A long time ago, I used to live in Alaska. If you learn anything while you live there, it’s that Alaskans love sourdough, especially for making sourdough pancakes. So it was essential in order not to look like a cheechako to have at least a basic understanding of the sourdough pot.
I had some help, a little book written in 1976 when I was just a young kid hanging out in my patriotic colored, bell-bottom Pepsi pants. Back in the day, do-it-yourself books were often written by hand and then reproduced, especially books printed by small companies like Alaska Northwest Books out of Anchorage. Every single one of Ruth’s recipes is in her large, loopy script:
“Pioneer printing facilities were very limited. Many early Alaskan papers were handwritten. Jack used birch bark in lieu of writing paper while on the trail. So I decided to hand letter and illustrate this book with rough pen-sketches – just for You!”
The recipes are only fair and I’ve had to revise a large number of them to work but the stories she tells are well worth the purchase of the book. I found my copy in a used bookstore in pristine condition in the 1990’s. Unfortunately, after a couple of decades of living with me, it is no longer pristine. It has marks from dripped sourdough and water stains from a particularly damaging rainstorm that happened mid-move in Texas. This book has a history.
While we love our sourdough, I haven’t started a pot for years. According to good sourdough aficionados, a sourdough pot needs a good year to get bubbling really well. When you move every year, it seems like a waste of time to start one at all. But it isn’t really. I’ve had my Quito sourdough pot going for about a month and it’s bubbling beautifully. In fact, I think this is the best sourdough pot ever! I’ve been doing a little reading and it seems that yeasts and high altitude get along very well. In fact, I no longer keep my pot on the counter but regularly put it away in the refrigerator to retard the action.
Interested in starting your own pot? It’s pretty simple. All you need are a clear glass jar and wooden spoon (metal and sourdough don’t mix well) and three ingredients:
Potatoes, water, and flour.
If you want to add some sugar to speed up the action, that’s acceptable.
Take one or two potatoes, scrubbed really clean or peeled, and place them in a saucepan with about three cups of water.
Bring the water to a boil and cook until the potatoes are soft. Mash up those potatoes in the water. The water should be cloudy with potato bits. Drain this mixture and save the potato water. If you want to make sure you get every bit of potato you can, run the mixture through a food mill.
Take two cups of that potato water and mix it with two cups of white flour (We’ll discuss wheat flour sourdough on a different day). You can stir in up to 2 tablespoons of sugar… this gives the natural yeast a little food with which to get started. But after it eats all the sugar, it will start working on the starches in the flour.
This lovely mixture is going to sit on your counter for a few days. Believe it or not, it has already captured yeast from your local air. The flavor of your sourdough will depend very much on what kind of wild yeasts live in your neck of the woods. Michael Pollan in his book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation tells of visiting a baker-friend in order to capture some of the yeast from his kitchen bakery and bring it back to his own kitchen! This is truly a local food!
While it’s in its infancy, sourdough really likes to breathe so I cover mine with a cloth lid that allows for air to escape. Those little yeasts can work pretty rapidly and expand so a tight fitting lid can cause explosions. Some people will use a large mason jar, place cheesecloth over the mouth and then use the ring to hold it to the jar. If you don’t let your sourdough breath, mistakes can happen…
An aside from Ruth’s book:
A similar experience happened to an old Sourdough* flying to the States for the winter, taking a Starter with him. He never thought to ask to have put in the cooler during the flight. Heat, plus motion, plus altitude caused a strain on that container as those Sourdough enzymes began working overtime. The area was a mess when the Sourdough exploded… Oozing luscious Sourdough over all.
*opposite of a Cheechako
Each day, you’ll want to stir your sourdough. It will create a clear, golden liquid on the top. Just stir it back into the rest of the pot.
After a couple of days you’ll notice that your lumpy, ugly mixture isn’t so lumpy anymore. It should be smooth and at least slightly bubbly. If it is, it means it ready to start using. I promise, recipes will follow in the weeks to come!
To keep your sourdough on an even keel, you’ll need to feed it. Once you start using it regularly, you’ll replace what you remove. We’ll cover that more carefully in our first sourdough recipe next Saturday. For the first week, however, you need to feed it once before you borrow from it. Just add an additional cup of water and an additional cup of flour and stir. If for some reason you think your sourdough pot is working too quickly, go ahead and store it in the refrigerator. It will only slow down growth, not stop it all together.
Next weekend, you’ll be ready to make Sourdough Pancakes!
By the way, if you happen to live near me and would like to start your sourdough pot the easy way, let me know. All you need is a smidgen of my pot to add to your 2 cups of flour and 2 cups of water (not potato water!) and you’ll be ready to get started!