Sourdough Hands

by Miche Genest

Oh, the joy of making sourdough bread at home—building a starter, making a sponge, kneading the dough, shaping a loaf, waiting for it rise, baking it, letting it cool and finally, biting into a slice of freshly made bread slathered with good butter—ooh la la. But one of the special joys is the intimate and complicated relationship sourdough bakers develop with their starters.

It’s like having a pet, bakers say, and indeed, they invent names for their starters, they check their starters into sourdough hotels when they travel, or leave strict instructions for house sitters NOT TO THROW IT OUT. They fret when the starter seems sluggish, they call their fellow bakers for sympathy and advice, they wake up in the middle of the night thinking oh no, I forgot to save a half-cup from the starter before I mixed the sponge!

And they engage in endless debate about the strange and magical organisms living in a jar in their fridge. That wild yeast—is it present in the air, free floating or hanging out on the skin of fruits and vegetables, biding its time until the medium of flour and water comes out of the fridge and then diving in to start feeding? Or is that all a myth, and the yeasts are simply present in the flour? And what of the friendly bacteria, the strains of lactobacillus that enter into a symbiotic relationship with the yeast in the medium of flour and water, creating an acid environment inhospitable to bad bacteria that might spoil it—where does it come from?

Well, it turns out that one of the places both yeast and bacteria come from is the baker’s hands. Ecologist Rob Dunn, author of several books (including Never Out of Season, How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and The Future) conducted a controlled sourdough bake-off experiment with 15 bakers from around the world at the Puratos Centre for Bread Flavour in Belgium. Dunn and his fellow ecologist Anne Madden wanted to see if the microbes present on the baker’s hands influenced the bread. And it did. “There was an essence of the baker in the starter the baker made, and that was conveyed in the bread.”

The other thing Dunn’s team discovered was that the baker’s hands looked very much like sourdough starter, that is, up to sixty percent of the microbes on the hands of the bakers were the same bacteria and yeasts found in sourdough starter, compared to three percent on the average human hand. As Dunn said, “…the bakers did influence their starters, but the other way around was true too. The life of baking seems to influence the bakers.” How cool is that? And if the baker’s hands look like sourdough, what do the cheesemaker’s hands look like? The farmer’s? The beekeeper’s?

The full account of the experiment can be found in Dunn’s latest book, Never Home Alone, From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live.

If the baker’s hands look like sourdough, what do the cheesemaker’s hands look like?

 

Sourdough Starter Dates to Gold Rush Days


Ione Christensen, an 84-year-old baker (and former Senator) in the Yukon, is using a sourdough starter that her great-grandfather carried over the Chilkoot Pass on his way to Dawson City during the height of the Klondike Gold Rush. Now 120 years old, the venerable sourdough is continuing to attract a lot of attention.

CBC’s The Doc Project did an article and podcast about the iconic Yukon sourdough. That piece caught the attention of Karl De Smedt — Earth’s sourdough librarian. De Smedt collects samples of sourdough from around the world and studies them. The samples are then stored in the refrigerated Puratos Sourdough Library in eastern Belgium for the future.

Excited to hear of the historical specimen, De Smedt and a documentary crew travelled to the Yukon to meet Christensen (who cooked her Belgian guests sourdough waffles) and arrange for a sample of the starter to be shipped to Europe and stored in the Library. A sample will also be sent to  a university in Italy, where the micro-organisms living in the bread will be analyzed and studied.

> Read more about Christensen’s sourdough starter going to the Sourdough Library

The same sourdough starter was in Christensen’s household when she was growing up in Fort Selkirk, Yukon, where her father was an RCMP officer. Christensen’s mother used it regularly to make bread and flapjacks.

Sourdough has a special place in Yukon history, and was a staple for many of those who flocked to the region during the Klondike Gold Rush. The nickname “sourdough” still applies to anyone who manages to survive a Yukon winter.

During her year of eating locally, Suzanne even managed to produce her own sourdough starter using only local ingredients. Perhaps this will be the start of its own new centuries-old tradition.