The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Century old starter?

Joceheartssourdough's picture
Joceheartssourdough

Century old starter?

Hey Star Bakers,

I'd love to get my hands on a very old starter, especially after learning about the Egyptologist who baked bread. Does anyone know of any resources online who make old starters available for sale?

agres's picture
agres

Starter changes and evolves over time depending on what little critters are in your kitchen and most importantly, in the grain/flour that you use; and, the conditions that you keep the starter under, including temperature and feeding routine. Even if you got some old Egyptian starter, the moment you fed it with something other than hand ground Kamut grown along the Nile, the nature of the starter would begin to change.  If you want starter just like that used in Paul Bunyan's Logging Camp, you have to treat it just like they treated their starter - e.g., use it every day for pancakes and bread.   Keep it cool, but not cold. Do that and in a few weeks you  will have starter as good as any classic starter.  The reason those old starters were so good was they were used to produce the daily bread; and for miners, loggers, and farmers, also  daily pancakes.

jey13's picture
jey13

I’d be careful searching for something like this. I can easily see someone selling their dried starter to your while claiming it’s 200 years old and was used by George Washington’s cook ;-) How, after all, would you know the difference? 

That said, there is a “Starter Museum/Library” that has gathered and catalogued and is keeping alive many different “old” starters including one that comes from San Francisco and has been kept going for a good 100 years or more. I’d start with them if you’re really interested in old starters:

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/sourdough-library

Another thing you can do is check out ancient grains. There’s been a big movement in “rediscovering” old grains and cultivating them again—grains that are not the sort of hybrid, modern wheat we have now like Einkorn. If you make a starter from flour from one of these ancient grains, then you’re going to come as close as a modern person can to tapping into an ancient “starter.”  

agres's picture
agres

There are no sourdough starters out there that are like the starters of 1880.

Flour milling changed drastically with the introduction of roller milling invented circa 1840, and which become popular circa 1880 with the expansion of hard wheats in both Europe and the US. Starters fed on roller milled flour will be very different from starters grown on earlier stone ground and sifted flour.  

The spread of hard wheat starting circa 1840  (allowed by roller milling) dramatically changed the nature of our flour and hence the nature of our starters. We have moved from using “land races”, local collections of several kinds of wheat and other grains, to using pure seed stock containing only one strain of wheat.

We moved from shocking and threshing to the use of combines – which changed the microbial environment of wheat, and thus the microbial makeup of starters.  Industrialization of wheat farming in Europe, USSR and the US accelerated the changes in flour between 1920 and WWII. After WWII, globalization moved wheat around the world, so flour was being produced from wheat grown on another continent. It only takes a few weeks of feeding a starter a different kind of flour to permanently change the microbial makeup of the starter.

Perhaps the greatest changes have come from the difference of rye then and rye now. Many use rye flour in their starters, and rye has changed.

In the last 30 years, we have further changed our wheat varieties to facilitate the industrialization of agriculture and while flour mills have changed their blends to maintain some consistency in baking properties, the nutrients in the flours have changed, and thus the starters growing on the various flours have changed.  In the US, over the last hundred years we have gone from thousands of flour mills to less than 300. Better engineering of mills results in different sanitary conditions, so the microbial content of the produced flours has changed dramatically.  Another issue is farmers use of “desiccants” which changes how long the grain is in the field (picking up microbes). This again changes the microbial populations of starters.

Bakeries use fresh flour.  Flours always change in storage. Fed on changed flour, the sourdough culture will change.  Changing the frequency of feeding will change the starter in ways that simply going back to the old feeding program will not reverse.  Yes, you can revive an old starter, but the revived starter may not be like the old starter, unless the old starter was fed the same kind of flour (same grain varieties, same mill) on the same schedule, and kept under identical conditions - things like being touched by the same hands. (In a large bakery, every baker is going to have some of the sourdough microbes on their skin. And at least some of the microbes will be on every surface in the bakery that has not just been steam cleaned.  Thus, within a large bakery, the sourdough starter culture is fairly stable - until they change the kind of flour they use, or remodel, or bring in a bunch of new bakers.

 

BobbyFourFingers's picture
BobbyFourFingers

”Perhaps the greatest changes have come from the difference of rye then and rye now. Many use rye flour in their starters, and rye has changed.”

 

Can you elaborate on this? I use a landrace Polish rye that’s grown and milled locally for my starter.

Joceheartssourdough's picture
Joceheartssourdough

Thank you Jey. The sourdough recipe I uses Red Fife flour, which is a Canadian heritage grain. If I make my own starter, I'll research using Red Fife to make one! 

Postal Grunt's picture
Postal Grunt

The King Arthur Flour store sells a 28g portion of starter that is described as having been maintained by them for decades.Their catalog doesn't say exactly how many decades but there are a lot of happy bakers who have used their starter.

jey13's picture
jey13

You’re right, Postal. King Arthur Flour sells a “wet” starter that can be shipped to you, and you can have it ready to go pretty much right out of the box. They claim that it has been nurtured for over a century. Getting that starter (if you’re after a century old starter) hadn’t even occurred to me, and yet I have a friend who got it and has kept it going for several years now—and is very happy with it. 

Good call.

otherook's picture
otherook
Felila's picture
Felila

An Eastern Oregon rancher started giving away dried starter from his family's long-nurtured strain, said to have come across the US on the Oregon Trail in 1847. He died in 2000, but an organization called Friends of Carl has kept up his work. If you send them a stamped self-addressed envelope and $1, they'll send you a small packet of freeze-dried starter. I've been using a starter descended from that starter for many years. Of course, fed with KA flour and kept in a tropical environment, it's probably not at all the same starter. But it's a lineal descendent. 

idaveindy's picture
idaveindy

I second carlsfriends.net with their Oregon Trail culture.    It refreshes quickly after refrigeration, and does not have the sour tang of typical San Francisco style starter. This would be good for introducing picky-eater children to sourdough.  I recommend sending a "padded" SASE because their dried chunks are large and cut through the regular envelope and inner bag due to rough postal handling.  

Carl's Oregon Trail has a very different flavor and aroma from the Cultures For Health starter.  One of the requirements of Carl's volunteers is that this has to be the ONLY starter in their house, so that there is no cross-contamination of spores.  

This strain came to Carl from his grandmother, and Carl was born in 1920, so it's at least 100 years old. Website says 150.

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Ed Wood, at www.sourdo.com , has 15 different cultures for sale from all over the world, for $15/each +s/h, including Russia, Egypt, France, Italy.  I bought his book in Kindle format when it was on sale, that gives the story for many of those.  Also, there are some stories on his web site.  He literally travelled the world to get them, and for some of the more primitive bakeries, the culture probably does go back a century or more.  These are also available on Amazon.  Ed is a professional chemist/microbiologist/something, so you can assume he also takes measures to prevent cross-contamination.

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My first sourdough culture came from CulturesForHealth.com, also available on Amazon.  $11 to $15 depending on shipment options.  I got their Whole Wheat Starter, which does have a strong San Francisco tang.  I had frozen some samples in case I killed my working starter, and learned that this starter does not keep beyond 5 months in the freezer.  (Yes, I killled my starter.) So now I air dry starter for backup.

Joceheartssourdough's picture
Joceheartssourdough

Thank you! This is interesting.

agres's picture
agres

Your supplier was not likely large enough to be included in a survey by a large German miller.

agres's picture
agres

I encourage people to read : http://www.thefreshloaf.com//node/10375/lactic-acid-fermentation-sourdough

I think the quality  of a starter is determined by how it has been treated for the last 6-weeks. 

When I was young, I bought 2 or 3 different starters and they were fine. Today, I know that if I lose my starter, I can make a new one, and in 6-weeks it will be as good as any starter I have ever had (in 45-years of baking.)

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

As we all know... The yeasts and bacteria come from the flour itself. It takes a little while to get a starter stable and for those critters to sort themselves out. So what inhabits a starter and the dominant yeasts and bacteria are decided in that crucial stage which doesn't happen overnight. When a stable starter is fed the yeasts and bacteria feed off the sugars and make replicas of themselves.

So why should the dormant slow off the mark yeasts and bacteria coming from the fresh flour out do the well established strong yeasts and bacteria in a stable starter? 

In other words why can't a bread made from centuries old starter be a replica bread [even] when made with the replica yeasts and bacteria from when it was first made?

idaveindy's picture
idaveindy

Abe, maybe that's one reason to use mostly AP/Bread flour for maintenance feeding a starter/culture.  The wild yeasts/spores/bacteria live mainly on the bran.  Granted, I'm sure some of the spores on the bran get transfered to the white flour in the mill, but it's still got to be a lot less than if the bran is included, as in a whole grain grind.

Ed Wood has maintained up to 15 starters for decades, and they still maintain the primary characteristics as when he imported them.

I learned a lot of sourdough stuff from a couple Kindle ebooks that go on sale a couple times a year.  I think I paid no more than $5 for these:

Ed Wood's "Classic Sourdoughs".

Vanessa Kimbell's: "The Sourdough School."

I got notified of the discounts/sales by signing up for email notifications at www.bookbub.com, and selecting the baking or cooking category.  I'm cheap, so I don't like paying full/regular Kindle or hard-copy prices, even when used.

I also think the feeding schedule and feeding ratio plays a part.  Perhaps the acid in the starter kills off any new spores that are not optimized for that environment.  Also, perhaps if a mature starter is not fed too much new material, the existing yeast/bacteria eats up the new food before the newcomers get a chance to multiply.

Some people say "all sourdough cultures are local", but I don't subscribe to that.  I believe you can buy/"import" a culture and keep it dominant in your ongoing/storage starter.