Refreshing the 1857 sourdough

When I go down to bake at The Clink I will be using (and making them a present of) the 1857 sourdough.  This offers a challenge in that over the past few weeks I have been forced to actually write down – no – measure and write down how I bake with it.  I am up at four every day.  I have performance anxiety.  I have more flaming sourdough than you can shake a stick at.  Everyone I know is deeply grateful for it but I could use some sleep. 

The 1857 sourdough, for those of you who don’t know the story, came to me via my friend Harriet who got it from her college room mate at the University of Florida in the 60s.  She received it from her friend who got it from his grandmother – and it had been in her family since 1857.  The point of telling you all of this is that it was made, and has been constantly refreshed and used to bake bread, by measuring the flour and water in cups.  1 cup of 1857 sourdough was made with 1/2 cup of white wheat flour and 1/2 cup of water mixed together and added to, in the same proportions, every day for four days.  It could have been a tea cup, it could have been a shaving mug, could could have been a wine glass.   Having been made, it lasts forever (if the 1857 is any indication) as long as it is stored in an airtight container in a cool place, or dried.   When you want to make bread, refresh it by taking 1 volume measure of your choice of the sourdough and adding the same volume measure of water and of flour. For every volume measure of refreshed sourdough add 1.5 of water and 6-8 of flour depending on the flour, and some salt.  Make it over one day, make it over two.  Proof it in the fridge, on the balcony, or in the kitchen.  Stretch and fold it if you feel like it and/or if it needs it to tighten it up.  Bake it when it has doubled in bulk.    Trust the dough. 

Baking with people who prefer using scales requires a little more detail.  I don’t like detail and I seem to have a mental block against the scale on this occasion.  I will start weighing and then just kind of forget half way through.  I tried experimenting with other recipes – maybe there was something better around – only to realise that many sourdough recipes assume a starter that has been made by weighing equal amounts of flour and water rather than using equal volume measurements.  A starter made with equal weights of flour and water is 50% water by weight.  The 1857 starter, on the other hand, is 60% water by weight.  So, I have had to adjust everything but persist in adding flour without weighing it and so I still don’t know how much I have added beyond a cup here and a handful there.  I still do not know in the way that you have to know to teach people who are used to using a scale.  Naturally I could simply adjust the 1857 but then it would no longer be the 1857.  For those of you who now have the 1857, the choice is yours: 

1.  Go crazy – adjust your recipes.  (Other than the one I will post shortly which I think I have finally adjusted accurately)

2.  Be safe – adjust the 1857 to suit recipes designed with a weighed sourdough in mind.

No really, I don’t have a bias. 

I like cups because I grew up with them.  I like cups because they catch my imagination.  Not so many years ago, scales would have been the possessions of the very wealthy.  If you were going to have access to scales you could only have been a servant in a wealthy household, the logic being that your employers would never have gone near the kitchen so they would not have used the scales.  The poor cooked and baked with cups and spoons.  Where I come from, you did not lug scales across the frozen north in the days when you had to carry everything you owned on you back, on a horse, or in a horse drawn waggon. 

Scales or the baby?  Ok, we’ll take the baby and continue measuring with cups and spoons.

6 thoughts on “Refreshing the 1857 sourdough”

  1. Hi I love the ending of this Scales or the baby??? I think we’ll take the baby! It sounds so cold hearted but it was a purely practical decisions back then( plus on the sad side the infant mortality rate was very high). I to am from a place where everytthing you owned was on your back and as I live in gold rush areas(when our Rush ended we were fortunate enough to be on the way to the Alaska & Klondike Rushes)of Canada it was a lot more about survival in the harshest conditions the smallest item could mean life or death.So things like sourdough could save lives and be a welcone change from the normal unleavened bread. Yes there are stories of people bringing there own starters with there up and down the the trails. They are not very common but you do hear them once in a while.

    1. thanks for replying! it was great fun to read your comment! best, jane (and I am a freak who travels with dough – but only the 1857 which I feel compelled to keep alive when I move around. the rest I sling and make a new when necessary!)

  2. Hi, Jane. Incredible story 🙂 Is the taste of this bread different to other sourdough bread loves you’ve made?

    1. Ha! i would love to say yes but actually it is no. when I went to the yeast lab to have it analysed they laughed at my ignorance! There are only a few strains of yeast (the yeast is in the air and the air blows around the world!!! that is what they explained) so in fact although it had some interesting bacteria in it (one of about a zillion strains and no impact on anything in particular) it has a perfectly ordinary yeast culture and that does not impact the flavour. it’s really the flour you use that impacts the flavour. flour is just like apples or tomatoes – there are loads of different kinds and they all taste and perform differently. I do experiment with flour all the time to see the impact on performance and flavour. I have a few favourites…

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