Why is sourdough bread such a basic food in gold rush countries like the Klondike? Well, for one thing the stuff is like the energizer bunny. It lasts and lasts and lasts.
I once took a Yukon River trip in the late 1970s with the late Charlie Taylor of the famed department store chain -- Taylor and Drury. On the journey he brought sourdough starter that his father had packed with him over the gold rush trail in 1898.
While Charlie baked some sourdough bread, he gave me a lesson. Sourdough is the oldest and most original form of leavened bread. The oldest recorded use is from ancient Egyptian civilizations and was likely discovered by accident.
Mix ground up grain with water or milk, let it sit in the open air at room temperature, and wild yeasts in the air will settle in the mix, eat the natural sugars and convert them into lactic acids which give it a sour flavor. They also give off alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide causes the bread to rise.
Sourdough bread is made by using a small amount of starter dough containing the culture, and mixing it with new flour and water. Some of this resulting dough is then saved to start the next batch.
Charlie said that as long as the starter dough is given flour and water about once a week, the sourdough mixture is good forever. Sourdough was the main bread made during the 1849 California Gold Rush - so common that "sourdough" became the nickname for prospectors and it remains a part of the culture of San Francisco today.
Some bread makers there have a starter dough that dates back to 1849. Just like the energizer bunny, it keeps going. The sourdough custom was brought to the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. Most miners carried a pouch of starter in their 1000 pounds of supplies over the Chilkoot trail where freezing would not kill a sourdough starter but, strangely, too much heat would.
And the legacy of the name continues in events like the Sourdough Rendezvous and in sayings such as sour on the Yukon and not enough dough to get out.
Well, if there is enough yummy sourdough bread around, who’d want to.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin