Sourdough bread has a long and notable history, dating back to ancient Egypt. But it was during the American Westward Expansion that sourdough bread truly came into its own. This was particularly true here in Utah, thanks to our early pioneer settlers.
Bread was a staple food for the Mormon pioneers as they migrated West. But it may have a more important, and ongoing place in their faith. For example, the word "bread" is mentioned over many times in the Book of Mormon, one of sacred texts of the Latter-day Saint faith. The faith's dietary code, known as the Word of Wisdom, specifically mentions the importance of eating wheat and whole grain:
14 "All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts, to be the staff of life…
16 "All grain is good for the food of man…
17 "Nevertheless, wheat for man…"—Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants
The Importance of Bread in the Pioneer Diet
This emphasis on bread is not surprising, given the importance of wheat to the pioneers who migrated west in the 19th century. It was a source of sustenance on long journeys, and it helped to keep them healthy in new and challenging environments.
In fact, wheat was one of the first crops that these pioneers planted in their new settlements, and it quickly became a staple food. Whole grain sourdough bread was also a valuable source of nutrients. It is a good source of protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates. These nutrients were essential for keeping pioneers healthy during their long journeys.
In addition to its practical benefits, sourdough bread also had a symbolic importance for pioneers. It was a reminder of home and civilization in a wild and untamed land. The smell of sourdough bread baking in a campfire was a welcome sight and smell for pioneers, and it helped to keep their spirits up during difficult times.
Sourdough bread played an important role in the westward migration of the 19th century. It was a practical food that was essential for survival, and it also had a symbolic importance for pioneers. Sourdough bread is a reminder of the ingenuity and resilience of the American people, and it is a legacy that continues to be enjoyed today.
And as LDS Living records:
"History has shown wheat’s role in human survival. From Biblical stories to American Pioneer experiences, we know it works as a way to sustain life in a crisis. Wheat is packed with vitamins and minerals. Wheat kernels have three main divisions: the bran, the endosperm, and the inner embryo or wheat germ. The bran layer constitutes 14 percent of the wheat kernel and is removed when producing white flour. The bran is packed with vitamins A, C, and E, calcium, iron, and iodine. The bran also happens to be the best source of dietary fiber, which aids in digestion and helps ward off disease. The wheat germ layer is an excellent source of vitamin E, as well as other vitamins and protein."—"Wheat, the Remarkable Grain", b April 19, 2011
Bread as a Source of Sustenance
Bread was an important source of sustenance for the Utah pioneers on their long journeys west. It was a compact and easy-to-carry food that could be stored for long periods of time. In fact, in preparation for the trail, Brigham Young suggested packing 1000 pounds of flour. That is enough to make flour to bake more that 450 loaves to fuel their initial trek of 1,300-mile (2,100 km) from Illinois to Utah that would take 4 months to complete.
Pioneers also made hardtack, a type of biscuit that was made with flour, water, and salt. Hardtack was a durable food that could withstand the rigors of travel. It was also a good source of carbohydrates, which provided the pioneers with energy.
In addition to hardtack, when pioneers had time, they made quick breads, flap jacks, and biscuits using saleratus. This was a dirty but quick leavening agent something like modern baking powder or soda, consisting of potassium and/or sodium bicarbonate. And Brigham Young had advise each wagon to pack 5 pounds of that for the the trail too. But sourdough bread was easily the preferred choice.
Sourdough bread was made with a natural starter, or culture, that was fermented by wild yeast and bacteria . The fermentation process gave sourdough bread its characteristic sour flavor, chewy texture, and good keeping properties.
Sourdough bread was a more nutritious option than hardtack, and it was also more palatable. However, it was also more difficult to make. The sourdough starter had to be fed and maintained, and the bread had to be baked in hot Dutch ovens.
Sourdough on the Trail
Sourdough starter is a living colony of bacteria and yeast that is used to leaven bread. It is a hardy culture that can survive in harsh conditions, making it ideal for pioneers who were often on the move in less than ideal situations. However, as those who bake sourdough today know, the starter must be fed flour and water and maintained with this food regularly.
Among our sourdough pioneers were those who settled in Utah beginning in 1847. In his book Plain but Wholesome: Foodways of the Mormon Pioneers, Brock Cheney delves into the eating habits of these pioneers, explaining that while hunger was part of the trek West, starvation was not as common as modern folk lore makes it.
Cheney recorded that in the exception of the Martin and Willie Company disasters, which "represent only a tiny fraction of the Pioneer Trail experience," most of the 250 Utah pioneer companies only saw .5% higher death rate, than if they had not come West.
"Similarly," Cheney wrote, "historians for the National Park Service observe that the trail experience was a grand adventure for the overwhelming majority of pioneers, largely void of tragedy. Still, many pioneers did experience keen hunger, both as part of the trail experience and also after settling in Utah."
Lydia Arnold Titus, offered an explicit account of her sourdough: "When we camped, I made rising and set an on a warm ground. It would be up about midnight. I'd get up and put it to a sponge in the morning first thing I would mix the dough and put it in the reflector oven. With good hot coals the breads or cakes for a hearty breakfast were ready by the time the men rounded up the teams."
Cheney went on to explain that, "Lydia's diary gives contextual clues that emphasize the trail conditions in which she worked. The 'rising' is clearly a sourdough culture, allowing her to renew her leaven day after day on the trail.
Mary Clayton, in a Mormon Relief Society Cookbook, explains to how to make and keep a sourdough starter:
"Boil one good size potato until mealy. Mash about 1/4 of potato real fine and add to approximately two teacups of the water in which the potatoes cooked. Add 1 teaspoon sugar to lukewarm potato water. Add enough flour [about 2 cups] to make a sponge and put it in warm place and let it work. Let it stand for five days. For pancakes pour off what you would like for breakfast and leave a starter of the sponge. Store starter in a cool place."—Kitchen Treasures, 1830–1980: Roy 13th Sesquicentennial
Interestingly, some didn't bother keeping a jar of starter like this one to the left. Instead they simply kept a lump of raw dough from the daily bread baking, and tucked it a few inches deep into their flour before hitting the trail.
And to them, sourdough bread was more than just a source of sustenance as pioneers. It was also a symbol of community and hope for the future peace that would find in their mountaintop Zion.
When pioneers shared their sourdough starter with each other, they were sharing a piece of their culture and their history. Sourdough bread became a reminder of home and family, even in the midst of the challenges of frontier life.
Dutch Ovens on the Trail
An early settler, Emily Stewart Barnes, offers insight into the value of a Dutch oven, when she wrote: "We did not have a stove to cook on—only one little black kettle and one frying pan. …mother made a little bread cake and put it in the fry pan over some coals pulled from the fireplace and then she would tip up the frying pan, holding it close the fire that would cook the cake on top." But then she wrote that after a while they upgraded to a "bake kettle with a lid," (which was the New England term for a Dutch oven back then), "so that we could put hot coals on top of the kettle as well as beneath it, then we got began to have big round loaves of bread."
For those of us who own Dutch Ovens, (at one time I had 7, but I have reduced that to 3, for simpler times), we know the value of using one on the trail. But as Cheney explained, the Dutch oven is more, it is "a revered as symbol of patriarchal descent from noble lineage and is passed through inheritance from generation to generation. The Dutch oven is far more than just a black pot in Utah." Which Utah clearly demonstrated by legislative action in 1997, when the humble cast iron Dutch oven was made the State "official cooking pot."
And at Abigail's Oven Bakery, we treasure our 155 ovens by making every single loaf of our REAL™ Sourdough, every week, in it's own Dutch Oven. "While early chefs knew that their iron pots required ample grease to function properly. The non-sticking qualities of cast iron are the result of constantly burning oil into the pores of the pot," explained Cheney. But these days at the bakery, and in our home centered recipes, parchment paper fills the need to keep our bread from sticking to cast iron surfaces.
Bread as a Source of Health
Bread was clearly an important source of food and health for the early pioneers. It supplied good protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates. These nutrients are essential for maintaining a healthy body.
In addition to its nutritional benefits, bread also helped to keep the pioneers health in other ways. For example, the sourdough starter in sourdough bread contains beneficial bacteria that can help to improve gut health before it is baked and ubce baked, whole grain sourdough bread offered the gut a good dose of probiotics, which are similar to fiber in the diet.
The Legacy of Bread in the Utah Pioneer Diet
Bread continues to be an important part of our diet today. It is a staple food in Utah homes and communities, and it is often served at special occasions. Sourdough is a reflection of the faith's emphasis on health and sustenance. The bread is a nutritious and satisfying food that has helped to keep our people healthy for generations.
In addition to the practical benefits of sourdough bread, it also had a number of symbolic meanings for pioneers.
- Sourdough bread was a reminder of home. For many pioneers, sourdough bread was a taste of home that they could carry with them on their journey. The smell of sourdough bread baking in a campfire was a welcome sight and smell for pioneers, and it helped to keep their spirits up during difficult times.
- Sourdough bread was a symbol of civilization. In a wild and untamed land, sourdough bread was a reminder of home and civilization. It was a reminder that there was still order and predictability in the world, even in the midst of chaos.
- Sourdough bread was a symbol of resilience. The sourdough starter was a living thing that could be kept alive through careful tending. This represented the resilience of the pioneers themselves, who were able to adapt to new and challenging environments.
Sourdough bread is a reminder of the ingenuity and resilience of the American people. It is a legacy that continues to be enjoyed today.
PIONEER RUSTIC WHOLE WHEAT SOURDOUGH BREAD
This loaf is made with 100% whole-wheat flour, which is something you might purchase this at a grocery store. But whole grain wheat flour that you have freshly ground and that is used immediately after milling, will give you the highest nutrition of all bread flour.
Milling your grain at home offers the full benefit of germ, bran, endosperm (the starchy part of wheat kernels), and all the vitamins and minerals that go with it. Whole grains slow digestion because of its high fiber content. This places your loaves lower on the glycemic index and makes many more nutrients available during digestion.
When combined with long fermentation, sourdough bread delivers a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals not bio-available in commercially yeasted bread.
This is a heart healthy, hearty whole wheat bread using traditional sourdough starter to make two 2 lb. loaves and is based on the Abigail's Oven Recipe:
- ¾ cup [170 g] sourdough starter (100% hydration)
- 8⅓ cups [1000g] freshly milled hard white wheat
- 3⅓ cups [800g] pure, spring water at room temperature
- 2 Tbsp [35g] REAL™ sea salt
- Measure out ¾ cup [170 g] of fresh sourdough starter into a mixing bowl.
- Add 8⅓ cups [1000g] freshly milled hard white wheat
- Add 3 cups [800g] water
- Mix ingredients by hand or with a stand mixer until there are no dry particles of flour.
- Let it rest for 30 minutes covered.
- Then add 2 Tbsp (34 g) salt and ⅓ cup (80 g) water. Mix the water and salt into the dough, cover and “turn” your dough (see next step >>>)
- Stretch and fold dough by first dipping one hand in water, then reaching and grabbing the bottom edge of the dough. Pull it, stretching, and folding it on top of itself. Do this four times all around the bowl at 12, 3, 6, 9 o'clock. Together this is one full “turn.”
- Let it sit covered for 30 minutes. Then turn the dough again.
Next, let the dough sit for its bulk rise (8–12 hours).
(Tip: warmer temperatures will result in dough that is ready sooner, and colder temperatures will require the dough to sit longer. )
During the bulk rise the dough should double in size. Test by poking it with your finger; if it springs back just a bit and leaves a slight dent the dough is ready to bake. But if it springs back without a dent, it needs more proofing. If it leaves a dent and doesn’t spring back, it may be over-proofed.
- After the long bulk rise, dump your dough onto a floured or oiled surface. Using a bench knife, cut dough in half to form two loaves. Let rest, covered for 30 minutes.
- Fold the dough to create tension and shape into a boule by starting at one edge and folding the dough over itself toward the center. Then roll the dough up 'jelly roll' fashion, turn and repeat several times until the dough tightens up. Then using a dough blade or your hands, turn the dough in a flat circle until it shapes into a ball.
- Then, place it on a floured towel or oiled parchment paper and set in a bowl. Cover bowl with a lid and let rise until doubled (45 min to 1½ hours depending on temperature). The dough is ready when it is puffy but has not yet doubled in size.
- Twenty minutes before baking, place your Dutch oven in the oven to preheat at 475°F (246°C).
- When the oven is preheated, score the top of each loaf with a serrated knife.
- Use the parchment to lower the dough into Dutch oven and splash water in it with your fingers before covering it with the lid.
- Bake for 30 minutes in the dutch oven covered, then remove the lid for the last 15 minutes, baking the bread is golden brown.
- Remove the bread and allow to cool completely before cutting (1-2 hours).
Sourdough bread was an essential part of the American Westward Expansion. It was a source of sustenance, a symbol of community, and a reminder of home.
Sourdough bread is still a popular food in the American West today. It is often served at restaurants and festivals, and it is still made using traditional methods. Sourdough bread is a reminder of the history and culture of the American West, and it is a delicious and nutritious food that is enjoyed by people of all ages.