When many think of a family inheritance, they picture wealth or jewels. But there’s another object which some family members long to inherit — the family sourdough starter.

Ione Christensen told The New York Times her sourdough starter was passed down to her by her great-grandfather Wesley David Ballentine. As Ballentine hiked the treacherous Chilkoot Pass in search of the Klondike gold fields, he made the starter in a flour sack — over a hundred years later, Christensen still had the starter.

A sourdough starter is a leavening agent used for bread. It’s made by mixing water and flour, and then feeding it with more water and flour while it ferments — during this process, it creates lactic acid. One starter, if fed properly, can be the source of hypothetically infinite loaves of bread. Starters are living — each unique from each other because of the way environment and microorganisms impacts them.

Older starters produce a more complex tasting bread. Starters have a yeasty smell — sometimes a fruity, nutty or dusty smell — and while older starters may not necessarily taste better than new starters, it’s possible it’ll taste more tangy, mature and sour.

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Who invented sourdough starter?

Ancient Egyptians are typically credited with creating the first sourdough starter. Gastro-Egyptologists Serena Love told BBC there’s plenty of evidence ancient Egyptians were baking bread, and it’s possible they happened upon creating a starter by using dough from the day before to make bread.

For the ancient Egyptians, making bread was an extensive part of everyday life. She said, “During the pyramid age, so 2,500 B.C.E., when the pyramids around Giza and that whole complex were being built, what we have is textual sources that says (workers) were given a daily allowance of bread, beer and onions. And when you’re talking about 10,000 people that were living there, you are making a lot of bread.” 

Even with these questions around ancient Egyptian baking practices, one man Seamus Blackley — creator of the original XBox — teamed up with Love and a microbiologist to harvest yeast from ancient pots. Global News reported Blackley fed the yeast ancient grains for a week and then baked it with unfiltered olive oil and more ancient grains. He said the bread is, “much sweeter and more rich than the sourdough we are used to.”

There are other sources which suggest sourdough starters have ancient origins.

Ancient people who lived in Mesopotamia (between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) prepared a traditional bread called Khobz, which is a type of flatbread.

An article published in the Journal of Ethnic Food said, “The starter culture is prepared by mixing ripen date fruits (10–15 pieces) with 250 ml water which is kept at room temperature overnight. The starter culture is added to the dough at the recommended ratio of 1:5 w/w to ensure good fermentation. The dough is kept overnight for leavening and baked in the oven at 180–220 °C to produce thick sour bread.”

While it’s not identical to sourdough starters with flour and water, it shows how they understood the role of fermented products in improving bread texture.

Sourdough bread was also discovered in ancient China. An article published in Journal of Proteomics was able to reconstruct the recipe of 2,500-year-old bread. The researchers said their analysis led them to discover ancient people in China made the bread using a renewable starter created from barley and broomcorn.

This means people in ancient China also made sourdough bread as early as 500 B.C.E. — if not earlier.

When ancient Roman historian Pliny the Elder penned his natural history, which Perseus Tufts makes available online, he lists several different kinds of bread. One of them he calls Picenum bread. Pliny said, “The flour is kept in soak for nine days, and is kneaded on the tenth with raisin juice, in the shape of long rolls; after which it is baked in an oven in earthen pots, till they break.”

The process of making Picenum bread is akin to making a sourdough starter.

There’s other evidence ancient Romans made sourdough. After the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E., a loaf of bread was carbonized — it’s called the Herculaneum loaf. Eleanor Dickey wrote, “The bread is not cut, but broken into pieces along lines incised by the baker before putting the bread in the oven.” Dozens of other loaves were discovered. After the Herculaneum loaf was scientifically analyzed, it was determined to be a sourdough loaf.

Michael Gänzle, a food microbiologist, told BBC the New Testament has instances where leavened bread was mentioned. He said the process referenced is called backslopping, which is using some dough from the day before to make a loaf the next day. An example given is found in Luke 13:20-21 (the parable of the leaven), “Again He asked, ‘To what can I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and mixed into three measures of flour, until all of it was leavened.”

Another reference comes from Galatians 5:9 where leaven is referenced in an apparent aphorism. “A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough.”

How old is the oldest sourdough starter?

It’s difficult to know which sourdough starters are actually the oldest.

Blackley’s sourdough starter, created from 4,500 year-old yeast, is considered the oldest sourdough starter, per Oldest. Other starters like the Saint Honoratus Wheat also are quite old. A bakery called Chrissi’s Farmhouse Bakery uses it and said, “This noble starter dates back 900 years. It is a heritage sourdough culture and has a rich history dating back to the Silk Road Trades era. In honor of the Patron Saint Honore (Saint of Bakers), this starter actually originated from Wales.”

Scouring Etsy, it’s possible to find sourdough starters which claim to be anywhere from 30 years to 400 years old. One called the “Bavarian ‘Black Death’ Sourdough” is available on Etsy. REALsoughdoughstarter, the seller, said in the listing, “Oral history indicates that this starter dates back to around the period of Germany’s Black Death (1633) and originated in or near the town of Oberammergau. It literally took me years to track down a reliable German culture from this time period.”

There’s also an old sourdough starter named “Bodie.” According to My Daily Sourdough Bread, it’s 233 years old and owned by a 92-year old mother. The starter comes from San Francisco. It’s available on Etsy and the account said it’s managed by her children.

The Etsy account said, “The baker at the time told mom that the starter had been in use at the bakery since 1850. And not only that, the founder of the bakery had the starter in his family for 40 years before opening the bakery. This means that we can trace Bodie’s history directly back to 1810!”

Starters are also passed down from generation to generation like what happened with Christensen inheriting hers.

Rachel Poulson told NPR her family’s sourdough starter was a wedding gift, passed down from her great-grandfather Leo V. Jolley Sr. “He first got the starter from a sheep camp in Provo, Utah, which likely got it from Mormon settlers in the late 1800s. Her mom made sourdough pancakes every Sunday.”

Another person named Carina Westling told NPR her sourdough starter has been in her family for more than 150 years. “Her friend’s family had taken it with them when they fled Estonia in World War II, the starter being vigorous enough to have eaten through its bag during the journey.”

There are other families who treat sourdough starters as heirlooms to keep within families and pass down indefinitely — it’s a time honored tradition.

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Can I just buy sourdough starter?

Yes, sourdough starter is available online and may even be available at your grocery store. King Arthur Baking Company sells sourdough starter and so does Etsy.

Sourdough starter recipe: How to make sourdough starter

Making a sourdough starter at home is easy.

  1. Weigh out equal parts water and equal parts all-purpose flour — anywhere from 4 to 6 ounces is a good place to start.
  2. Stir the flour and water in a jar until combined. It’ll look like pancake batter.
  3. Let the sourdough starter rest overnight and then begin feeding the sourdough starter. Add the same amount of water and flour that you did the day before, combine it and then let it rest. Repeat this process until 5-7 days have passed, then when your starter smells yeasty and sour, and has lots of bubbles, it’s ready to use.
  4. Starter maintenance is easy. Simply discard or use around half of the starter and feed the starter regularly.