Colonial Sourdough

Explore the history and techniques of Colonial Sourdough at Sourdough Savvy. Learn how early settlers made sourdough bread using natural fermentation processes, how they cared for their sourdough starter, and how regional variations evolved. Dive into the resilience of sourdough starters and the simplicity of traditional bread-making techniques that have stood the test of time​


11/12/20202 min read

Colonists arriving in the Americas would have brought their traditional bread-making techniques from their home countries, including sourdough techniques. There was no commercial yeast at the time, so they relied on natural fermentation processes to leaven their bread, a technique that dates back thousands of years.

Sourdough is made by combining flour and water and allowing the mixture to ferment over several days. Wild yeast present in the air and in the flour itself will start to multiply, while beneficial bacteria (most commonly a type of lactic acid bacteria) also proliferate. Together, they create the characteristic rise and sour flavor of sourdough bread.

During the fermentation process, the yeast produces carbon dioxide gas, which gets trapped in the dough, causing it to rise. The bacteria produce lactic acid, which contributes to the distinctive tangy flavor of sourdough.

Colonists would have kept a portion of this fermented dough (the "starter") to use in their next batch of bread, continually feeding it with fresh flour and water to keep it active. This is the same basic process used in sourdough baking today.

Sourdough bread was a staple of the colonists' diet. It was relatively simple to make, required only basic ingredients, and could be baked in a variety of ways, from loaves baked in a hearth oven to bannocks or "journey cakes" cooked over an open fire.

As different European groups settled in different regions of the Americas, they would have adapted their bread-making techniques to the local conditions and ingredients, leading to regional variations in sourdough bread. For example, French settlers in what is now Quebec would have brought their traditional French bread-making techniques, while Dutch settlers in New York would have brought their own distinct styles of bread.

Colonial Techniques

Keeping a sourdough starter alive and active requires a fairly simple process of regular feeding with fresh flour and water. The same basic process has been used for thousands of years, including by the colonists in the Americas.

Here's how it would have typically worked:

1. Feeding: The colonists would have fed their sourdough starter regularly, usually once a day, by adding fresh flour and water. This provides food for the yeast and bacteria in the starter, keeping them active and healthy. The amount of fresh flour and water added would usually be roughly equal to the amount of starter, although the exact proportions can vary.

2. Storing: In between feedings, the starter would be stored in a container, usually a crock or jar. It was typically covered with a cloth or lid, but not sealed airtight, as the yeast and bacteria need access to oxygen.

3. Using: When they were ready to bake, the colonists would take a portion of the starter and mix it into their bread dough. This would introduce the yeast and bacteria to the dough, causing it to rise during baking.

4. Saving: They would always make sure to save some of the original starter to keep the process going. This reserved starter would be fed more fresh flour and water, and the process would start over.

The exact methods would have varied depending on the local conditions and the specific baking traditions of the settlers. For example, some groups might have used different types of flour, or fed their starters more or less frequently.

As for temperature, starters can be kept at room temperature if they're being used (and therefore fed) daily. For longer periods without baking, starters can be stored in a cooler place to slow down the fermentation process. This could be a cool room in the house, a cellar, or, in more modern times, a refrigerator. Since colonists wouldn't have had refrigeration, they might have used cellars or other cool storage areas to keep their starters when they weren't being used. However, even without ideal storage conditions, sourdough starters are remarkably resilient, and can often be revived even after periods of neglect.