Origins of Sourdough Bread and the Gold Mining Connection

From "Food of the

Gold Rush," (PBS)

In the Encyclopedia of Food Microbiology Michael Gaenzle writes "The origins of bread-making are so ancient that everything said about them must be pure speculation. One of the oldest sourdough breads dates from 3700 BCE and was excavated in Switzerland, but the origin of sourdough fermentation likely relates to the origin of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent several thousand years earlier. Bread production relied on the use of sourdough as a leavening agent for most of human history; the use of baker's yeast as a leavening agent dates back less than 150 years."

Pliny the Elder described the sourdough method in his Natural History:

"Generally however they do not heat it up at all, but only use the dough kept over from the day before; manifestly it is natural for sourness to make the dough ferment."

Sourdough remained the usual form of leavening down into the European Middle Ages until being replaced by barm from the beer brewing process, and then later purpose-cultured yeast. In the southern part of Europe, where panettone was originally made with sourdough, sourdough has become less common in recent times; it has been replaced by the faster-growing baker's yeast, sometimes supplemented with longer fermentation rests to allow for some bacterial activity to build flavor.

French bakers brought sourdough techniques to Northern California during the California Gold Rush, and it remains a part of the culture of San Francisco today. The nickname remains in "Sourdough Sam", the mascot of the San Francisco 49ers.

Sourdough has long been associated with the 1849 gold prospector. The "celebrated" San Francisco sourdough is a white bread characterized by a pronounced sourness, and indeed the strain of lactobacillus in sourdough starters is named Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis.

The sourdough tradition was carried into Alaska and the western Canadian territories during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Conventional leavenings such as yeast and baking soda were much less reliable in the conditions faced by the prospectors. Experienced miners and other settlers frequently carried a pouch of starter either around their neck or on a belt; these were fiercely guarded to keep from freezing. However, freezing does not kill a sourdough starter; excessive heat does. Old hands came to be called "sourdoughs", a term that is still applied to any Alaskan or Klondike old-timer. The significance of the nickname's association with Yukon culture was immortalized in the writings of Robert Service, particularly his collection of "Songs of a Sourdough."


Excerpt from "Sourdough." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Mar. 2017. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.



Davidson, Alan (1999). The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 756–757. ISBN 0192115790.


Gaenzle, Michael (1 April 2014). "Sourdough Bread". In Batt, Carl. Encyclopedia of Food Microbiology (2nd ed.). Academic Press. p. 309. ISBN 978-0123847300.


Tannahill, Reay (1973). Food in History. Stein and Day. pp. 68–69. ISBN 0-8128-1437-1.


Pliny the Elder (1938). Natural History. Loeb Classics. p. 1.255.


Gobbetti, Marco; Gänzle, Michael (2012). Handbook on Sourdough Biotechnology. Springer. p. 6. ISBN 978-1-4614-5425-0.


Scott, Alan; Daniel Wing (1999). The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens. White River Junction (VT): Chelsea Green Publishing Company. pp. 34–230. ISBN 1-890132-05-5. Retrieved June 28, 2010.


Peters, Erica J. San Francisco: A Food Biography. Rowman & Littlefield, 2013, p. 189.


Fernald, Anya (November–December 2002). "Sourdough Baking" (34). Slow - The International Herald of Tastes. Retrieved June 18, 2010.

"The Dawson City Historical Complex commemorates the history of the Klondike, including the Gold Rush and the years that followed. Sourdough was an integral part of the harsh life of a miner during the Gold Rush. Sourdough starter was always available, either by borrowing some from a fellow miner or by starting one's own. Food was scarce in the Yukon and winters were long and lonely, so having some sourdough starter and a large bag of flour could greatly increase a miner’s quality of life.

Up in the Klondike today there are people who still share sourdough starter which originally came over the Chilkoot Trail. It’s a great living tradition to keep alive..." -Parks Canada

Miners learning to bake

in the Klondike.

© National Archives of Canada / H.J. Woodside Collection, PA-16141

Gold Rush Miners, 1900

Courtesy, The Sourdough School

Mining and Baking! Carrying on the tradition at Boldly Gold.