A sourdough starter is a seemingly simple mixture of flour and water. But within lives a whole population of wild yeasts and bacteria that, if fed regularly, can live on indefinitely.

Those who are brand new to sourdough often balk at statements like, “My sourdough starter is 70 years old!” The starter in the jar hasn’t been sitting there for 70 years, but we’ll unpack that shortly.

Having a sourdough starter with centuries-old ties is pretty exciting, and many of us are wondering: just how old is the oldest sourdough starter? And does that even matter?

A Very Brief Sourdough History

There’s a lot to learn when it comes to sourdough history, but the very brief version brings us back thousands of years.

For most of history, all leavened bread was leavened naturally. Commercial yeast wasn’t a thing until the industrialization of bread production.

The first documented information about sourdough was from Pliny the Elder. He wrote that Roman bread was leavened with sourdough around 70 CE.

Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder

However, there were suspicions that sourdough originated in ancient Egypt. The first evidence we have of bread baking, in general, is in the primitive ovens of Babylon around 4000 BCE.

Moving forward a bit in history, we see how important bread baking was to ancient Egypt, circa 1550 BCE. They painted their bread-making process on the walls of tombs, and many a clay pot, used for baking bread, has been studied.

Ramses III bakery - Egypt
Ramses III Bakery – Egypt

This brings us to Jonathan “Seamus” Blackley, the inventor of the Xbox.

Related: How to Feed Sourdough Starter Without a Scale (So Easy!)

Blackley’s Egyptian Sourdough – 5,000 Years Old

You might be wondering what the Xbox has to do with sourdough, and it is a little bizarre.

But in 2019, Jonathan Blackley, the inventor of the Xbox, partnered with a biologist and archaeologist to extract dormant yeast from an ancient Egyptian bread-baking pot. He documented the whole process on his X (Twitter) account.

They believe the yeast dates back between 4,500 and 5,000 years, though other experts in the sourdough space still admit the actual original of sourdough is hard to pin down. 

blackleys egyptian sourdough starter
One of the photos from Blackey’s X post on August 5, 2019

So, if they did indeed revive ancient yeast, it could be argued that today’s oldest sourdough starter is from ancient Egypt, nearly 5,000 years ago.

Other Old Sourdough Starters

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people who claim to have very old starters, all with a unique origin story.

Here are a few famous ones:

Others on forums and sourdough groups share origin stories that date back to the Mayflower, Louis XIV at Versailles in the late 1600s, over 100 years ago in Sicily and Paris, 153 years ago in Iceland… the stories are endless.

But can these stories actually be verified?

bubbly active sourdough starter
My happy starter, named Gertie!
https://thatsourdoughgal.com/sourdough/benefits-of-sourdough-bread

Can You Verify the Age of a Starter?

You can’t fact-check someone on their sourdough starter age claims.

According to Mr. Karl De Smedt, the curator of the world’s only sourdough library, you can’t carbon-date sourdough starter.

“The microbial colonies of a starter can change entirely, depending on how it is fed and maintained. If someone insisted she had a 500-year-old sourdough, I’d have to believe her.”

Does Sourdough Starter Age Really Matter?

The origins and age of sourdough starters are pretty irrelevant other than having a cool story or sentimental ties. I mean, it would give you some clout to say your starter has ties to ancient Greece.

As one blogger put it, “[An] attraction to an old starter with a story is the connection to bakers from the past.”

sourdough starter in weck jar
Me being a huge nerd with some of my bubbly, active sourdough starter

But in reality, the wild yeasts and bacteria in your starter will evolve based on a variety of factors, including what flour you use, your water, the temperature in your home, and even YOU.

Yep, sourdough researchers have studied this and found that the microbes on your hands are the same microbes on your sourdough starter.

Sourdough Starters Change

Your starter, no matter where it came from, doesn’t have the same microbes in it as it did dozens of years ago. It’s ever-evolving and is unique from baker to baker.

If you purchase a starter from another baker, you might enjoy the unique properties for a week or two, but after a period of time, the culture inside will evolve and become unique to you and your home. 

sourdough discard
A look at some sourdough discard from my fridge

Yeast cells reproduce and die at an alarmingly fast rate, some even as quickly as one hour. So your starter is constantly changing.

There’s much debate about this, but there’s enough research to show that even the same sourdough starter – if given to different bakers and used in different kitchens or bakeries – will change. I think that’s something to marvel at!

The Oldest Sourdough Starters (And Why It Doesn’t Really Matter)

Conclusion

Sourdough is how bread was leavened in ancient times, and as long as you feed your starter daily, it can technically live on indefinitely.

The idea that you could have one of the oldest sourdough starters with an origin story that dates back hundreds of years is pretty intriguing. Many even get sentimental about their starter’s story, especially if it was passed down through generations.

But does it really matter? Not really. The joy is in eating the bread, and that’s enough for me.

Read Next: 282 Best Sourdough Starter Names: Ideas & Inspiration

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3 Comments

  1. i just got a starter of the egyptian sour dough. I went a class hosted by a gal who has a world wide collection. She’s got a culture her culture and a few others from the guy mentioned. I am excited to have it. Just think King Tut, Moses, Cleopatra could have eaten bread made from this starter!!

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