North Carolina State University’s Public Science Lab is collecting data on sourdough starters from around the world.

By Mike Pomranz
April 24, 2020
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NC State Wants You to Bake Sourdough Bread for Science!

Beyond the obvious medical findings, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely result in other incredible scientific data. Researchers can look into things like how declines in traffic affected air quality or how being stuck at home changed buying habits. The same goes for breadmaking: When is the last time this many people were baking their own bread at home, and what can we learn from that? According to The Public Science Lab the NC State University’s Department of Applied Ecology, apparently, we can learn a lot.

The lab has launched Wild Sourdough: A Science of Sourdough Project online, and their pitch is simple: Maybe you already are making sourdough bread at home, or maybe you’re considering it, or at the very least, you may have lots of free time, so you should consider it. If so, you can help them with a massive crowdsourced science project.

“The microbial communities in sourdough are comparatively easy to grow and study, so understanding sourdough can help us untangle some of the mysteries of the microbial world,” the project states. All you need is flour, water, and time (as opposed to finding your starter hanging from a tree). “While bakers generally understand how to make starters, the underlying biology of the species in these starters remains mysterious. A couple years ago we launched the Global Sourdough Project, and studied hundreds of existing starters from all of over the world. While we learned a lot from these starters, there were still lingering questions that we couldn’t decipher from the data: How does the type of flour you use and where you live affect the success of failure of a wild sourdough starter?”

The research team sees the current coronavirus pandemic-inspired sourdough obsession as a great opportunity to significantly step up their data collection. “We will guide you through creating a ‘wild’ sourdough starter using only water and flour following a ten-day protocol,” they explain. “Once you have made your starter we will ask you to observe it and record some observations about its aroma and how fast it rises. You will submit these data through a short online questionnaire… Your data will be compared with other folks’ from all over the world who have concurrently created wild starters. Together we can use these data to learn how geography and different flours affect microbial growth over time, and how those microbes affect the taste and texture of bread.”

Finally, even if you screw this whole thing up, the lab doesn’t care. “If your starter fails—we hope it doesn’t, but sometimes microbes aren’t cooperative—we still want your data!!” the researchers add. “We can learn as much from the failures as we can from the successes.”

So there you go. If you are baking bread or want to bake bread or just want to participate in a science project without having to buy poster boards and pipe cleaners, NC State could use your help. And in the end, you can make a sandwich. Seriously, does quarantine life get any better than that?