The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Ma’s Sourdough Doughnuts - Folkways - April, 1984

By John Beard © 1984

Issue: April, 1984

Back before I was born, Pa met Ma and Ma caught Pa. Pa says they had a “formal wedding”. I think that meant that Grandpa had his white shot gun. When they set up housekeeping in the hills, grocery stores were a might scarce. Fact was, they got to town only twice a year.

Because Pa liked his flapjacks, bread and biscuits and because store bought yeast wasn’t available, Ma had to rely on a yeast as old as bread making itself - a yeast called sourdough.

Now sourdough isn’t magic - it’s just a magic tasting natural yeast factory that you grow yourself. To make hers, Ma would boil potatoes for supper and save the water. When the water got lukewarm, she would mix together (4) four cups of flour, (2) two tablespoons salt, (2) two tablespoons sugar and (4) four cups of the lukewarm potato water in a crockery or glass dish. Then she’d cover it with a towel and let it set for three or four days until it got to smelling sour.

If that’s too much trouble, here’s a shortcut: mix two cups flour with a package of store bought yeast and stir in enough water to make a thick batter. Stir enough just to mix everything but not too much. Let it stand, like the other, till its ready.

The resultant mixture is called sourdough starter and can be used in any of several thousand recipes that are available. One important word of advice - always pour out one cup of the starter to save for the next time. Set that cup in the refrigerator where it’s not likely to get spilled. The rest is ready to be used.

To get you on your way, I’m going to give you an old recipe of Ma’s. It’s an oldie, but a very, very goodie. Ma being a former Yankee, tells me that it was Yankees who invented doughnuts. She said that New England Whalers, rendering (boiling) whale blubber into oil, would throw their cold biscuits into the hot oil to warm them up a bit. To fetch the biscuits, they’d use their rendering knives and stab the floating biscuit, creating the American doughnut complete with hole.

Being my Ma and a librarian who might have read that in one of her books, I reckon she’s right. But right or wrong, her doughnuts are the best:

Ma’s Sourdough Doughnuts

1/2 cup sourdough starter
1/2 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons Shortnin’
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cups sour or buttermilk

Ma would mix her liquid ingredients, sift in the dry ingredients, roll out and cut. As I recollect, she used a wide mouth fruit jar band to cut the big doughnut out and a tiny jar to cut out the small hole. Then, she’d drop them into hot oil over the fireplace. A turn or two and they’d be done.

If you aren’t a fireplace cooker, use your electric frying pan and heat the grease to 390 degrees F. When the doughnuts are golden brown, (about 20 to 30 second on each side) they’re done. You can dust them with powdered sugar, a drop of milk a spoonful of hot, melted butter.

Next time you want to make something out of sourdough, all you have to do is pull the starter out of the refrigerator, add 2 1/2 cups flour and two cups warm water and let it set overnight. By the next morning, you can pour off a cup to save and try some other recipes (including some that are bound to show up in this column from time to time!!).

That about does it for this month. If you have any questions or ideas for topics or, if you just want to say hi, please feel free to drop me a note in care of The Mountain Laurel.

Thanks for your help! We’ll see ya next month.