Making Sourdough Bread

The bread of Ancient Egypt isn’t easy to figure out. Though there are models and illustrations of bakeries from that time period, there aren’t recipes or a lot of details. We know the bread was made from emmer, a form of wheat, and that it involved a sourdough starter (though there was unleavened bread as well).

There’s also a lot of misinformation. If you research it, you’ll see author after author insist that Egyptian bread contained so much chaff and grit and sand that it wore down people’s teeth. I’ve seen two sources for those claims. One, the fact that bread found dried out in pyramids and other gravesites was full of chaff. Yes, because it was never meant to be eaten, just symbolic. Two, because people who have tried processing their own flour got grit in it. Because they didn’t have the training and experience to do it right.

So let’s look at what Ancient Egyptians actually seemed to eat. Archeologist Delwen Samuel has lived at sites in Egypt and also worked with the tools left behind (or replicas of them). Though, by her own admission, the actual baking portion didn’t go well.

Supplied with sufficient emmer flour, the next step in the experiment was baking emmer loaves. This proved much more difficult, and I have yet to produce palatable emmer bread. Emmer flour behaves quite differently from bread wheat, requiring much more water to make a workable dough. Each step of mixing, resting, shaping and then baking the dough needs further investigation. The addition of such flavourings as fruits also changes the characteristics of emmer dough. The final stages of Egyptian breadmaking are not necessarily straightforward and are still not fully understood.

A new look at old bread: ancient Egyptian baking. November 1999, Archaeology International 3, Delwen Samuel, St Mary’s University, Twickenham.


So let’s turn next to Seamus Blackley who, along with Serena Love and Rich Bowman, created several Twitter threads outlining making bread from the actual yeast strains the Ancient Egyptians used. The first strain came from 4500 year old pottery, which puts it around 2500 BCE. This is more than 1000 years before my novel’s setting, but hey, close enough.

Blackley’s initial tweets were on acquiring and activating the yeast strain. He used modern techniques to make bread.

The aroma of this yeast is unlike anything I’ve experienced.  This crazy ancient dough fermented and rose beautifully…The ancient Egyptians didn’t bake like this- you’ll see- but I need to get a feel for all this so I’m going conventional for now…The aroma is AMAZING and NEW. It’s much sweeter and more rich than the sourdough we are used to. It’s a big difference.  The crumb is light and airy, especially for a 100% ancient grain loaf. The aroma and flavor are incredible.  I’m emotional. It’s really different, and you can easily tell even if you’re not a bread nerd. This is incredibly exciting, and I’m so amazed that it worked.

Seamus Blackley, Tweet Thread, Aug 4-5, 2019. “Two weeks ago, with the help of Egyptologist @drserenalove and Microbiologist @rbowman1234, I went to Boston’s MFA and @Harvard’s @peabodymuseum to attempt collecting 4,500 year old yeast from Ancient Egyptian pottery.

Mixing & working the dough

Low, stone walls surrounded the two bakeries, which were filled with homogenous black ash under a layer of mud brick tumble. Opposite the southern entrance to each bakery, large ceramic vats* were embedded in the floor of the northwest corner. Marl clay floors were packed around the vats up to more than half their height, which would have made it difficult and tiring for the bakers to bend over their vats to do their work. It is possible that someone actually stood in the vats to mix the contents with their feet. The ancient bakers had broken the bottoms of these vats, possibly by kneading the dough with their feet, but they continued using the vats by reinforcing them with pieces of limestone and granite.

Feeding Pyramid Workers.  Ancient Egypt Research Associates (Aera).  * = Based on the article photo, I would guess each vat held around 30-40 gallons.


There were many types of bread so there were many ways to cook it. But the basic method, at least in the Old Kingdom, involved covered clay pots called bedja.

Redware pottery bread-mould with a protruding rounded base, straight sides and an everted square rim with a single ankh-sign incised beneath it. Also separate fragments of unfired clay inside. Excavated by: Egypt Exploration Fund. Africa: Egypt: Sohag (Governorate): Abydos. Diameter: 22.50 centimetres [8.9″]. Height: 16 centimetres [6.3″]. Acquisition date 1913.  The British Museum.

Evidence discovered from Elephantine Island in southern Egypt all the way to Palestine indicates that bread baking in bedja was a common and wide-spread practice for nearly 500 years…We found two bakeries, at that time the oldest known bakeries from ancient Egypt. These bakeries are the archaeological counterparts of the bakeries depicted in many scenes and limestone models from Old Kingdom (2575-2134 BC) tombs.

Fragments of the large, bell-shaped bread pots like those we see in the tomb scenes litter the Lost City in the hundreds of thousands. Labeled bedja in the tomb scenes, the largest weigh up to 12 kilograms each (26.5 pounds). We have found many intact examples at our site as well….

Old Kingdom tomb scenes depict bedja stacked upside-down over an open fire so they can be preheated before baking…Ancient scenes also show workmen pouring batter into upright bedja whose rounded bottoms had been set into some sort of base.

In our bakeries, two rows of depressions (looking like oversized egg cartons) had been dug into the floor to serve as receptacles for the preheated bedja. Tomb scenes show a secondary bedja placed upside-down as a cover over the filled bread mold. We think the covers were pots that had been preheated on the open hearth. Hot ashes were probably piled around the two pots to complete the baking process, as suggested by the abundant ash and charcoal fill of the depressions….

We found that the bread baked best when covered with a preheated bedja, as shown in ancient tomb scenes. Without the cover, the bread did not bake through all the way…We think that the pots were set into the depressions and surrounded by charcoal. Then the bakers would light straw tinder around the pots. This might explain the greenish-gray accretion on the outsides of our ancient bread molds. We analyzed the accretion as vitrified phytoliths, the siliceous inclusions in plants and grasses.

Feeding Pyramid Workers.  Ancient Egypt Research Associates (Aera).  

Please also see my post about fuel sources.

Other Baking Methods

Please see my post on ovens and stoves. Bread could be cooked on flat or curved surfaces similar to a large pan or flat iron grill. Bread could be baked in other molds, or in pans, or freeform, or slapped on the floor or wall of an oven.


Seamus Blackley’s Work:

  • Seamus Blackley, Tweet Thread, Jun 18, 2019.  “I’m in England, in a field of Barley. Today, I’m going to collect wild yeast under that tree back there, and I’m going to show how to feed and grow it until it’s ready to bake with. We are going to start at the very beginning, and end at the end.”
  • Seamus Blackley, Tweet Thread, Jul 28, 2019.  “Just now, the dormant yeast I collected this week from Ancient Egyptian artifacts (with help from @drserenalove and @rbowman1234) is being fed grain for the first time in four and a half thousand years. Here is the story.”
  • Seamus Blackley, Tweet Thread, Aug 4-5, 2019. “Two weeks ago, with the help of Egyptologist @drserenalove and Microbiologist @rbowman1234, I went to Boston’s MFA and @Harvard’s @peabodymuseum to attempt collecting 4,500 year old yeast from Ancient Egyptian pottery. Today, I baked with some of it…”
  • A Conversation With the Team That Made Bread With Ancient Egyptian Yeast: How a scientist harvested 4,500-year-old yeast and turned it into a loaf of sourdough.  Eater.  Jenny G. Zhang. Aug 8, 2019. Interview with Seamus Blackley and Serena Love.
  • Seamus Blackley, Tweet Thread (threaded version), March 29, 2020. “Today I achieved* something that I’ve been trying to do for a year. The slice of bread here was made with leavening cultures sampled from ancient Egyptian baking vessels, using ancient Emmer wheat, with an ancient Egyptian recipe, using ancient Egyptian baking tools, and NO OVEN.”

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