Today is Pioneer Day in Utah. On this date in 1847, the first group of Mormon Pioneers entered the Great Salt Lake Valley. Their trek began in April that year and they had to get settled fast to put crops in on time.
In pioneer times there was a saying that, “if you want to have a harvest for winter, corn should be knee-high by the Fourth of July.” Arriving on the 24th of July they had to be very concerned about getting crops into the ground fast so there would be food and fodder for the coming year.
In their honor, every year I plant a few seeds on this day. This year they were pole beans. But when I was done planting I came in to wash up from making ten sourdough bâtards and it got me thinking how I actually have a sourdough start that came into the valley across the plains with the pioneers.
“There were certainly no yeast vendors strung along the handcart trail leading West and no supermarkets waiting with supplies along the handcart trail.“1—Caleb Warnock
“Pioneer yeast is sometimes called wild yeast and often called sourdough starter, even though it is not always sour,”Caleb Warnock explained. Continuing he said, “Pioneer yeast is simple to use, costs nothing, tastes wonderful, completely cuts out the need to buy commercial yeast, and drastically reduces the need for baking powder and baking soda.”2
In days past, pioneers got sourdough starts from family or those on the trail. Some even carried their starts from the “old country” as they crossed the ocean and then loaded it into their wagons.
Along the trail, these rugged travels used their sourdough starter nearly every day for flapjacks, fry bread, or dutch oven bread. For example, in her journal, one Swedish pioneer immigrant explained that their diet included “barley porridge, or some kind of soup, sausage, cheese, and sourdough bread spread with pork fat.”3† Similarly, Mary Ann Hafen, a Swiss immigrant, recalled her mother baking “a week’s supply of bread in the family oven and that during the summer they gathered berries and ate them with bread and milk. Her mother made jam and jelly out of the collected berries.”3‡
Heritage Gateways, for the sesquicentennial celebration of Mormon Pioneers entering the Salt Lake Valley, wrote this about food on the trail: “Sourdough Bread was used by men on the range in early days before baking powder or yeast were available. They carried, with their camp outfit, a one-gallon crock with a lid that fitted securely down into the mouth of the crock.”3
I can only imagine the chore of keeping a start alive along the trail, but f course, they could grow their own along the way too.
Starting a Start
Just like today, the starter was made by mixing flour “with enough warm water to make a batter thick enough to bask a spoon, placing the crock in the warm earth near enough to the fire to keep it warm. When it began to ferment and bubble, it was set aside. When sufficiently sour, it was used in the bread.
“Each time a start was left in the crock, more flour and water were added and it was placed in a warm place. In this way, it would be sufficiently sour to be used for the next meal. Sometimes enough bread was baked in the morning to do for the noon meal.”4
You might find our 7 Day Countdown to Starting Your Own Start helpful in getting the process going or you can take the easy way out and order an Abigail’s Oven Dehydrated Sourdough Start, which ships out every Tuesday. This is the same starter we use in our bread and each order comes with instructions on how to care for your start.
Keeping Pioneer “Yeast”
Warnock writes, “Pioneer technology trumps anything modern, in this case. The advantage of room-temperature yeast is this: it is available for immediate use, with little or no planning ahead required… Pioneer yeast is a wet doughy mix, not a powder… the consistency of pancake batter.”5
In keeping your start healthy in modern times, nothing is more important than the flour you use. We recommend our White Whole Wheat Flour, but any freshly ground whole wheat works well. For a very active starter, you can also use a mix of whole wheat and freshly ground rye.
Both whole wheat and rye, are covered with microorganisms that help a starter take off and “it provides a strong base to continue to build the starter,” says Caroll Pellegrinelli, “but it doesn’t maintain the kind of results a long-lasting starter needs.”6 Meaning you can use it as short term fuel, just not forever. I was surprised, for example, to find that Mike Greenfield of SourdoughU, keeps his starter happy with all-purpose flour.
Whatever flour you choose, your starter needs regular feeding with an equal weight of water and flour. “After it is fed,” writes Warnock, it rises. “There are three options for allowing yeast to rise:
- “At room temperature, the peak rise will take two to three hours, and begin to develop a sourdough flavor. Some yeast strains develop little or no sourdough flavor, but most will slowly become tangy at room temperature.
- “If placed immediately in the fridge after feeding, the start will rise much slower and may take as long as week to achieve peak rise. Chilled starts also develop a lesser sour-dough flavor.
- “In a combination approach, feed the start and allow to achieve peak rise at room temperature. Then place in the fridge, where it will often stay at peak rise for up to a day. If you know you want to make pioneer yeast waffles in the morning, feeding a start the night before, allowing it to achieve peak rise, and then placing it in the fridge overnight mean the start can be immediately used in the morning. (In pioneer waffle and pancake recipes, no flour is added. The start provides the flour, much of the moisture, and the leavening.)”7
Warnock also explained that even though others have said “that that room-temperature yeast must be ‘fed’ flour and water every day or it will die,” he has not found that to be true. “I’ve neglected mine up to a week,” he says, “and regularly leave it unfed for three and four days at a time, especially on hot summer days when I’m in no hurry to turn on the stove or oven. This benign neglect has worked well for me.”
Martha Levie, at YourSourdoughStart.com, explains:
“It will remember it when it gets fed and gets used to that schedule. If you change the schedule, it’ll give you a little pushback. That’s okay. Just let it adjust and keep feeding it until it does what you want it to do.
“You can get it used to being fed every other day, even every three days without getting mold. But you just have to get into a regular cycle and do it for a while.”
And even though a layer of “hooch” may form across the top of the start, Warnock has found it to be harmless. “Clear at first,” he writes, “and turning dark over several days. I pour this liquid off before using the yeast,”8 he concludes. This is always a good idea unless you are one to really like a tangy loaf, if so, just stir your hooch back into the start and feed it a couple of times. It will be good to go in just a few feedings.
Most bakers suggest that a sourdough starter that is kept in the fridge should be fed weekly, but I’ve let mine go for weeks without any problems. Although, clearly mine develop hooch in the fridge, as you can see.
But, cautioned Warnock, “because pioneer yeast is a living microorganism, it can die. You may forget to feed it for too long, or it may develop an off-color within the yeast batter (not the liquid that may rise to the top). If this happens, throw the entire starter away.
I always keep one start in the fridge and second on the counter,”9 he concludes. Personally, I keep five starts alive in the fridge. One that is a pioneer start, one from 1920 from a Czech Republic source, one from Alaska, one from San Francisco and my favorite, the COVID-19 start of 2020 that I grew from scratch last March.
Warnock says, “Frozen starter is a back-up, in case your active starter should fail or die. To freeze a start, take a portion of [it] at peak rise, put it in a plastic freezer bag, or a glass jar, and place it in the freezer.”10 Mine are all stored in small food service containers that I wash out whenever we get sauces with fast food. I have a dozen in the freezer ready to give away to those who want to start a sourdough journey themselves.
Drying Pioneer “Yeast”
Warnock explains, there is a benefit to dehydrating some starter. He says, “the advantage of dry yeast, both today and in the pioneer era, is that if your wet yeast dies, you have a backup. Dry yeast keeps many years, if not indefinitely.
“To dry yeast, spread a very thin layer on a cookie sheet or wax paper and let it air dry on a window sill or in direct sunlight, taking care not to expose it to insects. You can also warm an oven to its lowest setting, turn the oven off, and then put the thinly layered yeast in the oven to dry. Once thoroughly dried, scrape the flakes and store in a cool, dark place in a sealed container.”11
As soon as I got my first Abigail’s Oven start, I dehydrated a batch for my own for food storage, which was good because my counter start grew pink mold and had to be thrown out.
When you are ready to use your dehydrated start, pour the flakes into a shallow bowl and barely cover them with water. Let is sit until it rehydrates, which will take a day or so. Every once in a while, crush the flakes in the water with your fingers to break up the bigger flakes. Once it is reconstituted, then your starter is ready to begin feeding.
How Pioneers Baked with Sourdough Starter
When the day ended and the pioneers “camp was pitched and a big fire built, they would get out the crock, also a pan half of flour, make a hole in the center of the flour, and into it pour the sourdough from the crock. Then add soda and a little salt, according to their judgment.”12
Soda, of course, was a quick solution to the long rise needed for bread, but “the amount of soda was determined by the sourness of the batter. The flour was then mixed in to make a soft dough. This was flattened into a flapjack shape, placed in a hot [cast iron skillet] covered with a lid that had been heated on the coals. Then some red coals or bits of burning wood were placed under the skillet, and some on top of the lid to keep it at baking temperature. When the bread was nice and brown, it was cooked through.”13
Pioneers also make Yorkshire Biscuits with a batter of “flour sufficient and 1 quart of boiling hot milk.” When the batter had cooled to lukewarm they added 1 cup sourdough and ½ teaspoon of salt and set them “to rise and let it become very light.” When the dough had risen, they stirred in ½ teaspoon of soda, 2 eggs, and 1 tablespoon of melted butter if they had it, or lard. The recipe concluded: “Add flour enough to make the dough into small round cakes. Let rise 15 minutes and bake in [a] slow oven.”10
Like the pioneers, once you have a healthy starter, you can substitute store-bought yeast packets or a tablespoon of dry yeast in any recipe that calls for it with two cups active starter. Two cups might use up what you have on hand, but don’t worry, what’s left on the insides of your sourdough jar is enough to get the whole thing going again. Just add another cup of flour and ¾ cup of water and push the sides down with a food scraper, stir well, and it will be ready to use in four or so hours.
Serving Sourdough Bread on the Trail
Nearly everyone I share my sourdough bread with wants it with butter. But since there was seldom butter available on the trail, here is an interesting fact: once the meat for a meal was done cooking, “the skillet of meat was placed near a big canvas on the ground that served as a table. The men sat on the canvas around the skillet and dipped their bread in the hot fat. This, with molasses and a hot drink, often made the meal.”11
I know first hand that this recipe is not lost to tradition, at least not to Boy Scouts in Wayne County, Utah. Fifty years ago I was initiated to sopping up mutton fat with bread from a seething Dutch-oven. While it’s not my favorite dish, now and again, I cannot resist taking a slice of my sourdough to wipe a pan clean that has had meat fried in it.
Warnock writes, “After living with them for years, even decades, people tend to think of their …starters as members of the family. If you don’t know anyone with a start, ask around in your family, ward, and stake, or purchase a start from a reputable source on the Internet or at a local health food store.“12
If you live in the USA, Abigal’s Oven can ship you one of our dehydrated starts—we promise we are very reputable. And if you would rather, we can also ship you our bread directly.
Tell us about your pioneer sourdough starter in the comment section below.
1 Caleb Warnock, The Forgotten Skills of Self-Sufficiency Used by the Mormon Pioneers, Cedar Fort, Inc. Kindle Edition.
3† Leslie Albrecht Huber, “Kerstina Nilsdotter: A Story of the Swedish Saints,” Journal of Mormon History 38, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 248.
3‡ Mary Ann Hafen, Recollections of a Handcart Pioneer of 1860: A Women’s Life on the Mormon Frontier (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 14-15.
3 Cooking: “Bread—The Staff of Life,” Heritage Gateways, Utah State Board of Education, the BYU-Public School Partnership, and the Utah Education Network Official K-12 Education Sesquicentennial Project, 1997
5 Warnock, ibid
6 Caroll Pellegrinelli, Starter Sourdough: The Step-by-Step Guide to Sourdough Starters, Baking Loaves, Baguettes, Pancakes, and More, Rockridge Press, Emeryville, CA. 2019
7 Warnock, ibid
–11 Gateways, ibid
12 Warnock, ibid