Why Is Sourdough So Special? 

March 2023

To paraphrase an in-depth Scientific American article examining the role of sourdough in the early Pandemic days, it’s interesting to note that sourdough trended “when the microbial world seemed so full of threat.” 

The article sources from several microbiologists running experiments on the elusive and variable elements in a sourdough starter. “Sourdough is this one space where we all agree as a society that microbes are helping us do wonderful things. If you love sourdough, you love wild microbes in our lives.”

Sourdough starter is very simple to create, with very little understanding any of the yeast and microbes that create different textures, rising rate of the loaf, and flavor. 

The sourdough trend is really the perfect microcosm of the early pandemic days. There was hyperfocus on mastering control on little-understood micro-organisms. Maybe by fixating on sourdough culture, variations of which have existed across the globe just like learning how to start a fire provided some sort comfort in the face of empty grocery store shelves, cancelled social time, and the idea that it might just take some little understood micro-organisms for society to crumble. 

From the same SA article: “So far, McKenney and other sourdough researchers have taken only baby steps toward designer sourdoughs: Their science has not yet caught up to folk wisdom. “People would like to know step by step: ‘How do I make the end product I desire?’” McKenney says. “We can’t begin to offer anything that’s better than common baking knowledge or the best practices you learn from blogs or talking to friends.”

From a sociological perspective, it’s fascinating that in a moment of intense social ostracization, a time when “follow the science” became common vernacular, and most diets for weight loss are based on “carb-cutting” that sourdough had it’s moment. It’s like the cultural subconscious found comfort in mastering a microbiome to create a wholesome comfort food that’s been a staple for thousands of years. Sourdough is based in tradition, word of mouth, knowing what works without understanding why, and the exact opposite of the conscious urge to be clinical, scientific, sanitary, and distanced in those early Covid months. 

In August of 2020 The Economist published: “Shortly before the world shut down in response to covid-19 someone tweeted that a “sourdough starter is a Tamagotchi for people in their 30s”. The analogy, no doubt irritating to diligent bakers, is apt. Like the diminutive digital pets, you have to regularly feed your sourdough starter – the gloop of wild yeast and accompanying bacteria used to leaven this type of bread. You can overfeed both. Though you can leave your starter to slumber in the fridge for a while, ignore it for too long and, like a Tamagotchi, it will perish. In the (currently unimaginable) event that you jet off on a long holiday, it is now possible to check your starter into a sourdough hotel, which will lavish care on it until you return.”