Sourdough, the frontier way

My dad's old pals teach me about bread cultures as we fire up loaves in a scavenged, wood-burning oven


Felisa Rogers
May 28, 2011 5:01PM (UTC)

Carl points the laser gun at the wood-fired oven. The "gun," in fact a laser thermometer, reads high: 950. Inside, flames lick up across the oven's vaulted ceiling, eerily appearing and disappearing as pockets of gas ignite and subsume.

Carl Franz and Lorena Havens are the type of people who have perfected a system for every aspect of their lives, and baking is no exception. Carl approaches the process with maniacal precision: He uses a scale to measure his grain, which he grinds in a Nutramill, a device that looks a little like a headless R2D2. Once the grain is ground into flour, Carl leavens the dough with carefully tended sourdough starter. The loaves bake in his outdoor oven, which he built from scavenged materials, including the remains of an old chimney and clay he dug from his pond, then dried and pulverized by hand. (He estimates the total cost of the oven was about $100.)

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Carl and Lorena are old friends of my dad, Steve Rogers. Together the three are responsible for "The People's Guide to Mexico," which was published in 1972 and became something of a cult classic. Harper's Magazine called it: "The best guidebook to adventure in the whole world." All these years later, the book is still in print, which is great, but entails regular grueling revisions. Back in the old days my dad used to drive up north to help Carl and Lorena with each new edition. Sometimes I'd accompany him -- from a kid's perspective, these editing marathons were entertaining: a chance to stay up late, listening to the adults bicker and tell crazy stories. Now for the first time since my dad died, I'm stepping into his shoes. I'm staying at Carl and Lorena's cabin for a week to get the 14th edition underway. Of course, we'll be taking breaks to cook.

The cabin perches at the edge of a picturesque swamp, and the setting fits Carl and Lorena to a T: There is something of the muskrat in Carl's grizzled countenance; Lorena is more Great Blue Heron. Although Carl swears that my house in Oregon is actually more remote than his homestead, I'm not so sure. The homestead is far north, near the Canadian border, and the land here has a creeping gloom that makes me think of H.P. Lovecraft. People call this region the American Alps, a nickname that doesn't seem too far off the mark: Even in late May, the dark hills are crested with snow.

The homestead is one of the region's oldest territorial-era log cabins; it was built in 1880, before Washington was a state. Standing by the wood cook stove beneath the kitchen's low eaves, it's easy to imagine the rough confines of pioneer life. When a family of Danish immigrants, the Larsens, first built the cabin, it was tiny: just two rooms on the ground floor with an upstairs cramped by the peaked roof.

"This was the end of the world out here," Carl observes. "It's amazing that they were even here, because this area had no logging at the time. I'd say they were kind of survivalists."

The Larsens would have used a wood-fired oven to bake their bread, and it was likely sourdough. Sourdough utilizes the oldest form of leavening: natural fermentation and wild yeasts. As flour ferments in water at room temperature, wild yeasts from the air and from the grain drift down into the mix, which also fosters lactobacillus bacteria. The yeast and bacteria develop a symbiotic relationship that creates a perfect natural way to leaven bread. Every time you take a few spoonfuls for your bread dough, you feed the culture more flour. The method dates back to Ancient Egypt, but sourdough is often associated with Western culinary history, particularly here in the far Northwest. In the days when the pioneers carved farms from the recalcitrant hills, baking supplies were scarce. Sourdough starter was a way to conserve precious yeast. Once a yeast culture was established, pioneer families would keep it alive for years.

You can make your own sourdough starter in a few days, but old sourdough cultures are prized for their mellow and distinct flavors. "It's like making wine. There's a lot of parallels between cultivating grapes and cultivating cultures," Carl says, warming to the subject. "If you make your own sourdough starter, it's kind of pot luck. But if you get a culture that has a pedigree, then you know it's going to have a good flavor. It's like Carl's sourdough, they've really got it down, man, the flavor."

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He's not talking about himself. Carl Franz's sourdough starter comes from a legendary sourdough culture fostered by the late Lt. Col. Carl T. Griffith. In 1847, Lt. Col. Griffith's great grandmother brought the culture west on the Oregon Trail from Missouri. She passed it down the family line; Carl T. Griffith inherited the starter from his parents and made an institution of sharing the culture with anyone who was interested: If you sent postage to Carl, he'd send you starter. Although Carl died in 2000 at age 80, his sourdough lives on: A group of Carl's friends carry on Carl's tradition of sharing the starter with interested parties. (If you send postage, the starter is free. Donations are accepted but not solicited.)

I am a dilettante in the dedicated society of sourdough enthusiasts, but sourdough interests me because it perfectly represents the crux of the matter: cooking exists as an art form because ideas are fostered and shared from one generation to the next. An old sourdough culture can represent a hundred-odd years of care: Someone kept the culture alive all those years, and passed it on to friends, relatives or sometimes complete strangers. In other words, sourdough is a living representation of food as both carefully fostered tradition and communion. All that and it tastes good.

Carl has been nurturing his version of Carl's sourdough culture for 10 years, which means his starter may have picked up strains of wild yeast particular to his region. He calls his culture Sasquatch Blend after his nickname for the homestead -- the Sasquatch Observatory. The name makes sense: If you peer into the surrounding woods you can't help imagining strange beasts lurking in the sonorous shadows.

I spend most of my visit to Carl's homestead in front of the computer, sifting through endless notes and messages from correspondents. The baking project is a welcome change of pace. The evening before we bake, Carl removes his starter from the fridge and drops two spoonfuls into a mixing bowl. He rifles through a drawer, removing glass jars of grain: barley, rice, spelt, kamut and buckwheat. He dumps the grain into R2 and hits play. After a few minutes of grinding, the finished product is fine and silky. Carl dumps the flour in the bowl with starter, adds water, stirs, and leaves it to sit overnight. (If you don't happen to have your own electric flour mill, Carl says you can find most of these flours already ground at the store, or replace with whole wheat flour. Although the grains Carl uses aren't particularly cheap, the rest of the recipe is inexpensive: It doesn't call for milk or shortening.) The next day at noon, Carl lights the fire in his wood-fired oven, which resembles an adobe igloo. The day is not perfect for outdoor cooking -- a stiff breeze roils the firs, and the clouds are gunmetal blue above the saw-toothed hills. But it's not raining, which counts for a lot in these parts. Inside, the dough is rising.

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For dinner we make pizza. The oven is going full blast and the pies cook in 90 seconds; the crust is crisp yet chewy, and the air around the cabin smells fantastically comforting. When the coals start to die down, Carl uses a modified canoe paddle to deposit our loaves in the oven. Thirty minutes later, we check the loaves. Carl instructs to test the bread's internal temperature with a food thermometer: The loaf will be 190 degrees inside when it's done. "When baking in a conventional oven, some people start at 425 and then turn it down," he says. "But the temperatures are tremendously inaccurate. That's why I use a laser thermometer!" he finishes, with a vaguely maniacal expression.

Twenty minutes later, we remove the bread from the oven. The loaves are round and perfect, like peasant bread in an old still life, and the slices are dense and rich. Chewing Carl's bread, it's easy for me to imagine how a person could actually survive on a diet of bread and water. It's a food unto itself, and the sourdough gives it a nice tang. I think of the two Carls, and the way starter is passed through generations, and my own reason for being at the homestead: Working on my dad's book is another example of the passing on of culture. Our lives would surely be hollower without these exchanges of knowledge and tradition.

Six Grain Sasquatch Sourdough

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Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons of sourdough starter
  • 2 ½ cups of water
  • 150 grams spelt flour
  • 150 grams barley flour
  • 150 grams kamut flour
  • 150 grams rice flour
  • 150 grams buckwheat flour
  • 300 grams of unbleached white flour
  • 1 teaspoon of dry yeast
  • 4 teaspoons of salt

Directions

  1. Grind flour. Pour into bowl.
  2. Add 2 ½ cups of water.
  3. Add 2 tablespoons of sourdough starter.
  4. Mix.
  5. Put aside until following day.
  6. Add 4 teaspoons of salt.
  7. Add 2 teaspoons of dry yeast (optional).
  8. Mix 300 grams of unbleached white or whole wheat flour into the batter. Let sit for 20 minutes.
  9. Knead for 10 minutes, or until silky smooth. (If you have an electric mixer, such as a Kitchenaid, you can use that. If the dough seems too dry, dip your hands in water and then knead.)
  10. Shape the dough into a ball and deposit in a lightly oiled bowl.
  11. Cover with damp cloth or lid and let rise in a warm place until the dough doubles in size.
  12. Punch dough down.
  13. Shape loaves. Let rise again until the shaped loaves are almost double in size.
  14. Bake in a wood-fired over at 450 for 30 to 50 minutes. (Check at 30 -- if the loaf is getting too dark, cover the outside in foil.) If using a conventional oven start at 425 and cook for 40-60 minutes. (Put a small pot of boiling in with the loaf, and, use a spray bottle to wet the inside of the oven every 10 minutes or so.)


Felisa Rogers

Felisa Rogers studied history and nonfiction writing at the Evergreen State College and went on to teach writing to kids for five years. She lives in Oregon’s coast range, where she works as a freelance writer and editor.

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