All that sourdough you've been making could help scientists

By Scottie Andrew, CNN

    (CNN) -- By the end of this pandemic, we'll all have one thing in common -- at some point during our isolation, we attempted to make sourdough.

Whether we succeeded in making bread is beside the point. That sourdough starter could now advance the study of microbiology.


The Public Science Lab at North Carolina State University has capitalized on the sourdough craze, and with the help of amateur bakers who make and observe sourdough starters, scientists can learn more about the microbes that populate the living mixture.

The mystery of sourdough

Years before this pandemic, the Public Science Lab started the Global Sourdough Project, a citizen science initiative that studied how different types of flour and environments affected the microbes that inhabited the starter.

But what happens inside sourdough starter still mystifies scientists.

Bakers create a sourdough starter -- a simple mix of flour and water -- for bacteria to move into. Somehow, they leaven the bread after a weeklong incubation period -- no yeast required, unlike other breads.

But why do certain microbes take up residence in certain starters, and how do they do what they do? Amateur bakers can't answer those questions with the naked eye, but to the Public Science Lab, their observations are a positive start.

How to take part

The recipe provided by the lab provided requires flour and dechlorinated water (so, filtered water). Amateur bakers are to dump 2 tablespoons of each into a jar and mix. And then begins the waiting.

After you've left your jar, covered with a paper towel and rubber band, in the sun for 24 hours, you've got to "feed" and "refresh" it every day. This means you scoop out a portion of the starter each day and add more flour and water. This feeds the hungry microbes.

You'll need to feed and refresh 15 times in total to complete their observations, so you'll leave your starter for over two weeks.

Before you bake with your starter, the lab wants you to make some observations, like what your starter smells like and how high it rises.

When you're done, you'll submit your observations through an online form. Who would've thought you could contribute to science by baking and clicking.

It's no big deal if the bread doesn't turn out -- scientists can learn through your failure, too. Although, fresh bread would certainly be a plus.

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