4,000-year-old Yeast Flavors Modern Sourdough Bread

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August 8, 2019

The bread isn't 4,000 years old, but the yeast used to make it is.

Ancient yeast, new bread

Amateur Egyptologist Seamus Blackley parlayed his breadmaking hobby into an experiment using yeast kept safe in museums. He gained permission to access ceramic containers dating to Egypt's Old Kingdom period that were stored at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard's Peabody Museum. Then, following the advice of microbiologist and friend Richard Bowman, Blackley noninvasively inserted nutrients into the containers, awakened some of the yeast, and then extracted the liquid that resulted. He sent most of what resulted off to labs for analysis but kept one sample for his bread-making.

He also had to hand a sample of bread from the period, which Boston's museum also had and was found at the mortuary temple of Mentuhotep II, who ruled in the 2nd Century B.C.

Armed with ancient yeast and something like what he hoped to create, he used a mixture of modern barley and einkorn flour to stir the ancient yeast to life. Einkorn is an ancient grain, first grown thousands of years ago.

Ancient yeast, new bread

The idea was to make sourdough bread, which requires a "starter," an amount of fermented yeast that gets fold in with the rest of the ingredients in the final preparation of the bread. Helping Blackley's efforts is the fact that yeast spores don't die from a lack of food; rather, they just go dormant. Eventually, Blackley had something he could work with: a starter that he said smelled differently from modern bread starters.

Ancient yeast, new bread

Using a recipe known to be a few thousand years old, he went to work. The result was something that he said had an aroma sweeter than sourdough loaves produced today. The result, he said, produced crumbs that resembled cake crumbs. He also decorated the top of the loaf with a hieroglyph that represents a loaf of bread.

Ancient yeast, new bread

Blackley departed from ancient methods for the final step, the baking of the bread. The next step, he said, would be to use the same style of pots that the ancient Egyptians used. He already has permission to get more ancient yeast.

The one thing Blackley is waiting for is the results of testing. He's not sure that he entirely avoided modern "contamination" because some yeasts are floating around in the air even now. If it turns out that the "old" bread is actually "new again," then at least he has a good "start" on a new attempt at making something old.

Blackley is also a physicist and video game designer who is perhaps most well-known for being one of the creators of the Xbox.

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Social Studies for Kids
copyright 2002–2018
David White

Social Studies for Kids
copyright 2002–2019
David White