Sourdough—the Leaven of the American West

Sourdough—the Leaven of the American West

Every year the fourth Saturday in July is set aside as the #NationalDayOfTheCowboy. This is a day to preserve our pioneer heritage and cowboy culture at the same time, but it neither has to focus on ranchin', rustlin', nor rodeoin', but Dutch oven cooking with sourdough, the leaven of the American West, could be the way to celebrate today.

If you're a "cookie" (or at least want to be like me), this is just a great excuse to pull out that old camping Dutch oven from the shed to bake some REAL™ Sourdough Bread on a campfire again. 

The Chuckwagon is the Official State Vehicle of Texas
Photo by Larry D. Moore, "A historical recreation of a chuckwagon at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Exposition in Austin, Texas," CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.
By the way, if you don't know what a "cookie" is, this explanation from  in June might help:
On cattle runs, "the 'cookie' was in charge of the chuckwagon, usually second only to the 'trailboss' on a cattle drive. The cookie would often act not only as cook, but also barber, dentist, and banker."

Yikes! That is all I can say to that. So maybe I don't want to be a "cookie," but I do want to bake bread in my cast iron ovens. And the recipe of choice is Abigail's Oven Country Loaf made with 27% fresh ground whole wheat and 73% Artisan Bakers Craft*, along with REAL water and REAL salt

This recipe, like our ad states, is our "Prize Winner! This is our most sold and requested loaf by far. Beautiful, tasty, and good for you! This is a white bread you can feel good about!"

Abigail's Sourdough Country Loaf


  • 5 ½ cups [700g] Bread or All-purpose flour
  • 2 ½ cups [300g] Whole wheat flour
  • 3+¼ cups[640+60g] Water
  • ¾ cup [170g[ Active sourdough starter
  • 2 Tbsp [34g] REAL™ or Himalayan salt


    1. Activate the starter, by mixing ¼ cup [60g] starter with ½ cup [120 g] water and a scant cup [120 g] flour.
    2. Let it double (4–6 hours).
    3. Mix 3 ⅔ cups (650g) water, ¾ cup [70 g] starter, and 8 cups [1000g] total flour. Rest for 30 min. covered.
    4. Add 2 Tbsp [34 g] salt and ¼ cup [60 g] water. Work this into the dough, then cover and “turn” the dough.
    5. With lightly wet fingertips, grab down a side of the dough and stretch it upward. Fold it over toward the center of the bowl, then turn the bowl one-quarter turn and repeat 3–4 times. Cover and rest. Repeat every 30 minutesotal of 3 sets.
    6. Finally, cover the dough for its bulk rise (8–12 hours).
    7. When ready dump the dough on floured or oiled surface. Split it in half and let each half rest 3o min.
    8. Then shape and tension by rolling the dough like a jellyroll. Turn and repeat several times until the dough comes into a ball. Cover and rest for 45-90 min
    9. 20 minutes before baking, place a Dutch oven in your oven to preheat 465°F (240°C). Meanwhile, score the top of each loaf with a sharp knife and put the dough into the Dutch oven and cover with the lid.
    10. Bake for 25 minutes lid on, then remove the lid and bake for 20 more minutes until golden brown.
    11. Cool completely before cutting (1-2 hours). Enjoy!

*(NOTE: you can purchase Organic Artisan Bakers Craft, unmalted artisan bread flour and/or the wheat berries from Central Milling in Logan, UT.)

Now let's get back to our celebration. Monday is Pioneer Day in Utah, so no matter, cowboy or pioneer, food was vital on the trail. And sourdough played a huge role in their daily fare.

Whether it was sourdough pancakes, biscuits, cornbread, or Dutch oven bread, it was all sourdough, because it was the natural leaven of the West.

The Era of the Cowboy

This era be began as the Civil War ended, right in the heart of Texas. "Cattle were herded long before this time, but in Texas, they grew wild and unchecked. As the country expanded, the demand for beef in the northern territories and states increased. With nearly 5 million head of cattle, cowboys moved the herds on long drives to where the profits were," wrote John Hallowell, in his "The Return of the Chuckwagon."

Back then the chuckwagon was possibly the first mobile kitchen. One accompanied every cattle drive in the American West. The chuckwagon cook, or cookie,  was responsible for feeding the cowboys, who often worked long hours in demanding conditions. The food on the chuckwagon was simple but hearty, and it had to be able to travel well and not spoil.

Some of the staples of chuckwagon food in the 1860s included:

  • Beans: Beans were a cheap and nutritious food that was easy to cook. They were often cooked with salt pork or bacon, and they could be served as a main course or as a side dish.
  • Biscuits: Biscuits were made with flour, sourdough, and water, a pinch of salt and baking soda might have also been added. They were cooked in a Dutch oven over an open fire, and they were often served with butter or honey.
  • Dried fruit: Dried fruit was a good source of vitamins and minerals, and it helped to keep the cowboys hydrated. It was often served as a snack or as a dessert.
  • Coffee: Coffee was a staple of the chuckwagon diet, and it was often served black. It helped to keep the cowboys awake and alert during long days on the trail.
  • Beef: Beef was the main source of protein for the cowboys. It was often cooked over an open fire, and it could be served as a steak, a stew, or a roast.

In addition to these staples, the chuckwagon cook might also prepare other dishes, such as:

  • Sourdough Pancakes made with flour, starter, and milk with a pinch of salt and baking powder. They were cooked in a Dutch oven over an open fire, and they might served with butter or syrup.
  • Sourdough bread: Sourdough bread was made with a sourdough starter, which gave the bread a distinctive sour flavor. It was often served with beans or stew.
  • Pies: Pies were a rare treat on the chuckwagon, but they were always welcome. They were often made with dried fruit, canned fruit, or fresh fruit when it was available and a good sourdough crust.

The chuckwagon cook had to be creative and resourceful in order to feed the cowboys on a long cattle drive. The food was simple, but it was hearty and nutritious, and it helped to keep the cowboys going during long days on the trail.

For further reading about sourdough and cowboys, read "Sourdough: Yeast of the American West," by Donald Duke.

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