The History of Sourdough: The Rise of Sourdough Bread

Sourdough. It’s the crunchy artisanal bread we associate with hipster cafes and home bakers. Millennials eat it by the truckload beneath smashed avo and home bakers are never without a freshly-baked sourdough loaf in their kitchen pantry.

But, have you ever stopped to wonder where sourdough came from and how long it has been gracing the palates of the human race?

You might be surprised to know that sourdough is the oldest form of leavened bread and has a history spanning centuries, dating as far back as ancient Egypt. It’s travelled to all corners of the world – from Egypt to Mexico to Europe and beyond – and its methods have been passed down generations from baker to baker to the present day.

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Where and when did sourdough originate?

The history of sourdough bread

The origins of bread-making are so ancient that we are unable to say for certain, but the first recorded civilization we know of that made sourdough bread was the Egyptians around 1500 BC. 

There are many theories as to how they first discovered it, but we can assume that it was by accident. It’s thought that the Egyptian people left some out and some of the wild yeast spores in the air mixed with the dough, which caused it to rise and create sourdough bread as we know it.

It’s widely known that the Egyptians also made a lot of beer and the brewery and the bakery were often in the same place, as proved by wall paintings and analyses of desiccated bread loaves and beer remains. It’s thought that a batch of flour may have been mixed with beer and produced a light loaf of bread, or the wild yeast spores were thick from the brewing and were mixed into the bread doughs, which caused them to rise considerably more than the usual wild sourdoughs.

Through trial and error they found out that some of these sourdough cultures worked and tasted better than others. They could keep this culture alive by saving some raw dough from their baking and adding more flour to it. This is how sourdough starter was born.

Where did it travel next?

White sourdough bread for sale

From Egypt, sourdough bread-making spread north to ancient Greece, where it was first baked at home by women and later, in bakeries. The Romans learned the art of bread baking from the Greeks, making improvements in kneading and baking. There are also sourdough recipes that date back to 17th Century France, which use a starter that is fed and risen three times before adding to the dough. 

Master bakers from France then took their sourdough techniques to Northern California during the California Gold Rush in 1848, and it still remains a part of the culture of San Francisco today. These bakers discovered that the sourdough culture there was unique and they became famous among the miners, who flocked to their bakery each morning in search of their special bread. 

Since 1849, these San Fran bakers have been using the same sourdough culture, which they call a "Mother dough," as well as the same recipe, flour, water, a pinch of salt and some of this "Mother Dough". In fact, their "Mother Dough" was so important that it was heroically saved by Louise Boudin during the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

Klondike miners nicknamed ‘Sourdough’

The sourdough tradition was then carried into Alaska and the Yukon territories of Canada during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Conventional leavenings, such as yeast and baking soda were much less reliable in the harsh conditions faced by the miners, so experienced miners and other settlers would carry a pouch of starter either around their neck or on a belt at all times. They would even sleep with their starter to keep it from freezing in extreme temperatures, which led to the miners earning the nickname "Sourdough" at the turn of the century.

To this day, some people claim their starters originated in the Klondike era, which is their claim to fame. In fact, people will still pay hundreds of dollars for sourdough bread made from Alaskan sourdough starters from the gold rush days.

Sourdough breads gave way to bread with commercial years in the 19th Century, as it was quicker to make. However, in the 1980s the world began to see a resurgence in the ancient fermented bread and it’s now enjoyed by millions every day across the world. 

With growing popularity and an increasing number of home bakers looking to try their hands at baking sourdough, one thing’s for certain: sourdough is here to stay. Fancy trying your hand at making your own sourdough? Check out our Complete Sourdough Starter Kit for yourself to start cooking up a storm today. Don’t forget to tag us on Instagram @youkneadsourdough and hashtag it #youkneadsourdough so we can see your culinary masterpiece.

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