Sourdough meets science, and you can help

Wild yeast sourdough starter
CC BY 2.0 Derrick Moreno

Sourdough tradition dates back to the earliest bakers - yeasts and bacteria present in the air around us naturally make their home in the moist, grainy environments found wherever bread will be made. Early bakers found that the gases emitted by the cohabitants made their bread lighter, tastier, and longer-lasting.

Today, sourdough trendiness shoots upwards like the crusts of the breads raised by the carefully tended "starters" popularized by professionals and growing numbers of do-it-yourself bakers. Neophytes can make their own sourdough starter, or purchase cultures from sources like Sourdoughs International. There are even sourdough sitters offering services to tend and love your starter while you are on vacation.

Some people already take a scientific approach to sourdough. For example, discrete mathematician Michael Lillegard decided to forego a Ph.D. or 6-figure career at a computer in favor of a rigorous, iterative approach to developing the best sourdough. With support from his brother and family, he passed the critical one-year mark with his "Duluth's Best Bread" bakery. Although sourdough does not have to taste "sour", Lillegard takes pride in his starter's wild lactobacilli (the probiotic that gives yogurt its tang) and cold fermented yeast -- which results in a rich, flavorful loaf.

Now, Robb Dunn, Professor of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University is looking for people like Michael Lillegard to take part in The Sourdough Project. The project, a broad international collaboration, aims to answer several key questions:

Where do good sourdough starter microbes come from?

With a wide range of participants using identical ingredients to foster a sourdough starter, the Sourdough Project hopes to learn where the microbes in sourdough started originate. Do they hide in the starter ingredients until brought to life by the starter process? Do they come from the body of the person making the starter? Or from the air or ecosystem around the workspace?

The group will sample DNA from both the participants and from their sourdough starters. They anticipate needing three thousand volunteers from countries around the world to get enough data to pin down an answer to this question.

What makes the best sourdough?

Although the definition of "best" can only be subjective, the group hopes to enlist famous chefs and bakers to weigh in on the tastiest products. A sourdough bake-off planned for the summer of 2017 will allow the scientists to align the biological composition of the starters with the organoleptic properties of the breads, to ferret out the secrets of the best starters.

How do ancient starters differ from newer ones?

Finally, the Sourdough Project will study some of the oldest starters to see just what is living there, and how they differ from newer starters. If you have are lucky enough to have a starter in your family that has been passed down through the generations, your input to the project could be especially valuable.

In addition to subjecting sourdough starters to scientific scrutiny, the Sourdough Project aims to record the history of the people who share their love of the art. So even if the sourdough starting and bake-off seem a bit too much to chew, you can enjoy following the stories of people who have tended to lifeforms behind one of the oldest and most satisfying of foods.

Sign up to receive updates on the project or to share your sourdough story and perhaps be one of 20 bakers enlisted to participate in a bake-off in the summer of 2017.

Sourdough meets science, and you can help
Could your sourdough starter be the best? And can science help explain why? Project invites bakers and bread lovers to join in the quest to learn more about an ancient tradition

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