AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Judging by the empty shelves of flour at the supermarket, many of you have been baking lately. And with yeast sold out, too, perhaps you tried your hand at sourdough.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Perhaps, but if your experiments fell flat and instead of a beautiful bouncy loaf, you baked a lifeless, jaw-breaking crater, do not despair. You can still use that sourdough starter for science.
LAUREN NICHOLS: 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. And we definitely don't hear about failures enough in science in general.
CHANG: Lauren Nichols is the lab manager at The Public Science Lab at North Carolina State University. It's the same lab that asked you to swab your belly button bacteria or count spiders in your home. It's now launching the Wild Sourdough Project.
ANNE MADDEN: It broadly asks the question of how do geography and types of flour shape the activity of a sourdough starter as well as the aromas of these sourdough starters.
KELLY: Anne Madden is a scientist on the project. She says your sourdough could help solve microbial mysteries.
MADDEN: And we get these questions a lot from bakers about, you know, what are the best microorganisms that can blend with certain types of flours, like gluten-free flours, to make the best-tasting bread?
CHANG: So how can you take part? Just search for Wild Sourdough Project online. The lab has a recipe and some feeding tips.
NICHOLS: The beauty and the difficulty of sourdough is that it's kind of like giving someone instructions for how to train a pet. There are some general guidelines, but every pet's going to be different. So some starters might be hungrier and have a faster metabolism.
CHANG: But no matter how hungry your starter is, Nichols says after feeding it 14 times, you will observe and photograph its rise.
KELLY: And then sniff it. Do you smell paint?
KELLY: Maybe sweaty feet - the lab has a sourdough aroma wheel to help you decide. And if you're stuck at home, Madden says, why not study what is right under your nose?
MADDEN: Just because a habitat is nearest us doesn't mean it's filled with less mysteries than those that are on the other side of the globe. And the sort of magic of this process is that it doesn't necessarily take more than flour, water and a little bit of time.
CHANG: And time is one thing we have no shortage of.
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