an 1845 recipe for yeast, and I’ve set out a bowel of flour, brown sugar, warm water, and a little salt . I’ll keep you updated, and let you know what happens!

P.S.: I hung out at Orwarsher’s while doing a video for The Feedbag. See the video here.

History Dish Mondays: Rusks

I had a packet of yeast leftover from when I made ginger beer, so I decided to mix up a batch of Rusks.
Rusks were a favorite when I worked at a living history museum. In the morning, toasted on the cast iron stove, they could not be beat. I would describe this recipe as “advanced,” especially if you don’t have much experience with yeasty breads.
Original recipe from American Cookery by Amelia Simmons
Modern Recipe from The Old Sturbridge Village Cookbook

1/4 pound butter
1 cup milk
7 eggs
6 tablespoons sugar
1 package yeast dissolved in 1/2 cup warm water
6-7 cups flour

I halved this recipe.
1. Melt butter and combine with milk.
2. Beat eggs until light; add sugar, yeast and eggs to milk and butter mixture.
3. Stir in 3 cups of flour and beat for 2-3 minutes. Cover the bowl and set in a warm place for an hour or more, or refrigerate overnight.
After the dough has finished rising, add the remaining flour, enough so that the dough is no longer sticky. At this point, you’re supposed to take it out, roll it into 2 logs and cut it into 12 slices. But this is what mine looked like:
Shrug. I heated up some butter in a skillet. I rubbed my hands with some flour, and tour off a slice of the dough. I dabbed it into a little more flour, and patted it between my hand until it vaguely resembled the shape of an English muffin. I tossed it in the hot skillet. Repeat until the skillet is filled.
When it gets crusty and brown, flip it, and push it down with you spatula. You want to make sure it get cooked all the way through! Watch them close–my first batch was a burned disaster. My next two tries came out acceptable.
While these turned out pretty good, they were not as tasty as when my mom makes them. They seemed a little dense, but the bread is sweet and yeasty. I think they’re better the next day, toasted and spread with butter and jam. Or try it as a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich!
Rating B+
I think my technique needs some work.