sourdough pancakes - a recipe and the full story

In my teens, I moved into the home of an aunt and uncle. These were very good people and made very good food. When they asked if I liked sourdough pancakes, I admitted that I'd never even heard of such a thing. Trying to imagine what sourdough pancakes were made of, I first thought of lemons. Lemons in pancakes didn't make a lot of sense, so my mind wandered again. This time stopping at “sour cream” or “sour milk”. That sounded like a possible gourmet stunt, and I couldn't come up with what else it could be. I began to think to myself what I would need to do to get out of eating them should I find them unpleasant.

The cakes hit my plate. I smothered them with butter and syrup in an effort to hide the unknown. One small bite. What flavor. I ate nine pancakes about six inches wide that morning. I could've eaten more, but we ran out of batter.

You can reuse a sourdough starter about every two or three days, so we ate these cakes every other morning. We would often bicker within ten degrees, what the temperature setting of the griddle should be. “When to flip” was a good breakfast discussion topic. I was frequently ridiculed for serving cakes with the “last cooked side up”, also referred to as “upside-down”.

Years later, when I moved out on my own, I realized how economical these were to make. One batch could be considered a full meal for the average size person (I'm usually stuffed at one and a half). Including all of the toppings used, it costs about twenty-eight cents per batch. Cakes without toppings run about seventeen cents a batch. The stuff is so cheap, it seems like a waste to fire up the griddle for just one person. So I started inviting people over to help eat these cheap cakes. Since other folks would often bring toppings, the only expense to me is seventeen cents per person. The company attracted is more than worth it.

That was the math then. I haven't done the math now. Plus, now I use only organic ingredients and real maple syrup. I think this could be one of those "ignorance is bliss" sort of things! :)

Many, many times I've been asked for the recipe and I'm more than glad to give it out:

There are two items prepared in advance. One is the yeast-based sourdough starter, which must be babied for ever and ever. The other is “The White Powder” which you add to as needed.

The starter is the soul of these cakes. It's also the hardest ingredient to make or find. Although the best thing to do is get a “branch” from someone else's starter, it's possible to make your own from scratch.

Sourdough Starter Warning!: Clean all dribbles immediately! This stuff can double as cement. If you let it dry before wiping it up, it'll take you about thirty times longer to get it off with a chisel. Do not let starter come in contact with the lid that it is stored in or you may have to go to the shop for your drill to save what's trapped inside.

For starting your starter, I recommend a large crock with a loose-fitting lid. A crock that is about fifty percent bigger than you would actually use is good. That way you have less chance of slopping starter over the side and on the lip where it may form a permanent seal. A loose lid is important so that the active yeast inside can breathe. If you can get one that has a lid that sits on top instead of rests a little ways inside is a plus. That way, if the lid does become fixed to crock, you have better chances of recovery. I lost one crock that had an embedded lid when some starter got on the lip. I pried and pried for about ten minutes until the crock broke leaving the lid attached to the lip. I now own a crock with a lid that rests on top of the crock. When starter gets on the lip and dries, a kitchen knife with a serrated edge will saw through in less than a minute.

Rather than a crock, I use a glass container with a glass lid these days. It helps to be able to see, through the glass, how the starter is doing.

I'm not really certain what to do to start your own starter. (I know more now - see below...) I've heard that some folks just mixed some yeast, warm water, and flour and had some going. Others have told me tales of soaking old potatoes (what will those gourmet bozos think of next!).

Yeast, warm water and flour does the trick - sort of. Mix three cups of flour, five cups of water and one packet of yeast. I did this and had a perfectly good starter for a couple of weeks. Then a bland, kinda soupy starter for a month or two. Then it became pretty much useless. I came up with all sorts of lame ideas about why the starter wasn't working. I tried adding more yeast. I tried putting a little sugar in starter to get it on track again. I restarted the starters this way about four times. Then I became obsessed with understanding why this new starter was soooooo lame! ... after hours of internet research, I understand that there is far more to sourdough starter than yeast.

The starter from when I was a kid had been going for decades. But that was "real" sourdough starter. It had not just yeast, but the right kind of yeast. Plus the right kind of bacteria - and maybe a whole lot of other micro-beasties.

Getting a branch is very simple. Find someone that has a current starter. Take a cup or two home and place it in its new home. Add flour and water to it as though you've just prepared cakes. Wait a couple of days and go for it!

Looky thar! I found a great on-line supplier of sourdough starter and other sourdough gear! I have exchanged dozens of e-mails with Linda at - she's a peach! Ten bucks for some starter - including the shipping. She'll even provide free "technical support". Life is smooth.

I suggest that you keep your starter stored in the refrigerator. Some people leave them out at room temperature so that their cakes have a more “fermented” character. A few days of sitting out and your cakes will smell and taste like you poured a beer into the batter.

A good healthy starter will have a thin (about a quarter inch) layer of yellowish water floating on the top just before being used. Depending on how thick or thin you like the batter, you may stir this in or pour it off.

“The White Powder” (sometimes referred to as “The Magic White Powder”) contains: One part salt, one part baking soda, three parts baking powder and five parts white sugar. Store this in an airtight container. (airtight container? who is this bozo! :) "white powder tight" is fine. I currently use a quart canning jar) When I make a bottle of this stuff, one part is equal to one quarter cup which generates about two and a half cups.

THE MAIN EVENT: For a single batch. (to feed five people, I use five times more of everything) In a large bowl (I use a batter bowl. It looks like an oversized, short, fat pitcher. Basically, a bowl with a handle and a spout for pouring) mix one tablespoon of vegetable oil, one egg, and one tablespoon of “The White Powder”. Make certain that the powder is evenly mixed and broken up, otherwise somebody may get a small “clump” in their cake which is VERY bitter. Add one cup of starter and beat vigorously for no more than thirty seconds.

Start your griddles! The batter will take about three minutes to rise before it should be used.

I want to change this part. Start heating your griddles just before adding the starter. Do not wait for the batter to rise.

Speaking of griddles ... I now use only cast iron griddles. I used to use the non-stick stuff, but then learned how icky that stuff was. Cast iron griddles for the stove top are now really easy to find.

Sourdough experts will use the yeast in the starter for the rising. This recipe does not do that. It depends on the baking soda and baking powder. You do get some rise, but the batter is kept too thin to use that rise. This style of pancake is more about the flavor and less about using the yeast for rising.

This is also a good time to point out that for your first time you might not know what is a good griddle temperature. Medium is good. A lot of people want to start with "high" - but that is probably going to make for a lot of problems.

During this time you should rejuvenate your starter. (Now, I usually rejuvinate while the pancakes are cooking) Add about a cup of flour and a cup of water to the starter. I know it doesn't make a lot of sense to take one something out and two somethings in, but for some reason one cup of flour and one cup of water make about one cup of white mud. As time goes on, you may need to adjust these quantities to keep from having starter that's too thick or too thin. It shouldn't be soupy and it shouldn't be pasty. Something in between. I tend to use just a little more water than flour.

I usually keep a little more water in the starter than I used to. Then I just pour more water off later. This has to do with a few times the yeast had a big party and things got sort of sticky-foamy and overflow. I think the extra water keeps this from happening.

Start with one small pancake to see if the griddle temperature is ok.

Flipping: You only flip a pancake once. Always. Just once. So make it count. Do it right. Etc. Patiently wait by your cooking cakes until the bubbles in the middle pop and stay open. Then, and only then, flip. (too many people get excited and flip right away, thinking that if they flip too soon, they can flip again. No, No, NO.) The flip is an art. Some people can make big cakes in round skillets and flip them without a flipper. Some can squeeze six cakes into the space normally occupied by four and never have any cakes touch. If you have “mating” or “escaping” cakes, don't worry. It'll pass. For darker cakes, turn the heat up.

The second side should take about one third less time to cook than the first. It should also be about the same color (peeking is allowed).

I have refined my technique for cooking the second side. Look at the edges - if they are brown, the pancake is ready to come off the griddle.

Ta-daaah! One of life's finer moments.

Lemme tell ya 'bout syrup... Very warm. Not room temperature. Not too hot to handle. Just a comfortably, edibly, enjoyably warm.. Perhaps a little cooler than hot coffee. My aunt and uncle would always reserve a bit of space on the griddle for the syrup container to sit on. It had a little piece of wire that would rest between it and the griddle. Perhaps to keep it from becoming too hot. In these high-tech days, I toss it into the microwave and “nuke” it for a minute or so.

It's easy to make your own syrup. Plain, cheap maple syrup can be made with two parts sugar to one part water and a little mapeline (an artificial maple extract like vanilla) to taste. Some people substitute half of the sugar with brown sugar or corn syrup. Some people will add a little molasses or vanilla. Heat the ingredients but don't boil them (boiling will make the sugars crystallize later, like rock candy). Keep stirring until all the sugar has been dissolved. This may take as long as fifteen minutes, but usually only takes five.

These days I use only organic maple syrup from a tree. The GI is waaaaaay lower and it is much better for you. I think it tastes better too!

Butter or margarine should be somewhere between cool and room temp. A problem that you might find if you don't allow your butter to warm a bit, is that cold butter attracts the moisture in the air given off by the steaming-hot cakes. Thus, sweating butter. Not fun. Cold butter is usually pretty stiff, too. Trying to spread stiff butter on soft cakes often ends up with butter lumps on mangled cakes. Again, not fun. Think cool and creamy. Sometimes I'll mash and whip the butter in a small bowl first.

My son prefers to nuke it to a near liquid state.

Eating Etiquette: Ever notice how some people manage to get syrup all over their hands every time they eat pancakes? Some even get syrup on their elbows and into their armpits (even adults!). Two simple rules can save a person from such tragedy: keep the utensil handles out of the syrup and always eat with the fork handle higher than the fork stabber. (Pancakeaphobia: fear of syrup in your armpits. Perhaps this is what started the trend of women shaving their pits?)

Now that the recipe is in pretty good circulation, I hear of some experiments from some of the more adventuresome. The results pretty much say “stay with the original recipe”. Use white flour and white sugar are the biggest notes. You can stir things into the batter if you like, but not into the starter.

I once had a wheat free starter going. I used mostly oat flour. I tried some rice flour, oat flour, buckwheat flour, spelt flour, and maybe a few others. I had to add some guar gum to make it work. I also tried some whole wheat for a while. All of these made okay pancakes. Nothing is as tasty as the original recipe for the starter.

For vegan friends, I have made egg-less pancakes. I think they are okay. They really like them. I just use an egg substitute I found at the store.

Try to use the starter more often than once every two weeks. Some people have said that it dies shortly after that, others have said that it'll never die no matter how long you go without using it. I tend to agree with the former. If you don't use the starter for two weeks, take some out and rejuvenate it. Pancakes from two-week-old starter can have a lot of “character”.

If you're into multiple-course meals, some sort of fruit or fruit juice and pork compliment the cakes very well. Berry preserves make the best toppings.

Home made berry preserves make the best toppings! Eggs, sausage or bacon --- all great when a little syrup slips their way!

These make great leftovers. I usually make more than could possibly be consumed so that I can have some sort of snack later. If you leave them out at ten AM on a weekend, they'll be gone by noon. It's so easy to pick one up and munch. It's like very soft, almost sweet bread. You can heat them back up in the microwave or toaster oven if you like. They'll keep in the freezer for several weeks if you want to go that route.

I still make lots and lots of leftovers.

So get a branch, make a few batches. Enjoy a simple, inexpensive, easy meal with some good friends.


A reader sent in this interesting tidbit:

    In addition to storing the sourdough in the fridge, a small amount may be mixed into a thick ball, and stored in a small plastic bag of flour. The storage life is as long as that of the flour. To re-activate, the ball of sourdough only needs to be placed in a container of flour and water (a little sugar helps to speed things up) and given a few days. This was the way sourdough was transported in days long past, when travelers had no means for refrigerating the 'dough, but wanted to be able to whip up some pancakes in camp.

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