Start up the sourdough for pancakes and more

Janice Buckner, of Fargo, North Dakota, has a personality that matches the sourdough starter she has kept alive for over 35 years — it bubbles.

I know, it’s hard to believe. Who has time to monkey around with a bubbling mixture of flour and milk, giving it regular feedings and making sure it has plenty of rest time on the kitchen counter?

I had my first conversation with sourdough queen, Janice Buckner, by phone. Her voice bubbled with enthusiasm as she told me about her mysterious sour substance that has produced coffee cakes that have made her famous with friends and co-workers over the years.

Janice Buckner received her starter from a friend when she lived in Idaho. It was over 98 years old at that time. When she and her husband moved to Fargo in 1976, the beloved living organism made the long car trip sealed tightly in a jar.

Friends and co-workers of the Buckner’s have enjoyed sourdough coffee cakes studded with berries or layered with apple slices to celebrate birthdays. Sourdough English muffins have been formed, baked and packaged in the Buckner kitchen for holiday gift-giving. Sourdough French Bread is a favorite accompaniment to meals served at the Buckner’s dining table.

According to Yvonne Young Tarr in the “New York Times Bread and Soup Cookbook,” the traditional sourdough starter of pioneer lore, which gold prospectors and lumberjacks utilized for making bread rise, is merely fermented dough made by combining equal amounts of flour and milk. When placed in a glass jar or ceramic bowl for several days and kept warm, the milk’s natural organisms launch a bacterial fermentation action in the mixture. The starter will begin to bubble and sour, which you can see and smell, if all goes well. At this point the starter is ready to use. Store leftover starter in the refrigerator, covered. Be sure to restore the starter to its original volume each time you use some for baking. Add equal amounts of milk and flour to your depleted supply. Allow the starter and its added ingredients to remain overnight at room temperature to bubble and sour again.

If you want to make your own starter from scratch, pour 1 cup milk in a glass jar or ceramic bowl. Leave uncovered at room temperature for 24 hours. Blend in 1 cup all-purpose flour. Set the uncovered mixture to rest in a warm spot, but not too warm, or no fermentation will take place. About 80 degrees F. is the correct temperature. Allow to stand for several days, or until it begins to bubble and sour. Cover and store in the refrigerator until ready for use. Sourdough starter improves with age, but try to use it at least once a week, and restore it to its original volume each time you use it by adding equal amounts of milk and flour.

In 1973, the folks at Sunset perfected a process for developing a sourdough starter that included a little low-fat plain yogurt mixed in with the flour and milk. After a few days of incubation, bacteria in the yogurt multiply to give typical sour smell and flavor, and the starter is ready to use. You can get instructions for the Sunset method at this link: Sourdough Starter ’73.

Sourdough starter is available in some grocery and specialty stores or online at King Arthur Flour. A live starter and a dehydrated San Francisco Sourdough starter are available at Amazon.

I met Janice Buckner at her home for a sourdough starter tutorial. She took an afternoon break from her job at State Bank & Trust to teach me all I need to know to keep a portion of her ancient starter alive.

I learned sourdough starter should be kept in a glass container. No plastic allowed. Foreign bacteria could be hiding out in the plastic, with potential to kill the sourdough starter.

It’s not uncommon for liquid to form on the top of the starter. If it is relatively clear, it is normal. Just stir it back into the starter. If is is pink or orange — done. It’s contaminated. Time to start over.

Use metal utensils when working with the starter. Keep wooden spoons and rubber spatulas in the drawer. They can breed foreign bacteria that is not good for healthy starter.

Healthy sourdough starter will be full of bubbles. When you leave it on the counter, be sure to use a glass bowl that allows plenty of room for growth.

Starter should be fed with equal amounts of flour and skim milk at least once a week. Each time you remove some of the starter to use for baking or sharing, replace it with equal amounts of flour and milk. The starter will be have a thick consistency, similar to pancake batter.

Her obsession with the fermenting concoction prompts Buckner to keep an extra jar or two of starter in the refrigerator. This allows for  a backup in case, heaven forbid, some starter dies. It also allows her to have some starter ready to share if anyone is interested. Unfortunately, she hasn’t had many takers.

She’s had many requests for her coffee cake recipe. Once the cake-lovers find out they need to have some of the sourdough starter, they quickly lose interest. One person who eagerly took a jar of the starter said, “I feel like I have a new pet!”

I’ve had my new pet for over 2 weeks. It’s still alive. I’ve made Janice Buckner’s famous sourdough coffee cake with apple slices layered over the top. You can get that recipe in my column this week.

I’ve made sourdough pancakes. They are light and fluffy with just a slight tang that pairs well with butter and honey or maple syrup.

Next up on my sourdough to-do list is Sourdough French Bread.

A whole new baking world has opened up in my kitchen. Sourdough starter is the start of many good things — as long as you keep it alive. I must keep this living beneficial bacteria-loving, bubbling fermentation alive. Janice Buckner and her husband will be moving to Maine at the end of this month. A tightly sealed jar of sourdough starter will make the long car trip to its new home.

A trip to Maine for more starter could be an option for me — but, only if I catch the sourdough starter obsession from Janice Buckner.

Sourdough Pancakes

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil
  • 1 cup sourdough starter that has been sitting on counter overnight
  • 1 egg, beaten with a fork
  • Milk to thin

Sift flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt into glass mixing bowl. Use a fork to mix in oil. The mixture will be crumbly. Add sourdough starter and mix lightly. Add beaten egg and stir to blend. Add milk until mixture is proper consistency for pancakes. Pour onto lightly greased hot griddle. Cook until bubbles form on batter and edges are cooked. Flip and cook until pancakes are brown and cooked completely. Makes about 8 (5- to 6-inch) pancakes.






13 thoughts on “Start up the sourdough for pancakes and more

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your reporting on this decades old starter. Isn’t Jan a great teacher, baker, and all around knowledgeable home economist? She’ll love Maine, Maine will love her! I was so energized to hear of her persistence and care for what really is a science project! She and Jim will be missed in Fargo! Thanks Sue; great column!

    • Janice Buckner was right, Candace. Having some starter on hand is fun. I’ve got a loaf of Sourdough French Bread rising on my counter right now.

  2. Pingback: Sourdough Pancakes and Recipe Roundup | The Heavy Table - Minneapolis-St. Paul and Upper Midwest Food Magazine and Blog

  3. I am not one to ask….normally. I could not contain myself when I saw this article! I have been trying to make a good starter…this summer was my third summer, using various recipes, researched “old” starter recipes from old bread cookbooks. The result….a very pale result compared to the Sourdough in San Francisco. I think what has failed me is that my starter is too young; old starters have had the chance to develop its flavor and the much-sought after distinctly sour/tangy taste. So, ashamedly, I ask, can I please have some of your starter?

    • Mae, I want to help you and I am willing to share. At the top of my blog you will find an About that you can click on. You will find my email address there. Contact me by email and we can try to work something out for you.

  4. I’m not sure that we in Minnesota can actually achieve an authentic “San Francisco sourdough”, because we don’t have the same wild yeasts in the air, which also contribute to any sour dough starter. However, I am sure we can have a truely Minnesotan sourdough no matter where it came from…mine hails from my uncle in Florida and makes AWESOME rye bread!

    • Tamie, I actually like my Minnesota sourdough from North Dakota from Idaho more than authentic San Francisco sourdough, which is a bit too sour for my taste. The older the sourdough, no matter where it is growing, the more flavorful it becomes. That means in Minnesota, there is still hope for flavorful and aromatic sourdough. I’ll bet your sourdough rye is amazing!

  5. Thanks again, Sue for such a great article(s). I just read your column on my favorite sour dough bread recipe! I haven’t made it for a long time, but am now inspired to try it again with your method to introduce moisture! Fargo friends are calling for a start. The young people where I work have been feeding the start that I gave them. This weekend one young woman is taking it home to feed it and then make the pancakes which looked yummy. She told me that one of the young men on her team cautioned her to be careful and not break the jar. So much fun! This all makes me happy!

  6. Thanks for the great article. I love baking with sourdough starter and tried Janice Buckner’s Sourdough Coffee Cake. It was very good although I would suggest using a “deep” 9 inch baking pan. Would certainly make again with a different size pan.

    • Sounds like you’ve got a very healthy sourdough starter, Mollie. I’m glad to hear you’ve had a chance to try Janice Buckner’s recipe for Sourdough Coffee Cake that was in my column. It’s a tasty way to enjoy apples this time of year.

  7. Just made these for dinner. So tasty! I used a turbinado sugar and rye flour. They turned out very dense and took a while to cook, but it was worth it. I also thinned them out with sunflour milk and subbed applesauce for oil. I will certainly make these again. Nice story and great recipe!

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