Bringing Back An Art Form:  An Old Family Recipe for Homemade Sourdough Bread

by Courtney S.

For Advanced Composition, ETSU, April 2009


About the Author:  Courtney Shipley is a junior English major at ETSU.  She has been working in the kitchen since she was seven-years old when she started helping and learning as her mother cooked.  She now frequently cooks old family recipes as well as new concoctions of her own.



            It is a culinary necessity.  It is stuffed with meat and cheese for sandwiches, it is cubed up and mixed with all sorts of goodies for stuffing, it is dried and made into crumbs to coat meat with, and it is what forms the base of the iconic and well-loved pizza.  It comes in many different forms; wheat, rye, sweet breads filled with fruit, bagels, buns, the list could be endless.  Anybody can go to their local grocery store and find a whole aisle dedicated to bread, and just about every city across the country has a bakery such as Panera Bread where people can go and buy all sorts of specialty loafs. 

            However, for the bigger part of human history, people have had to make their own bread instead of being able to run to the store.  In today’s world, though, bread-making seems to have become a lost art-form.  It has become something that’s left to the “professionals” rather than attempted at home, but I think everyone should know how to make bread.  Sure it is convenient to be able to pick up a loaf at the store or just to buy those frozen biscuits and pop them in the oven, but every once in awhile it is nice to be able to enjoy a fresh warm homemade roll or slice of bread straight from the oven. 

            So, in an attempt to spread the desire for good homemade bread, I am going to share a family recipe for sourdough bread.  This recipe is a family tradition, something that is close to my heart, and something that I want to share.  It is a recipe that may seem somewhat daunting to you the first time you try it, especially if you have never made bread before.  However, after you try the recipe two or three times, the process becomes relatively simple.  From start to finish, the recipe takes between 60 and 62 hours, however the majority of that time is waiting.  The time of actual work involved, including the baking time, is around 40 to 50 minutes.

The History of Sourdough

            Before discussing the process of making the bread, however, I want to share some interesting information about the history of sourdough bread.  The use of sourdough is first recorded around 1500 B.C. in Egypt.  Sourdough is the most original form of leavened bread, or rather bread that has yeast in it so that it rises rather than just bakes in a tough, flat shape.  Basically, yeast is bacteria that eat carbohydrates and turn them into alcohol and, more importantly to bread makers, carbon dioxide, which helps bread rise.






The first form of sourdough was probably discovered by accident.  This could have happened in a couple of different ways: 

            1)  Wild yeasts actually live in the air, so any mixture of ground grain and water or milk that is left out will have these wild yeasts settle into it.  As mentioned before, the yeasts give off carbon dioxide which causes the dough to rise by forming bubbles that get trapped inside of the bread forming little holes throughout.  Also, when the yeasts eat the natural sugars (carbohydrates) in the dough, they convert them to lactic acid and give the dough a sour flavor, which is where we get the name “sourdough” bread (History of Sourdough).

            2)  The ancient Egyptians also brewed alcohol.  The brewery was often in the same location as the bakery, so the yeast given off by the alcohol could have settled in the bread, or some adventurous baker could have just mixed some of the fermented alcohol in with his bread dough.

            However the discover came about, the ancient Egyptians soon learned that they could work with different strains or types of yeast, called cultures until they found one that made bread rise and taste the best.  They also found that when they baked the bread, they could save a little piece of the raw dough and it would not go bad as long as they added flour to it.  They could use this piece of raw dough the next time they baked so that the bread would taste the same.  This raw dough became known as sourdough starter.  This starter became very important to bread making, and explorers would take some starter with them as they traveled the globe.  Eventually sourdough made its way to the Americas as European immigrants brought their family’s starter with them as they crossed the sea.


A Family Tradition

            My mom knows how to cook.  She, like I, has lived in the Tri-Cities her entire life.  She was raised in Jonesborough by her grandfather and grandmother, a woman who had raised 12 children of her own before my mother came along.  After rearing 12 children, you can bet my great-grandmother knew how to cook good Southern meals big enough to feed the whole neighborhood, and as she raised my mother she passed this knowledge on to her.  So I grew up eating home-cooked meals every week and learning traditional family recipes from my mom.  One such recipe is sourdough bread.  For as long as I can remember, my mother has baked loaves of sourdough bread for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Even now I can imagine the smell of the bread baking in the oven filling the whole house, and I can imagine the taste of a fresh-from-the-oven slice of it slathered in butter and homemade strawberry preserves.  Mom always makes tons of it for the holiday dinners, as well as extra loaves to give to friends and family members as gifts.  Her recipe for sourdough bread is one that was passed on to her from her grandmother and one that I plan to pass on to my children and grandchildren.  And it all starts with, what else?, the sourdough starter.

Starting With the Starter


Starter Ingredients


¼ oz. package of yeast


2 cups of warm water


½ cup of instant potato flakes


½ cup of sugar


1 teaspoon of salt


Starter Directions


1)  Dissolve the yeast in half of the water (1 cup).  It is important that the water be warm so that the yeast will completely dissolve.

2)  After the yeast is dissolved, add the remaining water as well as the rest of the ingredients, and mix well. 

3)  Put this into a mason jar, cover it loosely with plastic wrap, and store it at room temperature for at least 24 hours.  After this, you can store it in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it. 

















Building the Bread

Now that I have covered the starter, it is time to move on to the bread.  You will notice that in the following directions, I put the word “bread” flour in bold.  Many people do not bake and therefore do not know that there are several different types of flour.  The most common flours that you will find in the grocery store are all-purpose flour, self-rising flour, cake flour, and bread flour.  You may think it is fine just to use all-purpose flour if you do not have bread flour on hand, but it’s not.  Go to the store and get some bread flour, otherwise you could ruin the bread.

Sourdough Bread Ingredients


¼ cup of sugar


½ cup of oil (vegetable or canola)


6 cups of bread flour


1 cup of sourdough starter


1 ½ cups hot tap water


Nonstick spray




Bread Directions

1)  Mix all of the ingredients together well with your hands.   

2)  Place the resulting dough in a large bowl that has been greased with butter or nonstick spray.  Cover it with aluminum foil and let it rise for 20-24 hours at room temperature.

3)  Before you remove the dough from the bowl, beat the dough down.  Then turn it out onto wax paper and divide it into 3 equal portions. 

4)  Spray 3 bread pans with nonstick spray and place the dough in the pans.  Cover the pans with aluminum foil and let the dough set overnight. 

5)  The next morning, bake at 350° for about 30 minutes, until the tops are a golden brown. 

6)  After removing the bread from the oven, place the loaves on a cooling rack and rub the tops with butter.



The following pictures are examples of what your dough should resemble before you let it rise for 24 hours and after.

                        BEFORE                                                         AFTER

As you can see, the dough will significantly increase in size, so it’s important to have a large enough bowl.


Serving Suggestions and A Side of Encouragement

            You can serve this bread as a side for a meal, make sandwiches out of it, serve it with butter and fruit preserves for breakfast, and just about anything else that you can do with store bought bread.  Whatever you make, however, will taste much better with this homemade bread than with store bought which makes the work that goes into this recipe well worth it.

            If your bread ends up being less than a complete success the first time you try this recipe, please don’t be discouraged.  It generally takes most people two or three practice runs before their end product is a good one.  Thankfully, the ingredients for this recipe are not expensive at all, so it isn’t a big waste of money if you mess up a couple of times.

            I hope I’ve encouraged you to try this recipe out, as well as other bread recipes.  Basic cooking is something I think everyone should be able to do because not only is cooking fun and relaxing; it’s a valuable skill that you never know when you might need it.  And bread making is also something I think people should know how to do simply because fresh homemade bread is so much better than anything you can every get in a bakery.

Works Cited

“The History of Sourdough.”  21 March 2009.  <>.