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Alaska and how to cheat at sour dough

January 16, 2011

Loaf on tray

There couldn’t be much more of a contrast between Alaska and Dubai.  Think vast open spaces to high-rise, cold in the extreme versus baking sun up to 50C, mountains compared with flat desert, food caught and foraged for in the wild opposed to a reliance on imports from around the world.  While walking my dogs on a patch of desert the other day I met a visitor from Alaska and she urged a visit ‘especially if you like hiking’ – I nearly booked my ticket then and there.  While I revel in many of the things that city life has to offer I adore wide open or remote spaces without light pollution, no sign of civilisation and where the sound of the wind and wildlife is all you can hear.

trekking in Alaska

I wish this was me. (Image courtesy of LiveTravelMountains)

There are some very wild parts of Alaska indeed as I found out by listening to actress Imogen Stubbs on Excess Baggage (the podcast is still available at time of writing).  She is drawn to the Alaskan wilderness and recounted her experiences there with the vast distances, the extreme weather and the danger from encounters with bears.  She stayed at the Ultima Thule lodge which means ‘remote beyond reckoning’.

No one goes to Alaska for the food – you go for the beauty of the landscape, the wilderness and the wildlife – but I didn’t eat badly either. My advice on the food front is to just eat at any eccentric bar or diner you might come across on your travels that’s run by a crazy woman and is full of oddballs, and chat to some of the local characters, who all have such tales to tell.   It’s great fishing country, too. I remember flying over a river teeming with salmon, which probably explains how I was able to catch two 34lb salmon, even though I’d never fished in my life. – Imogen Stubbs

Self sufficiency and relying on the fruits of the wilderness form the backbone of Alaskan cooking.  Seafood especially salmon, halibut and king crab, game such as moose, caribou, elk and reindeer and wild berries.

Apparently “sourdough” is slang for a person who lives in Alaska and this started during the Klondike Gold Rush when everyone kept a pot of sourdough starter in their kitchens. By “feeding” the starter with a little new flour every few days they kept the wild yeast alive so they could bake bread whenever they wanted. I read that people used to take their starter to bed with them to keep it from freezing overnight.

Top of loaf

When looking for an Alaskan-inspired recipe I did not want to cook salmon.  I choose to eat farmed salmon about once or twice a year due to the chemical content and wild or organic salmon is hard to obtain here in Dubai (not to mention the taste compared to wild line-caught salmon).  Sour dough using a proper fermented starter is something that I’ve been meaning to make but haven’t been organised enough to keep it going.  The nutritional and digestive benefits of sour dough – and the taste of course – are better than ordinary bread and explained in detail in this post by Artistta. There are good step by step instructions from Belleau Kitchen too.

But if you want a good alternative before your sour dough starter is up and running, my ‘go-to’ recipe for bread making is from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s River Cottage Everyday (and if you have a KitchenAid or machine with a dough hook I’ve honed the process of his cheaty yeasty sponge loaf to make it even easier).  It gives a terrific texture and relies on using a ‘sponge’ so you use less yeast than normal.  Just measure out a few ingredients the night before, visit it a few times next morning and you can have a warm loaf with a proper crust and a great texture for lunch.  If you have a KitchenAid or food processor with a dough hook follow the instructions under the images.

I ‘visited’ Alaska as part of Foodalogues’ Culinary Tour around the world.  Joan has taken us to Panama, and next we are off to Turkey. Visit Foodalogue for a round-up of other recipes inspired by this virtual visit to Alaska.

Cheat’s sour dough or sponge loaf – adapted from River Cottage Everyday


500g strong white bread flour (or half and half plain flour and wholemeal bread flour)
325ml warm water (preferably bottled spring water)
10g fresh yeast or 5g dried yeast or fast-action yeast
10g fine sea salt


  1. Combine 250g of the flour with the fast-action yeast if using it, otherwise dissolve the fresh or dried yeast in the warm water.  Beat the water into the flour to form a thick batter.  Cover with cling film and leave to ferment overnight.
  2. The next morning add the rest of the flour and the sea salt.  Knead for 10 minutes on a floured work surface (or in your machine fitted with a dough hook).
  3. Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and give it a turn to lightly coat it all over.  Cover the bowl with oiled cling film or put the bowl into a very large plastic bag (like a clean bin bag).  Leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size which will take one to two hours.
  4. Knock back and shape (I form it into a loose ball and put it in a lightly floured tea towel inside a bowl).  Leave to rise again for about an hour.
  5. While it is rising for the second time heat your oven to 250C or its highest limit if lower.  Five minutes before you are ready to cook the loaf put a baking tray into the oven to heat up.
  6. Lightly flour the baking tray (or put a sheet of non-stick foil onto it).  Carefully tip the loaf out of the proving basket or bowl onto the tray so it lands upside down i.e. the rounded side uppermost.  I like to use my very sharp carving knife to make slashes across the top.  You could also cut it with scissors to make a pattern.
  7. Put the baking tray and loaf into the oven on the middle shelf and immediately after give a few squirts from a spray water bottle over and around it.  Alternatively put a roasting tray full of boiling water on the shelf underneath it.
  8. After 15 minutes, reduce the heat of the oven to 200C and give another squirt of water from the spray.  Leave to cook for another 25-30 minutes.  The loaf should be well-browned and sound hollow when the base is tapped.  Cool on a wire rack for 20 minutes or more before slicing.

Cheats sour dough or sponge loaf – Printable version

Bread and jam

Have you ever been to Alaska?  Since ‘visiting’ on this tour it’s one of the places in the world I’d like to travel to most.  What did you do?  What did you eat?! Where in the world would you like to go to?

  1. January 16, 2011 11:31 pm

    This looks and sounds great. Do you think it would be possible to make rolls instead of a whole loaf of bread?
    Thanks for the recipe and great instructions!
    I’ve never been to Alaska… Asia would be my choice when it comes to travelling far.

    • January 17, 2011 9:10 am

      I’ve not tried making rolls with this type of dough but I think they would work. They might not turn out to be round and perfect, probably a little flatter than normal. Bake them for slightly less time too. Let me know if you try it and how it works out. I like putting fresh, chopped rosemary into rolls – the scent and flavour is fantastic.

  2. January 16, 2011 11:31 pm

    Great post! I love the insight you brought to this destination and the comparisons you drew between Alaska and Dubai. And I’m very impressed with your bread-making skills.

    • January 17, 2011 9:07 am

      Thanks Joan, enjoyed visiting with you.

  3. bellini permalink
    January 17, 2011 5:51 am

    Sourdough is certainly a well known anchor of Alaskan cuisine. It turns out that a sourdough is a Yukon/Alaskan old-timer. Instead I’m a cheechako, a newbie to sourdough breadbaking.

  4. January 17, 2011 7:12 am

    I’ve always wanted to visit Alaska for its pristine coast line, landscape and amazing wild King salmon. I had no idea that sourdough bread was such an integral part of Alaskan life. This bread looks wonderful.

  5. January 17, 2011 7:46 am

    That looks fantastic, love making bread so will give it a go over the weekend:) I have always wanted to vist Alaska after watching the series Northern Exposure in my teens………ok, I know it wasnt real, but it looked like an interesting place to visit!

    • January 17, 2011 9:07 am

      Plum Kitchen, Christine and Bellini, thanks for dropping by. It seems that Alaska draws us all.

  6. January 17, 2011 7:52 am

    I hope you didn’t stay up and bake all night after you got home!
    I’ve never made my own bread – it seems like too much work for something that is easily bought well. Is it really, truly worth it?

    • January 17, 2011 9:05 am

      As they say Sarah, this was one I made earlier. Bread making, for me, is definitely worth it. The taste is great, you know exactly what goes into it (bleaching agents and dough improvers are used extensively in UAE bakeries) and, cliche warning, it’s good for the soul. I feel so satisfied, no make that extremely smug, if I’ve made a loaf and serve it still warm from the oven to the teens when they return from school. With a dough hook it’s hardly work – or kneading by hand is a great way to release stress and prevent bingo wings.

  7. January 17, 2011 10:36 am

    Oh yum. That last shot with the jam on it, makes me want to get up and make this now. Long ago, I was staff (a server) for a small cruiseline that ran cruises out of Junea. By cruising on a small boat (max passangers 140), we were able to get into some narrower spots that the big boats can’t. It was amazing- we saw everything from whales to bears, to eagles, seals, and much more. What struck me was how exaggerated the landscape was- sharp jutting mountains meeting a clear jade ocean with nearly no beach. The dungeness crab was memorable (and heavy to carry 6-8 at a time to eager patrons), and smoked wild-caught salmon is…well…unbeatable. There was always a Russian twist on the cuisine too, which was definitely interesting and unexpected (to me). Indeed, this is a place to add to your bucket list!

  8. January 17, 2011 10:53 am

    There cannot be anything in the world better than home baked bread! 1) I simply have to get my bread machine repaired and 2) I will have to start making hand made loaves. Thanks for the inspiration Sally!

  9. January 17, 2011 1:26 pm

    That sour dough loaf looks wonderful, I have never tried anything like that before. I will look forward to watching the culinary tour, I am following it on a couple of blogs.

  10. January 17, 2011 1:52 pm

    Haven’t been to Alaska, but up for a cheat bread! Wow!! Great post!

  11. January 17, 2011 1:57 pm

    I LOVE sourdough! I do like to bake, but for some reason baking bread always seemed so laborious. Thanks for breaking down the steps. I will have to get over my fear of bread and try this sometime.

  12. January 17, 2011 5:06 pm

    Now I want to go to Alaska too! I had never really considered it before. Isn’t it amazing how evocative food can be? I love this foodalogue idea.

  13. January 17, 2011 5:08 pm

    I’ve heard so much about sourdough bread but have never tried it myself because of ow complicate dit’s supposed to be. But, hey, you make it sound so easy! Looks great! I have a breadmaker so less work for my arms too!

    • January 17, 2011 8:00 pm

      Edwina and Sukaina – such a pleasure to meet you both the other night. Breadmakers….hmmm…I’m not a fan and personally think you can make a loaf just as easily without one. If you make the dough in one that’s fine but the secret of good bread is to put it directly into a very hot oven. I can’t see how having the dough sitting in the breadmaker warming up to the baking temperature can give it the right texture. It’s always warm enough to prove bread here in Dubai too. In fact when my friend’s house was too cold because of a/c she put her dough outside in the car!

  14. January 17, 2011 5:23 pm

    What a beautiful post. My husband is a sourdough lover and I am a lousy baker, but I got inspiration from this post and I might surprise him. Usually when I try to make bread it can be sold as a weapon. Great Tout and see you in Turkey

  15. January 17, 2011 5:30 pm

    What a truly fabulous loaf of bread and I love the step by step photos! Whenever I want to try something new I pray that someone will show me how it should look at every step and you do. Gorgeous! And yes, Alaska has been in the news quite a lot these past couple of years, for the good and bad, but it is a stunningly beautiful country and one worth visiting. I love the restaurant recommendation rules to follow. My husband has a rule of thumb when looking for restaurants in Italy: follow the police… wherever they stop for lunch you are sure to find a mamma in the kitchen cooking good Italian home food like they get at their own house!

    • January 17, 2011 7:57 pm

      Thanks Jamie – Anna del Conte said something like ‘the Italians like the same food but cooked better and better’. I like the philosophy of great simple food rather than the search for novelty (and the tip to follow a policeman!). Stunning macarons by the way.
      Norma – do try this loaf, it’s not really sour dough but the low yeast content and overnight development of the sponge gives a texture and taste that is superior. Let me know what your husband thinks if you do.

  16. January 17, 2011 6:59 pm

    Thank you so much for the step by step photos – really helpful.

    I’m off to get baking!

  17. January 17, 2011 7:37 pm

    Lovely. I adore the way you scored the top of the loaf. It is incredibly rustic in nature. I am going to give this a whirl

  18. January 17, 2011 11:16 pm

    I think I might give this a go, it seems like a halfway between the no-knead bread and a standard dough. Looks lovely and crusty. I like you step by step pictures…makes it very tempting!

  19. January 18, 2011 1:56 am

    The bread looks fabulous! I can’t wait until I try making sourdough 🙂

  20. January 19, 2011 10:58 pm

    Great photo tutorial! Thanks for taking the time and photographing all the stages of your bread making. And hey, are these Alaskan berries in your jam :))
    It was good to be in Alaska with you and see you in turkey!

    • January 20, 2011 7:03 am

      Actually raspberries – sadly not from Alaska!

  21. January 19, 2011 11:33 pm

    Alaska is also on our list. Sounds like am RV trip summer vacation.
    What a great looking bread. Isn’t it best still warm with butter and marmelade? I am a chicken with bread baking because of our altitude.

  22. ackyart permalink
    January 20, 2011 2:32 am

    Sourdough and its connection with Alaska are really new for me. What an interesting post! wonderful also your photo tutorial! See you in Turkey!

  23. January 20, 2011 5:57 pm

    I haven’t been to Alaska…but do want to go. That shot of you is so beautiful and serene! The sourdough looks amazing…and I’m thinking taking your starter to bed with you gives food porn a whole new meaning. Ha! Anyway…totally delicious 🙂

    • January 20, 2011 6:19 pm

      Sadly not me in the picture – just wishing it was! Not sure that sharing a bed with some frothy dough is much of a turn-on!

  24. January 20, 2011 9:40 pm

    My goodness is that a thing beauty or what?! Your knife must be really sharp to make such nice slashes. I know ours only need a sharpening, but I’m thinking of getting a the razor that professional breadmakers use. Great post, photos and story of Alaska — sadly I have nothing (yet) to add to the latter.



  25. January 21, 2011 12:12 am

    I would like to travel all around the world! Alaska isn’t really one of my first choices -I would like to start with closer destinations to Greece- but just because it is a distant place, its charm is greater!
    …And nothing tastes, smells and feels better than enjoying your own homemade bread -especially if it is made with sour dough!

  26. January 21, 2011 12:14 am

    Hi Sally and thank you for visiting. I am also very glad to meet you through our common friend, Joumana. The bread looks wonderful and I think I can even smell it through the screen.

  27. January 21, 2011 12:53 am

    Nice post and I did think it was you 🙂

    I have never been to Alaska and never did a sour dough bread.. and both are on my to do list. The bread looks fantastic!

  28. January 21, 2011 7:39 pm

    wow! that is one good looking bread. you did an amazing job.. i really love how perfect it look. thank you for sharing this.

  29. January 22, 2011 5:42 am

    Alaska never tempted me until this post; I tend to shy away from cold, preferring warm spots with nice beaches; but clean air and eccentric women running cafés, now that sounds fun!
    Love this bread you made and I am keeping the recipe; sounds doable and very, very good!

  30. cinzia permalink
    January 22, 2011 11:02 am

    this bread is fantastic and so warmly comfortable thinking of wide wild extreme Alaskan landscape, a perfect “liason”!
    have a nice w.e.!


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