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Your discarded sourdough bread starter could help science

Bad at baking bread during lockdown? Help researchers studying microbes by sharing data on sourdough starter mishaps.

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Glorious bread isn't always easy to make. 

Debbie Wolfe

It seems everyone is trying their hand at cooking during the coronavirus lockdown -- with stress-baking bread proving especially popular. While making the perfect loaf might sound easy enough, it can take quite a bit of trial and error just to create a worthwhile sourdough bread starter

But would-be bakers frustrated with their bread starters turning into sci-fi nightmares can still feel like heroes by donating their work to science. 

Researchers at The Public Science Lab at North Carolina State University want to better understand the microbes created in sourdough starters, and are looking for samples, both good and bad.

To make a sourdough starter, you mix flour and water and then put it in a warm place to ferment (usually four to eight days). This mixture will eventually turn into fermented dough filled with natural, wild yeast, and a bacteria called lactobacilli. This mixture is what makes sourdough bread rise. 

However, not all bread starters end up being a success. Sometimes the mixture is left in a cold place, or never ferments properly. Or the starter just smells really bad. 

The Public Science Lab researchers want novice bakers to make sourdough starters at home using all kinds of flour, under different conditions (such as indoors or outdoors). And then measure how well their bread starters rise, look and smell. And if the bakers end up with bad batches of starters, the researchers still want to hear about them.

Previously, The Public Science Lab launched the Global Sourdough Project, which helped the researchers study hundreds of starters from all over the world. While they learned a lot from these starters, there were still lingering questions. 

Researchers were still curious if the type of flour used and the location of the baker affected the final outcome of a wild sourdough starter. 

Bakers interested in participating can sign up online. They'll then be guided on how to create a "wild sourdough starter using only water and flour following a 10-day protocol," according to the website

Bakers then fill out a short online questionnaire detailing their bread starter observations.

The researchers will use that data to learn how geography and different flours can affect microbial growth over time, as well as how those microbes affect the taste and texture of bread.

"I'm really hoping that some people can give us information about the starters that do fail because we don't hear about that enough, Lauren Nichols from the lab's Wild Sourdough Project told NPR on Wednesday. "And we definitely don't hear about failures enough in science in general."