Ancient Egyptian Yeast Is This Bread’s Secret Ingredient

In a modern oven in Pasadena, Calif., this week, yeast that could be as old as ancient Egypt was used to bake an especially aromatic loaf of sourdough bread.

The baker, Seamus Blackley, was experimenting with yeast he had extracted from a 4,000-year-old Egyptian loaf. He was trying to make his own bread using the same ingredients, and some of the same methods, as the ancients.

It turned out well, and Mr. Blackley — who is also a creator of the Xbox, a physicist and a self-professed “bread nerd” — posted the results on Twitter. “The crumb is light and airy,” he wrote. “The aroma and flavor are incredible. I’m emotional.”

Thousands of people responded in a surge of interest that extended far beyond niche communities of bread nerds and yeast enthusiasts, whose interests traverse science, gastronomy and history.

Yeast is a living thing — a fungus. It metabolizes carbohydrates, yielding alcohol and carbon dioxide as byproducts. (The alcohol is handy for the creation of beer, and the carbon dioxide is good for bread, as the bubbles help the dough expand.)

Once they run out of food, yeast spores can go dormant — rather than simply dying — and stay quietly viable for thousands of years until they are extracted, Dr. Bowman said.

There is a caveat: It is not yet certain that Mr. Blackley baked with an ancient yeast strain on Monday. His extractions may have been contaminated by modern spores.

So Dr. Bowman is working to verify the samples. “We need to isolate them, sequence them, and compare the genomes to the modern samples and see the genetic divergence,” he said.

Mr. Blackley said that while Monday’s loaf probably did incorporate the ancient strain of yeast, he still considered it a practice round.

“I don’t understand why everyone is so interested in this, but I’m happy that they are,” he said. “It gives us an opportunity to demonstrate good science.”

Once the samples are verified, he hopes to experiment further with baking styles that mimic the methods of ancient Egyptians. He also wants to fine-tune his spore extraction technique.

“It’s a hobby project for all of us,” he said. “This is really in the great tradition of amateur science — people doing something because they think it’s the right thing to do — and I’m very proud of that.”


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