A Little Sourdough History

Reader Ali wants to know the history behind sourdough bread. At first it seemed like an impossible question to answer, but then I though…maybe not so much.

Bread starters date back to when the first cro-magnon put down his bowl of einkorn gruel to go join the bison hunt, then forgot about it. That was about 10,000 years ago, and I’m still grateful to whoever-it-was. But really, natural starters in general aren’t what we’re talking about here. Rather, the question has to do with the specific type of starter that North Americans call “sourdough”. For indeed, “sourdough” is a term that originated in the States and in Canada, and as come to be a sort of generic term for a starter. What we call a “sourdough” a Brit might call a “barm” a Frenchman a “levain”, a Belgian a “desem”, an Italian a “lievito” and so on.

“Sourdough” came into common use not long after the San Francisco Bay Area was settled and bakers began producing bread there. For indeed San Francicso’s naturally leavened bread is some of, if not the sourest bread in the world. No wonder that people who visited San Francisco and tried it began referring to it as such. And in fact it wasn’t long before the moniker was being applied to anyone who even lived or worked in the area, especially Gold Rush prospectors. “Shut your yap, sourdough!” …a great line from the Jimmy Stewart classic, Bend of the River.

Sourdough starter folklore is extensive. There are stories of ’49ers keeping their precious sponges in little leather pouches around their necks — even sleeping with them to keep them warm on cold nights. I don’t know if any of that’s true but it makes for a great story.

As for how those starters were used, it varied. Some settlers surely did make bread out of them. The majority, though, probably subsisted on flapjacks since they were a lot easier to prepare in the wilderness. That may be why sourdough pancakes, much more so than sourdough breads, have become synonymous with the north woods — from the Northwest coast up to the Yukon, and all the way east to the Minnesota Iron Range.

And that’s about all I know about that, Ali! Thanks for the question!

4 thoughts on “A Little Sourdough History”

  1. There’s been grindstones found in Australia as old as 36,000 years, experts say this is evidence that indigenous Australians have been making ground grain based products for a very long time before other parts of the world – I wonder if they also had sourdough? It seems inconceivable that in 25,000 years that no-one accidentally made one 😀

    1. That or they were drinking beer! 😉

      Yes you have to wonder what grain-based foods were like then. Seems reasonable to assume that at pancake-type breads have been around for a lot longer than the leavened loaves we think of as “bread”. Oh for a time machine…

      Thanks Chris!

      – Joe

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