A few months ago I wrote about Carol’s favorite biscuit recipe, the Southern classic “Touch of Grace Biscuits”. This post is about sourdough biscuits. When we lived in West Texas, for several years I attended an annual all-male overnight fishing trip held by some rancher friends on the banks of one of the branches of the Brazos River running through a parcel of one of the legendary West Texas cattle ranches. Menus included classic ranch fare – grilled steaks, beans, fish (if we caught enough), hamburgers, barbecue of all sorts, and of course lots of beer. The highlight, though, was a chuck wagon breakfast. The cooks would arise before everyone else, stir up the fires that had been stoked for the night, and begin to cook huge slabs of sliced bacon and scrambled eggs in surplus Army ammunition cans set over the open fires. They also stirred up the dough for sourdough biscuits to be baked in old-fashioned spiders (three-legged Dutch ovens with flat lids) that would be buried in the coals of the campfires. This was a feast for a king, or at least some satisfied West Texas cowmen.
Three-legged spider Dutch oven
Sourdough biscuits need to be started the night before you serve them at a cowboy breakfast out on the range, so be sure to get things going before the libations and campfire stories move into full pace. Hopefully you will have a sourdough starter that you have been treasuring and “feeding” for a long time, but don’t despair if you don’t. You can start your own in a week or two before the cookout. Yeast is a fall back, but it is definitely not viewed with favor out on the ranch. Depending upon how many mouths there are to feed, you will need to increase the recipe. Allow for at least three apiece, because even modern cowboys are hungry. If you want to bake these at home, you don’t need to dig a fire pit, you can just use your oven. However, the instructions change a bit.
A pan full of biscuits about to go into the oven
Cowboy Sourdough Biscuits
Sourdough biscuits fresh out of the oven
½ Cup sourdough starter
1 Cup milk
2 ½ Cups all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
bacon grease from bacon cooked earlier (or 2 tablespoons of salad oil and 2 tablespoons of melted butter)
- The night before, dissolve the starter thoroughly in the milk. Be sure to use a large metal container that can be covered securely to keep out any varmints – human or otherwise – during the night.
- Thoroughly stir in one cup of flour, cover securely, and set in a warm place: not too close to the fire, but also not out in the cold night air.
- In the morning, combine the remaining 1½ cups of flour, salt, sugar, baking powder, and soda. Then add to the starter mixture from the night before, and using clean hands (!?), combine into a soft dough. Knead in the metal container for a few minutes and let rest.
- In the meantime, prepare the fire: quench any active flames and with a hoe or shovel pull the coals to the edge of the fire pit so that your spider or Dutch oven will fit easily into the hole.
- On a flat, lightly floured surface, pat the dough into a round about ½ inch thick. Then cut individual biscuits. If this is a high-class cookout use a 2½ inch biscuit cutter. Otherwise use your cleanest knife to cut 2 inch squares.
- Dip each biscuit in bacon grease and place it in the bottom of the cast iron pot until the pot is completely full. Put the lid on the pot and lower the whole thing into the prepared cooking pit using the bale attached to the pot and a hook or hoe.
- With the hoe or shovel, layer some of the coals on the top of the cast iron pot – enough to evenly cover the lid.
- Bake for about 30 to 35 minutes. It is very hard to check the baking, but you can try to remove the coals from the lid to check. Just remember to put them back on top if you bake some more. It is more likely that you will just have to take pot luck (so to speak), but my observation is that the usual crowd is just happy to get something to eat.
- If you are baking at home, dip each biscuit in melted bacon grease or a combination of oil and melted butter (bacon grease may be too strong a flavor for a home meal). Arrange the biscuits in a 10 inch cast iron frying pan. Bake in a preheated oven at 375° for 30 to 35 minutes.
- Serve immediately. Cold cowboy sourdough biscuits get as hard as a rock.
Yield: About 10 to 15 biscuits
Hot sourdough biscuits ready to eat
Sourdough starter bubbling and ready to use
Sourdough starter can last a long time if it is properly cared for. We got one from a neighbor in Utah nearly forty years ago. That starter subsequently traveled to Texas, back to Utah, on to Louisiana, back to Texas again, and now New Mexico. Starter can be easily kept out-of-the-way in a closed jar in the back of the refrigerator for years. If you haven’t used it for several months it will have to be revived before using it. If you can’t revive it, never mind. It is easy enough to start a new one. But don’t expect your friends to help. Years ago we gave a starter to my brother and his wife. They enjoyed it for some time and even gave some to their friends. Calamity struck and their jar of starter got thrown out when an unknowing individual cleaned out the refrigerator. When my sister-in-law asked her friend for a new starter batch, the “friend” refused! It’s always better to be independent of others. Sourdough is slower than commercial yeast so breads made with it often do not rise as much. For that reason, breads made with sourdough alone require a long rise or fermentation, but starter can still be used for flavoring. The most successful recipes are for biscuits, cornbread, pancakes, traditional country loaves, and French bread.
TRADITIONAL METHOD I
2 Cups milk
2 Cups all-purpose flour
- Mix the milk and flour together in a large ceramic bowl until smooth. Set uncovered in a warm kitchen for 2 to 5 days, stirring occasionally. When the mixture is bubbly and has a yeasty, sour smell, the starter is ready.
- Store well covered in a glass or ceramic container on the counter or in the middle of the refrigerator. Keep at least 3 cups on hand.
- Replenish by stirring in equal portions of milk and flour
TRADITIONAL METHOD II
1 Cup all-purpose flour
1 Cup water
- In a 4 cup or larger clear glass jar, mix the flour and water into a smooth paste. Set uncovered in a warm place. The kitchen is usually the best choice.
- Every day, check the mixture for bubbles, remove any tough skin that has formed on the top, pour off about half of the mixture, and add an additional ½ cup of flour and ½ cup of water, stirring to form a smooth paste.
- Repeat this process each day until the mixture is covered with bubbles and expands to double size or so. You should observe frequently during the day and evening because a good starter will eventually collapse from its own weight and lose volume.
- You will probably need to repeat the process for a week or more before you have established a good starter.
- After that, you should repeat the replenishment process for at least a couple of days before you plan to bake.
- You may store the starter in the refrigerator, but that is not necessary and even encourages less desirable things to grow and discolor the mix. If that happens, pour off the discolored top part, keeping just a few tablespoons of the starter to rejuvenate your stock.
2 Cups all-purpose flour
2 Cups water or milk
1 Tbsp sugar
½ pkg dry yeast
- Mix the flour, milk and sugar together into a smooth batter. Sprinkle the yeast over the surface and stir in. Allow to stand uncovered in a warm kitchen until the mixture is bubbly and with good aroma. The starter is ready.
- Store and replenish as above.
- If you have not used the starter for a long time, you may need to add milk and flour in equal amounts with a tablespoon of sugar, and let the mixture stand overnight before using.
A LITTLE SOMETHING EXTRA (IN LOUISIANA IT’S LAGNIAPPE)
Sarah and Evan cooking at one of their popular pop-up dinners
For those of you who have been wondering about Sarah and Evan’s restaurant, it is moving closer to reality. They have signed a lease on space at 199 Gough in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley. Now they are waiting on the liquor license before they start renovation and moving in. You can read all about the venture on Kickstarter and at the same time have an opportunity to participate in the project. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1777795794/rich-table