Yeast Is A Hot Commodity; Brewing And Breadmaking During Lockdown

In the recent frenzy of stocking up with provisions as the populace prepare for their COVID-19 lockdown, there have been some widely-publicised examples of products that have become scarce commodities. Toilet paper, pasta, rice, tinned vegetables, and long-life milk are the ones that come to mind, but there’s another one that’s a little unexpected.

As everyone dusts off the breadmaker that’s lain unused for years since that time a loaf came out like a housebrick, or contemplates three months without beer and rediscovers their inner home brewer, it seems yeast can’t be had for love nor money. No matter, because the world is full of yeasts and thus social media is full of guides for capturing your own from dried fruit, or from the natural environment. A few days tending a pot of flour and water, taking away bacterial cultures and nurturing the one you want, and you can defy the shortage and have as much yeast as you need.

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Engineering Your Way To Better Sourdough (and Other Fermented Goods)

Trent Fehl is an engineer who has worked for such illustrious outfits as SpaceX and Waymo. When he got into baking, he brought those engineering skills home to solve a classic problem in the kitchen: keeping a sourdough starter within the ideal, somewhat oppressive range of acceptable temperatures needed for successful fermentation.

A sourdough starter is a wad of wild yeasts that you make yourself using flour, water, and patience. It’s good for a lot more than just sourdough bread — you can scoop some out of the jar and use it to make pancakes, waffles, pretzels, and a host of other bread-y delights. A starter is a living thing, a container full of fermentation that eats flour and has specific temperature needs. Opinions differ a bit, but the acceptable temperature range for active growth is about 60 F to 82 F. Too cold, and the starter will go dormant, though it can be revived with a little love. But if the starter gets too hot, all the yeasts and bacteria will die.

While there are of course commercial products out there that attempt to solve this problem of temperature control, most of them seem to be aimed at people who live in some wonderland that never gets warmer than 80F. Most of these devices can’t cool, they only provide heat. But what if you live in a place with seasons where the climate ranges from hot and humid to cold and dry?

The answer lies within Chamber, a temperature-regulated haven Trent created that lets these wild yeasts grow and thrive. It uses a Peltier unit to heat and cool the box as needed to keep the mixture fermenting at 26°C /78.8°F.

Thanks to the Peltier unit, Trent can change the temperature inside the chamber simply by alternating the direction of current flow through the Peltier. He’s doing this with an H-bridge module driven by a Raspberry Pi Zero. When it starts to get too warm in the chamber, the fan on the outside wall vents the heat away. A second fan inside the chamber pulls warm air in when it gets too cold.

Trent says that Chamber performs really well, and he’s recorded temperatures as low as 60F and as high as 82F. He mostly uses it for sourdough, but it could work for other temperature-sensitive food sciences like pickling, growing mushrooms, or making yogurt. We think it could be ideal for fermenting kombucha, too.

Chamber works well enough that Trent has put further development on the back burner while he makes use of it. He does have several ideas for improvements, so if you want to help, check out his website and Github repo.

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Open-Source Biology And Biohacking Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday at noon Pacific time for the open-source biology and biohacking Hack Chat!

Justin Atkin‘s name might not ring a bell, but you’ve probably seen his popular YouTube channel The Thought Emporium, devoted to regular doses of open source science. Justin’s interests span a wide range, literally from the heavens above to the microscopic world.

His current interest is to genetically modify yeast to produce spider silk, and to perhaps even use the yeast for brewing beer. He and the Thought Emporium team have been busy building out a complete DIY biology lab to support the effort, and have been conducting a variety of test experiments along the way.

Please join us for this Hack Chat, in which we’ll cover:

  • The how’s and why’s of yeast genetic engineering;
  • What it takes to set up an effective biology lab from scratch;
  • An update on the current status of the spider-silk yeast project; and
  • Where the open-source biology field is, and where it’s going.

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the Open-Source Biology and Biohacking Hack Chat event page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, February 13, at noon, Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Hacked Heating Instruments For The DIY Biology Lab

[Justin] from The Thought Emporium takes on a common molecular biology problem with these homebrew heating instruments for the DIY biology lab.

The action at the molecular biology bench boils down to a few simple tasks: suck stuff, spit stuff, cool stuff, and heat stuff. Pipettes take care of the sucking and spitting, while ice buckets and refrigerators do the cooling. The heating, however, can be problematic; vessels of various sizes need to be accommodated at different, carefully controlled temperatures. It’s not uncommon to see dozens of different incubators, heat blocks, heat plates, and even walk-in environmental chambers in the typical lab, all acquired and maintained at great cost. It’s enough to discourage any would-be biohacker from starting a lab.

[Justin] knew It doesn’t need to be that way, though. So he tackled two common devices:  the incubator and the heating block. The build used as many off-the-shelf components as possible, keeping costs down. The incubator is dead simple: an insulated plastic picnic cooler with a thermostatically controlled reptile heating pad. That proves to be more than serviceable up to 40°, at the high end of what most yeast and bacterial cultures require.

The heat block, used to heat small plastic reaction vessels called Eppendorf tubes, was a little more complicated to construct. Scrap heat sinks yielded aluminum stock, which despite going through a bit of a machinist’s nightmare on the drill press came out surprisingly nice. Heat for the block is provided by a commercial Peltier module and controller; it looks good up to 42°, a common temperature for heat-shocking yeast and tricking them into taking up foreign DNA.

We’re impressed with how cheaply [Justin] was able to throw together these instruments, and we’re looking forward to seeing how he utilizes them. He’s already biohacked himself, so seeing what happens to yeast and bacteria in his DIY lab should be interesting.

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Arachnid Ale Uses Yeast To Make Spider Silk

Many people who read Hackaday hold the title of “Webmaster” but [The Thought Emporium] is after slightly different credentials with the same title. He aims to modify a strain of yeast to produce spider silk. Charlotte’s Web didn’t go into great detail about the different types of silk that a spider can produce, but the video and screencap after the break give a rundown of how spiders make different types of silk, and that each species of spider makes a unique silk. For this experiment, the desired silk is “beta sheets” which the video explains are hard and strong.

Some of the points mentioned in the video rely on things previously mentioned in other videos, but if you are the type of person excited by genetic modifications or using modified yeast to produce something made by another lifeform, you will probably be just fine. This is one of the most technical videos made by [The Thought Emporium] as he goes into the mechanisms of the modifications he will be making to the yeast. It sounds like a lot of work and the financial benefit of being able to produce spider silk affordably could be great, but in true hacker form, the procedure and results will be made freely available.

For some background into this hacker’s mind, check out how he has hacked his own lactose intolerance and even produced graphene through electrochemical exfoliation.

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Raspberry Pi Tracks Starter Fermentation For Optimized Sourdough

Those of you who’ve never had a real sourdough have never had real bread. Good food fights back a little when you eat it, and a proper sourdough, with its crispy crust and tangy center, certainly fits the bill. Sourdough aficionados, your humble writer included, all have recipes that we pretend are ancient family secrets while in reality we’re all just guessing. Sourdough is partly science, partly art, but mostly delicious black magic.

In an effort to demystify his sourdough process, [Justin Lam] has gone digital with this image processing sourdough starter monitor. Sourdough breads are leavened not by the addition of brewers yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), but by the inclusion of a starter,  a vibrant ecosystem of wild yeasts that is carefully nurtured, sometimes for years. Like any other living thing, it needs to be fed, a task that should happen at the point of maximum fermentation. Rather than guess when this might be, [Justin] used a Raspberry Pi Zero and PiCam to capture a time-lapse video of the starter as the beasties within give off their CO₂, thus expanding it up inside its container. A little Python does the work of thresholding and finding the top of the starter as it rises, allowing [Justin] to plot height of the starter over time. He found that peak height, and therefore peak fermentation, occurs about six hours after feeding. He has used his data to better inform his feeding schedule and to learn how best to revive neglected starters.

Surprisingly, this isn’t the first time we’ve discussed sourdough here. It seems that someone uses Git for iterative sourdough recipe development, and we once featured a foundry made from a pyrolyzed loaf of sourdough.

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Breadboarding: Git For A/B Testing Actual Bread

We will be the first to admit, we like to use Git for a lot of things that are probably off the beaten path. But now thanks to [hendricius] you can find out how to make your own bread on GitHub. Let’s get one thing straight. This isn’t the breadmaker fad from a while back, although we are surprised we don’t see more hacked together breadmakers with Internet connectivity. This is old-fashioned bread baking with a bowl, some ingredients, and an oven or another heat source.

You might think this is just using Git as a repository for recipes, but it is more than that. According to [hendricius]:

Learn how to master the art of baking the programmer way. If you love programming, you will also enjoy breaking some bread. A/B test, iterate and ultimately become a self-taught baker. This repository is dedicated to becoming your bread manifesto with useful tricks and hacks. Furthermore, the goal is to illustrate how easy making bread is and that you can get started today without expensive tools.

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