Thanksgiving is approaching, as we all know. I usually post a recipe or some links to past posts about Thanksgiving that contain treasured recipes, and I will do that again, but first, I want to tell you a little story about sourdough.
At our family hunting camp this year in September, I was making toast for my niece, Brielle, and my sister, Goldie, from a sourdough loaf I’d made a couple days before and brought to share with them. I was explaining to my science-loving niece how sourdough works, and how homemade loaves are different from grocery store bakery loaves, and how to use the discard to make pancakes, waffles, and biscuits, and they were enjoying the tangy flavor of the toast and some homemade jams I’d brought. My sister pipes up with “I ordered some Oregon Trail sourdough starter a while back, from an ad in a magazine, I can’t even remember what it was, and I never did anything with it.” I made my sourdough starter three years ago and have been obsessed with sourdough for years. And I’m just now hearing about this? My sister said it came in an envelope, so I knew it was dehydrated. When questioned closely, she couldn’t remember much about it, but she thought she knew where it was in her house.
In October, my husband and I were visiting Goldie and her family in the Brookings, Oregon area, and my sister handed me an envelope. “Here, I found it,” she said. “You take it. I don’t know how to activate it. I’d probably just ruin it.” The return address on the envelope said Carl Griffith’s 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough. My sister said I could give her some of the starter when I’d activated it, next time we met.
When I got home, I looked at the self-addressed envelope Goldie had given me. The envelope was post-marked 2013! It contained a sandwich bag holding about a teaspoon of dried starter. I wondered if it would still be good after 5 years in a plastic bag, stuffed in a drawer somewhere. (I don’t know where Goldie actually stashed it, but that’s what I’d have done.) I already knew how to activate a dried starter, because I’d dehydrated some of my own and sent it to friends with instructions for activation, but I wanted to find out more about the starter and the story, so I googled Carl Griffith’s 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Starter. And that’s all you need to find the website and request some of Carl’s starter, although you can just click on carlsfriends.net.
Here’s what I learned about the history of Carl’s starter. Carl Griffith was the descendant of immigrants who moved west from Missouri in 1847 and brought their sourdough with them on their journey along the Oregon Trail. The starter passed through three or four generations of the family before it came to Carl. Carl learned to use the starter making camp bread in a Basque sheep camp and homestead in southeastern Oregon when he was 10 years old. Later, he used it on a chuck wagon in the same way, making bread and biscuits in a cast iron Dutch oven, during cattle drives in southeastern Oregon. Carl’s brochure, which he used to pass out with his starter, and which can be downloaded from the internet now, also has a number of recipes for using the starter.
I was really skeptical that after 5 years in a plastic bag, the wild yeasts in the starter would still be active, but I thought it was worth a shot. All it would cost was flour and time. I activated the starter my way, using just water and flour, named it Carl 1847 (we tend to name our starters in the sourdough world—I have two others named Number One and Seven). Much to my surprise, Carl 1847 was nice and bubbly in under a week. I’ve yet to make bread with him, but I’ve made pancakes and waffles, cinnamon rolls (with the addition of some instant yeast), and my favorite bread for Thanksgiving, sourdough rolls.
Sourdough rolls made with Carl 1847 have a uniquely tangy flavor. Every sourdough starter is different, and with the addition of different flours, the flavor and consistency of the starter changes, and thus the flavor of the baked good changes as well. In general, heritage starters, because they have been kept going for so long and have continued to garner new yeasts and beneficial bacteria each time they are fed and used, have unparalleled flavor, although I have to say, my Number One and Seven are very good as well. Number One was made from Guisto’s organic bread flour and now is being fed with Azure Standard’s organic Heritage bread flour. Seven started with Number One, but then I started feeding her a mix of flours made from seven different types of organic grains: buckwheat, hard white wheat, Heritage wheat, Kamut, Einkorn, spelt, and rye. To illustrate how different flours change the flavor of a starter and a bread or baked good, bread made with Number One is tangy but mild and uncomplicated, and bread made with Seven is tangy but with a very robust flavor from the heartier grains. So whatever Carl 1847 is fed with will change him, adding new strains of yeasts and new flavors. I’ve kept one jar of Carl 1847 fed with unbleached organic white bread flour from Natural Grocer, and one jar fed with the Azure Standard organic Heritage bread flour, which is finely ground whole grain. I’ll give the jar of white to my sister, and keep the jar of whole grain for myself. Carl Griffith’s 1847 Oregon Trail sourdough starter lives on.
And with that, here is my recipe for sourdough biscuits. I posted it some time back, but I’ve made some changes to the recipe since I’ve been using it more often.
(no previous prep if using fresh discard)
For small batch (about 6):
1 cup active, bubbly sourdough starter
½ cup dry milk
1 cup flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
1 Tbs. sugar
½ tsp. salt
Additional ¼- ½ cup flour for kneading
1 Tbs. butter, melted in 8 or 9 inch square or round pan (your preferred cooking oil can also be used)
Heat oven to 425 degrees.
Mix starter and dry milk together until smooth. Mix baking powder, baking soda, sugar, and salt into 1 cup of flour. Mix flour mixture into wet ingredients until flour is moistened.
Sprinkle ¼ cup of flour onto board. Turn out sticky dough onto board and knead about 25 times until just at soft dough stage, adding more flour just as necessary to keep dough from sticking to board. When dough is stiff enough to cut, roll to the depth of your biscuit cutter and cut biscuits. (Press the floured cutter all the way through the dough to the board and then twist to free the cut biscuit from the dough.)
Dip one side of the biscuit into melted butter in pan and turn over so buttered side is up. (This helps the biscuit brown beautifully. So does the bit of sugar in the dough.) The sides of the biscuits should be touching each other so they rise up rather than spread out. Bake biscuits for 15 minutes or until golden brown.
*Note: How much flour you need to work into the starter depends on how thick your starter or discard is. I feed my starters up pretty heavily for bread, and my discard, which I use for biscuits, pancakes, or waffles, is spoonable rather than pourable. In other words, it’s thick, and doesn’t require much additional flour to make a kneadable dough.
Large batch (about 12):
2 cups active, bubbly sourdough starter
1 cup dry milk
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
2 Tbs. sugar
1 tsp. salt
Additional ¼ – ½ cup flour for kneading
2 Tbs. butter, melted in 9×12” pan
Mix and bake as for small recipe above.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!