Whether it is a few months or 4,500 years, there is hope for your start!
BY HAILEY MINTON
Drying out a portion of your start can be a start-saver.
From the particularly sour San Franciscan bread to the hardly sour camaldoli sourdough from Italy, there is an endless variety of flavors, textures, and aromas that come with the variety of yeasts and bacteria. I learned shortly after writing my first sourdough article that in August of 2019, a group of people found a way to extract yeast and bacteria from ancient Egyptian age old pottery.
Seamus Blackley, the creator of the original Xbox and a sourdough geek, claimed on Twitter that he had come into possession of some ancient Egyptian yeast. After getting blasted by critics questioning the legitimacy of his source, he realized he didn’t actually have what he claimed. Instead of sheepishly trying to forget about it, he teamed up with some of his most vocal critics. Together, they went about getting the makings of an ancient Egyptian sourdough start the right way. They found a way to extract and cultivate the yeast and bacteria used in ancient Egyptian breads.
Seamus said, “One aspect that’s important to the survival of anything in the microscopic world, is the ability to hibernate when there’s no water present.” He explained there have been experiments sending yeast into space and then feeding them when they come back to earth; they revive. He and the experts he worked with thought that if the microbes in ancient Egyptian dough were driven into the porous ceramic matrix of ancient Egyptian vessels that were used for baking, molding, and raising bread, then there was a chance they could extract and revive them.
Microbiologist Richard Bowman provided the extraction method, which resembles a miniaturized version of fracking. A portion of ancient Egyptian ceramic was injected with a nutrient bath before being pulled out through a syringe with the ancient yeast intact. Everyone was concerned with extracting yeast from the pottery that wasn’t actually from the time of the ancient Egyptians. Just the surface of a vessel being exposed to dirt or air from a time period other than when the bread was baked in it has the potential of having different yeasts contaminate a sample.
In the past, scientists have tried scraping the pottery in an attempt to harvest the yeast, but this damages the artifacts and increases the chance of contamination since anything that touches the surface of the pot can have yeasts and bacteria transferred to it. Using this fracking-type method penetrates deep into the pottery with the hopes of freeing the yeast that have been embedded deeply into the vessel. On the plus side, it doesn’t damage the artifacts either.
With the help of Dr. Serena Love, who is a Ph.D. and archeologist and Egyptologist, they had access to several ancient Egyptian artifacts to do this mini-fracking process. The idea is to extract the yeast and bacteria from many ancient Egyptian vessels and see if they can find the same unique yeasts among them. They are also interested in comparing yeasts extracted from different pieces from different periods of time to see if and how the composition changes over time.
Most of the yeast was sent to a laboratory to be studied. According to an article written by the Smithsonian Magazine, genomic sequencing will conclude if the ancient yeast is what we think it is or contaminated with modern microbes. Seamus took one sample home to bake with.
He fed it sterilized Einkorn flour, unfiltered olive oil, and handmilled barley, all of which were available to an ancient Egyptian baker.
He described the scent as different from any other loaf he had made, and it tasted much sweeter and richer than the sourdough we are used to. He has also tried baking with those flours before, and not one other bread turned out as light and fluffy as this one.
As interesting as it is to know the process, they went through to extract the yeast from pottery. Take heart in your own sourdough baking. You don’t need to go through the same thing to get your sourdough start back. If you know yourself well enough to admit you’re probably not going to be baking sourdough bread even once a month, this tip is a good option to keep your sourdough recipes in your box, even if it has been a few years since you’ve used them.
Gloria D. Gross from North Ogden explained that, in an effort to preserve her start, she has spread a portion of it out on a pan and dried it. Once all the water evaporated, she picked up the f lakey chips and put them in a bag. She has even sent her start to people in the mail this way!
Rehydrating a preserved starter
KingArthurbaking.com instructs to save the dried chips in an airtight container somewhere that is cool and dry. When you’re ready to revive the starter, measure one ounce or between 1/4 and 1/3 cup of it and add 1/4 cup lukewarm water. It will take three hours or so to dissolve the chips with some intermittent stirring. Then, feed it about 1/4 cup of flour and place it somewhere warm. Once it starts bubbling, add 1/4 c water and 1/4 cup flour again. You can repeat this process until it’s just as active as it once was.
Drying it out is one way to preserve it, but how do you know if your start is too far gone? You probably don’t even want to think about how long it’s been sitting there neglected. If you go a long time between feeds, a layer of liquid called hooch will form on the top, which isn’t a problem. You can pour it off or mix it in before feeding your start again. Eventually, the top layer of the start will begin to turn gray, but you can always scoop it off and feed what’s underneath. The real problem comes when you find a streak of orange or pink. According to kingarthurbaking.com, that is a key indicator for a bad start. In Knowable Magazine’s webinar (this is what I watched that got me interested in sourdough), Sourdough librarian, Karl De Smedt, mentioned they go about two months between feeding or refreshing their refrigerated starts in their sourdough library.
“I had a start one time, but I forgot about it in my fridge until it was too far gone.” I’ve heard this from friends and acquaintances several times. As I’ve learned about keeping the yeast and bacteria in your start alive, I’ve discovered they are resilient concoctions, unless there’s something pink or orange growing in it. Why not try to leave it out and feed it a few times? Never underestimate the power of the yeast.
Remembered Flavors: Chocolate sourdough bread
Eight years ago I was living in Vancouver Washington. I was grocery shopping at a local produce store when a loaf of chocolate sourdough bread caught my eye. Intrigued, I decided to try it. I was hooked after eating a toasted slice of it. It had that tangy sourdough flavor and went strangely well with the cocoa. The chocolate chips mixed in added melted sweetness that I looked forward to in every bite. I only lived in that area for about 6 months so once I left I always had my eye out for it. I have looked for it in every bakery I have encountered since, but I have yet to find it elsewhere. Eight years later and I now have a sourdough start and just enough baking knowledge to make my own loaf of it. The first bite of my first loaf was like a very long awaited reunion with a good friend.