Hunting our sourdough heritage
Bread has always been a mystery to me. Mix up some flour, water, yeast and salt, wait a while, bake it and you get bread. But what makes it delicious or tasteless? I don’t know, but I prefer the good stuff.
When we moved up here last June, I anticipated great sourdough bread. After all, this was “sourdough country.” During the gold rush, every miner kept a crock of sourdough starter in his cabin to use for bread, biscuits and flapjacks. The term “sourdough” became synonymous with gold miner. Surely I could get good sourdough bread here in the Gold Country.
I looked to no avail in “The Union’s Best of Nevada County” for “Best Sourdough.” Continuing my search, not only did it take some effort to find good sourdough, but many people I asked weren’t aware of this important piece of their heritage. The clues are all around. Look up sourdough in the dictionary and gold miner is the first or second definition. Go to a 49ers football game and the team mascot is Sourdough Sam, clearly outfitted as a gold miner.
Sourdough is made by mixing flour and water and exposing it to nature. A little wild yeast and bacteria will soon show up and make a home in the nutrients. A symbiotic relationship is formed between the micro organisms. Lactobacilli metabolize maltose in the flour, producing lactic acid that the wild yeast thrives in. The yeast turns the carbohydrates into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The byproducts of this partnership make the bread rise and impart the distinctive sour taste. The surviving strains of micro-organisms produce antibiotic agents that are hostile to other organisms.
San Francisco more or less sets the world standard for sourdough. It turns out that the Bay Area has an indigenous wild yeast called Candida humilis and a lactobacillus with the delightful name Lactobacillus sanfrancisco. The two organisms thrive in a way that has protected the culture from contamination from other yeasts and bacteria for well over a century of breadmaking. It’s the 900-pound gorilla of sourdough, and its discovery finally explained why Seattle or St. Louis sourdough just wasn’t up to the standards of the city by the bay.
To make bread, the mixture is diluted with flour and water about a day ahead of time and kept in a warm place (in winter, the prospectors might take theirs to bed with them). With fresh nutrients, the little creatures party, producing a self-rising dough that produces delicious baked goods.
Before baking, a portion of the mix, called the starter, is held back for the next batch. It’s kept in a safe place and fed periodically to keep it healthy.
Does this sound like a little extra effort for good bread? It is, and artificial flavors have been developed to emulate the taste of sourdough bread. You’ll find them in the chain grocery store bakeries and some name bread brands sold as alleged “sourdough.” I would call it sour dough, and it’s about as close to real sourdough as Butter Buds are to real butter.
Sourdough is a little like wine; the different cultures impart different flavors to the bread. Some are mild-mannered, like Chardonnay, and make a great sandwich. Others are full flavored like Cabernet Sauvignon, best eaten straight with butter, by those who have developed an appreciation for hearty sourdough flavor. Like wine, different sourdoughs go with different foods.
So, where do you get good sourdough in Nevada County? From bakeries that take the time and trouble to cherish their starter and markets that make an effort to provide good breads.
Mild and delicious is the sourdough from Dupre’s Baking Company, just south of Cedar Ridge in an undistinguished complex on Highway 174. They have maintained their starter for over 20 years, even taking it on vacation like a child. It originally came from a 50-year-old batch in a defunct Bay Area bakery, so at Dupre’s you can buy sourdough that’s been alive since the Gold Rush was still going strong. Most of their breads are sold to restaurants and ski resorts, hence the modest storefront. Their bread is great for sandwiches or hors d’oeuvres as well as alone or toasted.
My test loaf of sourdough bread from the Flour Garden Bakery had a stronger flavor, better served as a companion to food. Reaching out to the upper crust, their breads are available in a variety of flavors in addition to plain sourdough.
Truckee sourdough is made from a culture with wild yeast indigenous to the Truckee area. I had an excellent Truckee sourdough batard with an industrial strength crust that would best eaten straight with butter (please, not the M word).
SPD market takes a different approach. They buy prepared bread dough from sourdough bakeries and bake it fresh in their store, including excellent breads from Raymond and Grace Baking.
So, try different sourdough breads, and enjoy your heritage in sourdough country. You can try this at home, but experts recommend purchasing a proven starter rather than trying to sow wild oats. Sourdoughs International (http://www.sourdo.com or 208-382-4828) sells a variety of starters from around the world (including the famous San Francisco blend) complete with instructions. Maybe we can get The Union to add a reader’s choice category for “Best Sourdough” this year, and how about a sourdough bread contest at the Nevada County Fair?
Doug Crice and his wife Chris moved up to Cedar Ridge from the Bay Area in June. He actually has a background in geophysics, not the culinary arts, but he likes to eat.
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