I think as a species, we tend to take ourselves too seriously! A characteristic we’ve developed, over a rather long time, I’ll admit, is to think that mankind is the most important life form in existence in this world – if not the universe as well. And this is true, even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. For instance, I find it both ironic and humorous that a species with such a short history of existence, and a pretty poor prospect of avoiding extinction, should at the same time consider that it is in control of its destiny and the world around it – Amazing!
Occasionally, something comes along to remind us of our fragility, and our utter inability to comprehend just how complex is the world of which we are such a small part – and for me, that something was an article in Wired Magazine recently (“Second Life”, Erin Bibe, Aug issue). I’m not exactly a science buff, but these days one of my favorite activities is to soak up the science documentaries on the Science Channel – this is not a trait that my high school science teachers would recognize! And this particular article struck a cord because another of my current playthings is sourdough – and the article tells the story of a biologist, Dr. Raul Cano, who discovers a 45 million year old dormant yeast -the same type (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) used today to make bread or beer- in a lump of ancient amber, which he then brought back to life and put to work making a superb ale.
Wow! This is thought provoking – not only because it throws into perspective the absurdity of mankind’s presumptuous thoughts of global importance -what can be more significant to a species than the proven ability to come back from the dead?- but for all us bakers, it answers for all time the nagging question, “How long can I keep my sourdough starter in the refrigerator?”. Yes indeed – now we know! Admittedly, I’m making an assumption that Dr. Cano’s 45 million year old yeast shares significant characteristics with today’s sourdoughs – and if they are making brew with it now, isn’t that question answered?
Not only that, but for me this puts back on the table another sourdough question: “How long can we neglect a feeding starter on my kitchen counter before really bad things begin to happen?” I’m being serious here, friends, because if we listen to the sourdough experts, we learn that if you neglect your feeding starter for even one day, there’s Holy-Hell to pay! And then occasionally a sourdough newbie writes in to one of the uber bread forums (Yup, like the one you’re thinking of right now), and says something like, “I forgot my starter for a week on my counter, and now it has pink and orange tints – is it gone?”. The answers generally are something along the lines, “Absolutely, get rid of it!”.
You might even see the even more rare posting about the starter that got forgotten in the back of the fridge until the day the dude moved, and, … lo and behold, look what he found! And he says it had black and purple mold over it, and was hard – generally, the dude doesn’t ask the ubers what he should do with his find. However, I do remember once reading about one of these “finds” (Hey, admit it, we all have them!) where the individual said that on a lark, he turned the hardened, moldy block over, scraped a bit of the un-molded surface, and added a little fresh water and flour – and Yup, it grew! It came back from the dead – just like the 45 million year old one.
And yet, we have this sense that somehow, we -mankind- are better than yeasts and bacteria.
But what really happens to that sourdough starter when it’s neglected on the kitchen counter? First it ferments as it feeds on the sugars in the mixture, making CO2 and alcohol in the process – and then when it’s done eating and fermenting, it enters a “dormancy” stage while it awaits another chance to begin eating again. But I think the fermentation stage is far longer than most bakers believe – certainly several days after starting a fermentation process, a sourdough starter is still quite fine, even if it has taken on a yellow or orange’ish tint. And all the time, it is developing pungent sourdough flavor.
Should it be pitched? Why? If it has been severely neglected -left for a week or two- then you may find some black or purple molds which must be removed and tossed – but if you renew your feedings once more to the remaining starter, there is no reason why it should not be successfully rejuvenated – we are talking about the same kind of yeasts that were revived after lying dormant for 45 million years!
Yes, I think the Wired article is super thought provoking – but being a rather simple creature, I am motivated to use this new-found knowledge more simplistically. As Dr. Cano suggests, the brewing process will make the living yeast available as it settles on the bottom of each bottle. Can I, and other bakers, resist the temptation of using an aged yeast – one that has been fermenting for 45 million years – to bake with? Hummm – good question. I’ll let you know as soon as Fossil Fuels Brewing Co puts its ancient yeast ale in bottles.