What was the best thing before sliced bread?
The answer appears to be Egyptian sourdough.
Scientists have revived yeast microbes from 4,500 years ago to make a loaf of bread unlike anything on the grocery store shelves today, as part of an experiment to better understand the gut bacteria of ancient humans.
Tech developer Seamus Blackley documented the entire bread-baking process in a series of photos and mouthwatering descriptions on Twitter Monday. Blackley made an ancient Egyptian recipe with yeast recovered from ancient clay pots used 4,500 to 5,000 years ago.
“The aroma is AMAZING and NEW,” he wrote in one tweet. “It’s much sweeter and more rich than the sourdough we are used to.”
Blackley also offered a toast to his scientist collaborators, archeologist Serena Love at the University of Queensland, and microbiologist Richard Bowman at the University of Iowa, for helping him harvest the yeast and bring it back to life.
He said he was amazed that the process worked.
“I’m emotional,” Blackley tweeted after his first taste test. “It’s really different, and you can easily tell even if you’re not a bread nerd.”
Blackley apparently is a bread nerd, judging by the way he describes the loaf. He’s also a physicist, co-creator of the original Xbox video game console and — according to his Twitter account — an “amateur gastroegyptologist.”
Blackley and his team harvested their yeast from several clay pots once used to hold bread and beer in the days of ancient Egypt.
Blackley says he used one of the reconstituted yeast samples to create a sourdough starter — a fermented lump of yeast and flour used to make sourdough rise and give it its taste. Breadmakers typically keep a sourdough starter “alive” by feeding it flour and water so the yeast remains active.
Over the course of a week, Blackley says he fed his sourdough starter a steady diet of the ancient grains Egyptians would have used in their baking. “Modern wheat was invented long after these organisms went to sleep,” he tweeted.
Blackley eventually combined the starter with unfiltered olive oil and more ancient grains to create a lump of dough for the oven.
“The aroma of this yeast is unlike anything I’ve experienced,” Blackley wrote while he was waiting for the dough to rise.
He baked the dough in a modern oven and shared the results of his taste test.
“The crumb is light and airy, especially for a 100% ancient grain loaf,” Blackley wrote. “This is incredibly exciting, and I’m so amazed that it worked.”
(For non-bread nerds, the “crumb” is the pattern of holes inside the bread loaf.)
He added that his baking project was “just for practice,” and that more study is necessary before his collaborators can confirm the exact origins of their reconstituted yeast.
“But it’s not a bad start,” he wrote.
Blackley and his collaborators are not the first ones to resurrect ancient yeast for modern-day consumption.
In 2016, a team of scientists recovered several old beer bottles from a 220-year-old shipwreck off the coast of Australia, then reconstituted the yeast to brew new batches of beer. They started selling their “shipwreck” beer to the public two years later.
It’s unclear if Blackley intends to start selling his ancient sourdough to the public — but he’s done an incredible job of buttering up his potential customers.
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