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New Mexico State University, Guide E-207
While we may think that the term "sourdough" originated in Alaska, the history of sourdough breads
goes back almost 6,000 years to the Egyptians. For centuries, the accepted method of leavening bread
was with sourdough "starter." Early bread makers may have found that moistened flour, when exposed
to air, fermented and expanded. It may have been another accident that caused the thrifty housewife to
use a bit of this fermented mix in the making of another batch of bread. Since it made the bread "light,"
she formed the habit of saving a portion which became the "start" of another batch of dough. And so the
"starter," that sourish fermentation of flour, water, and yeast used to leaven a variety of baked goods,
came into being.
Sourdough is often associated with the prospectors swarming over the California gold fields in '49 and
later moving to the Klondike. Sourdough products, baked over camp fires, along with beans and pork,
constituted the main diet of the strapping men who pioneered the virgin country, found its riches, and
survived to triumph over the harsh and demanding environment. Men who carried a crock of starter in
the miner's gear were called "sourdoughs."
"Starters" were treasured gifts of the early prospectors and adventurers and were treasured items during
the rugged frontier days. Many families handed down the starter through several generations, always
passing with the starter the directions for its care and preservation. Pottery was the preferred container,
loosely covered to allow the gas to escape.
It is said that miners and Indians from the Thlinget tribe or Hooch-in-noo in southeast Alaska extracted a
drink from the liquid rising to the top of a batch of sourdough allowed to complete its fermentation.
"Hooch," also known as beewack, was reputed to be a highly volatile mixture, causing a hangover of
sledge-hammer proportions the following day.
Cowboy cooks usually kept their starter in fi