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Handling the Sourdough Starter

By Lee Henry

Alias Ole Leather

My sourdough is at least 72 years old at the time of this writing in the year of 2003. I have kept it alive since I was given “A Start from a Lady in Yuma Arizona some 25 years ago. The story she told to me was that it had been given to her by her mother whom received her start from a gold miner from California that had gotten his starter from an ole’ cook in San Francisco in or around 1931. They're not sure but it may have been brought over on one of the sailing ships. Who knows how old it may be. I guess it could be a hundred years or so. I know I was so excited to acquire a starter that had been nurtured, babied, fed, and constantly looked after for all those years, I made up my mind that I would keep the legacy going as long as I was alive. None of my kids are interested in the nostalgia and the mystic life of Sourdough. I just imagine this starter will fall by the wayside or be poured down a sink hole when I take that last ride into Blue Canyon that leads to the Chuckwagon there at the great round up in the sky.

Over the years many folks have requested a start for themselves. I have no idea how many starts I used to give out.  But most was taken from my ole’ cracked 1-gallon crock (Ha! Mike Scovel patched it by wrapping it some years back with no less than first aid gauze and you guessed it Sourdough Starter) located on the business end of my working 1898 Studebaker Chuckwagon.

 So why would a guy want to write a story or (instructions?) On, How to take care of your Sourdough Starter? Well every time I give a start to someone I have to tell them how to take care of it. There is a little more to it than just “ Feed it and keep alive”

First here are a couple of ole’ recipes you can start your own sourdough.  Be reminded you must have a 1-Gallon Crock, (or larger), All Purpose Flour, and White Sugar.

Ben Jack Larado’s Original


Sourdough Starter Recipe

Wash wooden keg and add 2 sliced up Irish potatoes; 4 cups flour; and plenty water to make medium thick batter; ½ cup black strap molasses; dash of salt.

Set in sun during the day, cover with blankets at night. Keep the keg warm even if you have to sleep with it. In 2-3 days sourdough starts workin good.

Now pour the whole thing out, keg is seasoned so don’t wash it.

Add fresh ingredients as before, probably take 4-5 days for batch to ferment. Pay close attention. Keep keg warm at nite. Never clean keg again.

Note: When usin the sourdough be sure to replace what you used with flour, water, salt and a little black strap.

Start this a-cople of weeks afor the trail drive.



From Ben Jack’s Original Recipe Book 1897

 Sliced Potato Sourdough Starter

2 raw potatoes sliced in bottom of a 2 gal crock jar

1 yeast cake, diluted in 2 cups warm water

2 TBSP sugar

1 cup Flour

Beat well.  It’s not necessary to remove any flour lumps as they will dissolve before you are ready to use the Starter.  Cover with a cloth (caution do not cover tightly).  Place Sourdough Crock on the shelf in a warm spot free from draughts.  This starter will be bubbling in about 72 hours.


How Long Will It Take?

The 3rd day the Sourdough Starter can be used, providing it has started working.  But it is better to wait for a couple more days.  Add extra fuel each day for the Sourdough to work on – a spoonful of sugar along with a couple spoonfuls of flour.  Add warm water if batter is too thick.  Mix Well.  Cover.  Put in warm spot to work more.

In about a week the Starter should be filled with a million bubbles.  Looks like sour cream-smells like sour cream, but it has become a rich luscious Sourdough Starter.

If you wait 2 weeks the Sourdough Starter will gain more flavor.  Waiting this extra time gives extra flavor, not to be compared with any other batter.  By the 3rd week, it will be bubbling so hard that the Starter will be trying to climb over the top of the Crock.  It is now a rich creamy batter honeycombed with bubbles.

With a wooden spoon, stir the Starter smooth, and remember, Sourdough loves to be stirred.  Dip out the slices of potato in the bottom making sure you get them all because there is nothing worse than finding lumps in your Sourdough.

Always use a wooden spoon, never metal.  A metal spoon will contaminate your Sourdough.

If batter seems stiff and heavy add more water—enough to make a rich, thick creamy sponge.  It is best to have the batter thicker as it will thin down while working overnight.

If the Starter is too thin, throw in extra flour very, very slowly as to make a smooth creamy batter.

Cover.  Let the Starter “work” in a warm place, free from draughts.

Allow plenty of room for expansion as Sourdough, when “working”, can more than double in volume.  Keep Sourdough Starter at constant room temperature.  Extreme cold will cause the Sourdough to go “flat”.  Sudden heat will cause the Sourdough to begin to “work” and expand very quickly.



Now that you have yourself a start how do I keep it alive?

 The following is the direct results of the many ways I have learned to take care of my starter.

The one thing you must remember is that, “The Sourdough won’t spoil”. It will go flat and eventually die. It must be fed “FLOUR, SUGAR and WARM WATER”.

To start with the minimum size crock jar would be 1 Gallon anything less and you won’t have enough for a batch of biscuits. (I have a 5, 7, and 2-10 gallon crocks that I use on varies occasions) You won’t be making a full gallon of starter you will only use somewhere between ½ and ¾ of the container as it needs room to bubble, boil, ferment, and age.

I remember one cold day in the fall I was planning to cook up 3 or 4 dozen sourdough biscuits the next mornin’ fer breakfast, so I brought my crock of starter into the kitchen where it would be nice and warm and I knew the sourdough would work off nicely and it would be a nice silky smooth sponge to use in the biscuits. I loaded in the flour, sugar and water stirred it up, threw the cloth over the top and went to bed. I woke up the next morning to find that not only had it worked off to a silky smooth batter but it had bubbled it’s self over the top of the crock, across the cabinet, down the front of all the drawers and onto the kitchen carpet. What a mess. My wife explained very carefully to me that if I ever left the sourdough over night unattended on her kitchen cabinets I would have to go to the hospital to have the sourdough removed from where the sun never shines. So let me give you a precaution here. Since no one can predict how fast, how well, or how much the sourdough is going to work. “Put it in the kitchen sink if you are going work up a batch over night” If it bubbles over the top a least you only have to clean up the sink, Wife is happier also.


Cranking up your Sourdough  starter

Feed it, add enough flour sugar and water to ¾ fill the crock. (The rule of thumb being 1 cup flour 1 cup warm water and 1tsp sugar.) Stir it as best you can the first time it will look lumpy don’t worry about it here as it will become smooth as it works off. Stir it with your wooden spoon (nothing metal is allowed in the crock it will give a metal taste to it and ruin the starter.) Rinse the wooden spoon off each time as dried starter is like concrete and is very difficult to clean off. Next set it in a fairly warm location cover the top with a cloth , something like cheese cloth.. In about 1 hour take the cloth off, look to see if it has started to bubble. It has and that is good. Now with the wooden spoon stir it vigorously,  (It loves to be stirred) Cover it again then again, in about an hour check it and stir again. The sponge should be working very nicely now. If you are going to use it the next morning I like to take a string and tie it around the cloth at the top of the crock. This will let it breath and keep it from coming completely out of the crock over night without too much mess in the sink.

The next morning remove the cover, looking inside the sponge will be solid bubbles. With your spoon stir it until it is smooth. Here with your spoon lift a little out and let it run off the end, it should be a little thicker than buttermilk but not as thick as say a pancake batter. If the sponge is too thick add a little warm water, If it is to thin add small amounts of flour, stirring continually too much too soon will cause lumps in the starter and at this point it would ruin the mornin biscuits. As time goes along and you work with the sponge you will learn how to control the consistency of it.

Most of the time in a warm climate the freshly fed starter will need about 10 hours to work and become smooth enough to use.


Situation: Your not going to use the starter for a week!

Add the normal amount ingredients and stir it. Let the sponge work for 2 hours then cover the mouth of the crock with your cloth and tie it down with your string, Sit the crock in a regular dinner plate put it in the refrigerator. It will keep about 10 to 12 days. This time when you take it out it will have made about 1 inch of “Whey” This is what the Chuckwagon cooks would drink when on the trail and there was no whiskey to be had. You can taste it or Me, I have had me a right smart shot of it. I guess it would be better then nothing if you had been on the cattle trail for a month or so But I’m here to tell you it doesn’t compare to a drink of real whiskey.

Anyway don’t I repeat DON”T pour it off, stir it back into the sponge. This is when the starter really gets the best flavor. After you have stirred till its smooth you will need to dip out about 2 cups of the sponge to make room to feed it and to get it out of being dormant.

Here’s what you do. The crock is very cold so in a container that is large enough for it to sit in and at least deep enough to cover the bottom ½ of the crock with warm water gently place the crock in the tub and fill it with enough warm water to cover the bottom  ½ to ¾ of the crock. Now stir in 1-cup flour, ¼ cup sugar and 1 cup of warm water. (No that’s not an error we need the extra sugar here to revive the dormant sponge.) Stir it until it’s smooth. Now add more hot water to the tub as we need to warm up that cold crock. Now add 1 cup flour 1 tsp. sugar 1 cup warm water and stir vigorously again. Now just lay your cloth top over the crock and let it set. In about 30 minuets. Replace the now cool water in the tub with more warm water. Stir the sponge again. Let it rest this time for 1 hour. Again replace the water in the tub with warm water. This time look at the sponge it should have started to make small bubbles, Stir it again and let it work for about 3 hours. By this time the sponge should be really working. “Hey what if it isn’t? Get your self a small package of Fleischmann’s dry yeast completely dissolve it in a ½ cup of warm water and stir it in.

For those of you who want to keep with the old ways simply slice up 2 Irish potatoes and stir them into the sponge. In 2 or 3 days the sponge again will be working, In 4 days take your wooden spoon and fish out the potatoes and discard them. One of those puppies in your biscuit might make a cowboy question the cook.


Lets say you're not going to use the starter for a month or two.

This is a real tricky situation, If you're not careful you can lose your starter here. I also need to prepare you in advance that what you see in the crock at the end of 2 months will not be for the light hearted. I suggest that you get yourself another crock to set this test batch off in so as not to lose your starter in case you decide not to revive it after a couple of months. I have kept one for these in my refrigerator for over 6 month and revived it. So it can be done if you give it enough food to live on. Here we go!

From your original starter take 2 cups of starter and pour into the new crock. Now add 3 cups flour, ½ cup sugar and 1 cup cool water. Stir this up. It should become like a dough ball. At this point add  1 cup flour, 1-tsp sugar, 1 cup cool water stir it up again. The sponge should start to become a little thinner. Here is the tricky part start adding warm water about ½ cup at a time until the sponge becomes stiff but still able to stir it. It is very hard to explain this consistency I would compare it to plaster mud just before you put it on a wall.  

            Take a cheese cloth and fold it double , laying this over the opening of the crock ,using a good heavy string securely tie the cheese cloth down. Now you can set the Crock in that dinner plate and put it in the refrigerator. A place it won’t be disturbed.



2 Months have passed

Have ready to use before you open the crock of starter;

2 wooden spoons, 2 glass soup bowls, a garbage can or sack nearby, your gona need it!

The best place to work is the kitchen sink that is if your wife is gone.

Set the crock in the sink and remove the cheese cloth. When you  look inside don’t run it will be OK. Your going to see a crusty top with some mold on it, that’s OK.

With your wooden spoon gently around the edge push the crust down just enough to break it loose as you must remove and discard  it with out letting too much of the crust drop into the whey underneath. Once this is removed gently pour off the whey into one of the soup bowls. Set it aside as you are going to add some of it back to the sponge. Set the crock back into the sink, now in the bottom you will see a beautiful white sponge , it will be about the consistency of biscuit dough. With both spoons remove as much of the sponge as you can careful not to get anything in it from the side of the crock. Put this into the other bowl and set it aside. You will need at least 1 cup of the sponge, 2 if you can get it.

Now you need to clean up the crock. This is best done by rinsing out as much of the sourdough as you can and then fill the crock to the brim with warm water and let set for about thirty minutes, It’s much easer to clean out after it’s had time to soften up. Never use soap in the crock just use hot water.

Now that the crock is clean dump the sponge into it, add 1 cup warm water and stir until it is smooth. Carefully now off the top of the bowl of whey scoop 4 or 5 tbs. And stir this into the sponge. It’s ready to come alive and go to work for you. Add 2 cups flour ¼ cup sugar 2 cups warm water. Stir it up cover it, set it in a warm place and in about an hour check it and stir it. I’m sure it’s starting to work. from here you will treat it is a working sponge. Just like the start we used in the beginning.

Good luck I hope you will be the one to keep this original Sourdough Alive and well always remember, “ Feed it and keep alive”



Here are a few

Sourdough Hints

For quick reference


  1. Remember—Sourdough will not spoil!  It is wild yeast that ferments.  It does demand attention to keep it working, however.
  2. Should your Starter separate, with the “whey” coming to the top, just add flour and stir to a smooth batter again.
  3. When ready to use your Starter, dip what you need for your recipe out of the Sourdough Crock and into you mixing bowl (not a metal one).  Do not mix your recipe in the Sourdough Crock or you won’t have any Starter left to build a new supply.
  4. Always leave about 1 cup of Starter to build with.  If you accidentally use all of your Starter, don’t panic.  Just simply scrape down the sides of your Crock, add 1 cup flour, 1 cup warm water, 1 tsp sugar and 1 yeast cake.  There will be enough to start the Sourdough to working again.  Remember to stir until smooth.
  5. Never try to extend your Starter by adding flour the same day you are mixing it to bake-you will get doughy-textured Sourdoughs.
  6. The night before you need to use your Starter, add 1 cup flour, 1 cup warm water and 1 tsp sugar to build up the quantity of Starter.  This allows the Sourdough to work at least 10 hours before baking, removing most of the starch and leaving a protein food.  For larger amounts of Sourdough Starter simply add your fuel in multiples of 1 cup flour, 1 cup warm water and 1 tsp sugar.
  7. Sugar is used to make the Sourdough work, not as a sweetener.  Rule of thumb:  for every cup of flour you add to your starter, add 1 tsp of sugar.
  8. Soda is a leavening agent.  Always add the soda at the very last minute before baking so that the air remains in your batter.  You will bake fluffy, light Sourdoughs.
  9. Take a little care when storing your Sourdough Starter.  Never seal your Sourdough Crock.  Keep it loosely covered with a heavy cloth.  Sourdough needs to breathe and expand.  Sealed in a jar, without room for expansion, it could “explode” all over your kitchen ceiling.  Never keep Sourdough in a tight container.

If your Starter is not in constant use, you may store it in the refrigerator or cooler.  It will become “dormant” and the whey will rise to the top.  Don’t remove this when you are ready to use the Starter, but rather, stir it back in.  The Starter will become extra delicious.  Remember to take your Starter out of the refrigerator at least one day before you are ready to use it to get the Sourdough working again.  Add flour, warm water and sugar and keep warm.



Sourdough Sunday Cherry Cobbler

1 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 cups sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup butter 
1/2 cup pecans, chopped
1/2 cup sourdough starter
1 can water packed pitted cherries
  • Pour cherries into a 12 inch Dutch oven.

  • Add 1 1/2 cups of the sugar along with 1/4 cup of the flour.

    Mix well and cook over live coals until the juice becomes thick.  Set aside a few minutes but keep warm while mixing the remainder of the ingredients. Combine the remaining flour, sugar and cinnamon, cut in butter. Stir in pecans and starter.  Spoon this over the top of the cherries and place the Dutch oven back in coals. Cover, place hot coals on lid and let bake. After the top begins to brown slightly, lift lid and with a sharp knife punch a few holes in the top.  This will let the cherry juice bubble up through the holes enough to make the cobbler more attractive.  After the top has reached a golden brown, sprinkle about 3 tbsp. sugar over the top and place the lid back on for about 1 minute, then remove the Dutch from the coals.  Serve hot!

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