I have been cooking with sourdough in cast iron pans for over 50 years and still it never gets old. My sourdough starter is old, i am old-ish, the cast iron is much older still, but we never tire of each other’s company. In fact, it’s this maturity that makes us great partners. Both sourdough starter and cast iron get better with age. Me, not so much.
Sourdough starter is a fermentation of flour and water with a naturally occurring colony of microorganisms including lactobaccilli and wild yeasts. Bread production has relied on sourdough for most of human history, cultivated yeast being a relatively new invention. Breads made with sourdough have a tangy taste and a better keeping quality than yeasted breads due to the lactic acid. The tradition of sourdough was brought to Alaska during the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush. Miners and trappers would keep their starter in a pouch close to their bodies, it was a precious commodity. The oldtimers themselves became known as ‘sourdoughs’ because their meals relied on it.
I was introduced to sourdough in my teens when my love of cooking began to firmly take shape. I was working in the cook shack at a hunting camp in the Alaska Range and we used sourdough to make pancakes and biscuits for the clients’ breakfast. Each day we also made our own sandwich buns for lunch and rolls for dinner. Sourdough was used in any quick bread recipe like banana or pumpkin, and even in chocolate cake. More than once i fed the starter pot a bit too much and found it oozing out onto the counter the next morning – an alive and active batch!
Later on, living in a trapping cabin in the bush, i would tan small hides using sourdough. It’s acidic nature works to soften the skin. I’d turn the fur inside out, smear it on and as it began to dry, rub in a circular motion allowing the sourdough to soften the skin. Repeat as needed. It worked well on the snowshoe hare i trapped. Also on the ermine that my daughter constantly carried around like a favorite teddy bear — they were inseparable and that hide just became softer and softer.
I still use the sourdough information and recipe folder that i learned how to tan from, way back when. It’s a Cooperative Extension Service 4 page folder that i acquired back in the ’70s which states, and i quote, “Cooperative Extension Work in Agriculture and Home Economics. A.S. Buswell, Director, University of Alaska and U.S. Dept of Agriculture, Cooperating. Printed and distributed under acts of Congress, May 8, and June 30, 1914.” I’m guessing it’s a reprint but i can’t find that date. It does say “Publication No. 61” on the front with, of course, a picture of a crusty old sourdough cooking his pancakes over an open fire, probably in a cast iron frying pan.
Some “sourdough yarns” are printed on the back – various stories like the one about sourdough surviving in spite of hardships and rigors in the far north by putting it ‘to bed’ in the cold weather: under the covers, sharing it’s owner’s body warmth so the starter survived to leaven the next day’s supply of hotcakes. And between camps it was the last item placed in the packsack and the first item to be removed at the new site … not quite sure how they did all that without ziploc baggies … then there’s old Sourdough Pete whose pioneering grandma sent him to Alaska with a jar of starter and he became famous for his hotcakes … that must be him on the front.
I have a cookbook called “Rita Davenport’s Sourdough Cookery” — @1977, $4.95, which i use all the time. I am shocked to see it for sale on Amazon for a whopping $56.96! Yikes! Glad i kept it all these years. Some of her recipes get a bit carried away ~ as in ‘sourdough tuna fritters’ and ‘sourdough meatball casserole” … haven’t tried either but just might one of these cold winter evenings, probably with salmon and moose though.
Today sourdough is making a resurgence in foodie culture, similar to other fermentations like kim chee and sauerkraut, all very popular now to make and enjoy. I read a recent food blog urging everyone to just try it — add sourdough, see what happens, you will be amazed how good it is! And i have to agree. It’s natural, economical, nutritious and delicious, what could be better? Especially when you finally have time to bake bread and that yeast packet in the door of your fridge is way out of date.
The reason for the title of this post is my affinity for cooking sourdough in cast iron. But i realized adding that subject here now would make this missive way too long, so there’s a second post on the way …