I have a few billion friends that live in my fridge or on my counter, depending on the day. Sometimes I forget about them until I discover the surly residue from one of their break-outs from the glass jar they live in, or get a whiff of the pungent home brew they create when left unattended. Who are these feisty, fragrant friends? Collectively I call them Klondike; but you may better know them as the single-celled yeast and bacteria that make up a sourdough starter. I’ve been taking care of them for almost six years now—but their legacy extends over 125 years.
People who survive their first winter in the Yukon are affectionately called Sourdoughs. Like an actual starter, a Sourdough proves they can thrive under harsh conditions, a bit of mistreatment and sketchy, intermittent feedings.
Having been born and raised in the Yukon, I can attest it takes a special breed of organism to bloom here. Subsistence living is part culture, part necessity. My parents came to the Yukon in 1957 when the Alaska Highway was closer to a 4×4 road than a highway. On a farm and trapline with my father, and in the kitchen with my mom, my six siblings and I learned what it takes to not only survive, but thrive in the North. It’s hard work, and when I was young I wanted to do anything but work like that.
However, after a 20-year career in the RCMP, I felt a pull to connect again with the land and the kitchen. Now I’m an avid urban forager, gardener and professional cook. I’ve taught my own children how to hunt and fish, identify edible wild plants, preserve food and take care of a garden. In 2018, I opened Well Bread, a culinary centre and cooking school, to pass on what I’ve learned.
The year before, I got to learn first-hand the relationship between that yeasty nickname and its history. I received my sample of Yukon sourdough starter directly from a 90-years-young descendant of gold miners that came to the Yukon in 1898 and never left. Generations of women in that family kept this starter alive and have shared it with many other Yukoners over the past 125 years. This is the culture of sourdough, after all.
How it came to the Yukon we don’t exactly know, but DNA testing in 2018 confirmed these sourdough bacteria and yeast are of the same strain found in San Francisco. It’s likely that a descendant of a gold miner from the California Gold Rush brought sourdough starter with them to the Yukon during the 1898 Gold Rush. With permission, I began distributing the starter through Well Bread and educating people all over the world about the Yukon’s legacy microbial culture. I named it the 1898 Yukon Sourdough Starter; since then, I’ve mailed more than 3,000 packages in the past five years to every continent on the globe.
So, what exactly is going on in a glass jar of starter? Bacteria and yeast float around in the air we breathe; they’re everywhere and on everything. Most of them keep us healthy. If you provide the right conditions (flour and water mixed together) to attract enough of the kind that make sourdough starter (lactic acid bacteria and yeast), they’ll settle in and start to create a colony called a microbiome, which blooms and creates a harmonious community of microbes. Those microbes gorge themselves on carbohydrates from the hydrated flour which creates carbon dioxide gas inside their little bodies; so much that it explodes out of the organism. The gluten structure of the dough creates a balloon-like skin that expands and traps the gas created by the microbes. We see that trapped gas as bubbles in the sourdough starter, and then in our baked sourdough bread products. The insides of the microbe reform, continue to consume carbohydrates, explode and reform— the process is never-ending as long as the food supply doesn’t run out.
The early months of the pandemic shone a spotlight on sourdough starters when commercial yeast became difficult to come and many home-bound cooks were looking for a new project. People were clambering to know more about sourdough starter, like it was some magical invention that was going to save us all from starvation. There is a thread of truth in this: bread is called the staff of life for a reason. In a properly dried state, sourdough starter can remain dormant for thousands of years and be resurrected with water, flour, and a bit of skill. Scientists have proven that after finding it in Egyptian tombs. Magic? Kinda sounds like it. Easy? Not so much.
Even I have triumphs and failures with my sourdough starter. In 2018, to prepare for my first 12-student sourdough class, I separated an active batch of starter into smaller containers for each student, sealed the lids tight, and put them in the fridge to slow down their growth. Well, there was considerably more life in the starter than I thought: the occupants of each container quite literally blew their lids and proceeded to have a culinary quest around the inside of my fridge. The sticky, gelatinous mess was almost impossible to wipe up and even more difficult to take on when dried: you need a serious set of tools to clean up partially dried sourdough starter eruptions.
There was also the time I created a recipe for Klondike Sourdough Nuggets; addictive doughnut-like puffs of deep-fried happiness rolled in sugar and cinnamon, reminiscent of that beaver thing southern Canadians chow down on by the Rideau Canal. Learning can be both delicious and exhaustive, simultaneously.
If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that traditional methods of cooking and baking need to be preserved and taught, otherwise we are going to lose this knowledge. This is precisely why I created the Well Bread Cooking School. I show people how to reconnect with food. In doing so, they rewire parts of themselves that come alive when a taste triggers a memory they didn’t even know was there. I get to see that magic happen and believe me; it is real.
There may still be gold in the hills of the Yukon, but the real treasure here lives in the fridge of thousands of Yukoners, and now thousands of bakers all over the world. We’re collectively preserving a piece of Yukon history that, if properly cared for, will outlive us all.