The Karaite Kitniyot Experiment

PassoverAre Karaites the original Food Detectives?

The Karaites of the middle ages actually conducted experiments to determine whether the flours of grains and kitniyot (usually translated as “legumes”) can become hametz (leaven). And with the help of Yochanan Labombarbe, the Dean of Students for the Karaite Jewish University, we’ve recreated (most of) those experiments.

The general Karaite view is that any flour that leavens can be used to make matzah. But flours that can leaven may not be consumed once they have in fact leavened. And, the general view is that if a flour will never leaven, we can eat it in all its forms during Passover.*

As summarized at the Karaite-Korner, the Karaites of the middle ages initially found through experimentation that the flours of wheat, spelt, barley, oat and rye become hametz. In contrast, the flours of “rice, beans, lentils, and peas do not leaven but spoil.” Later Karaites in the middle ages also found that “millet flour if left with water for a number of days” also leavens.

From these experiments, those Karaites determined that there are six flours (wheat, spelt, barley, oats, rye and millet) that can be used to make matzah, but cannot be consumed if they have leavened.

2013 Results:

In recreating these experiments, Yochanan used a standard sourdough starter recipe (without the yeast) to determine which flours leaven and which flours spoil. The results are what we would have expected.

The flours of rye, barley, and wheat leavened; whereas the flours of corn and rice did not. Here are some pictures showing the flours at various steps in the process.

  • This picture depicts the flours immediately after adding water (2/23/13- after Shabbat):

Flours Immediately After Adding Water

  • These pictures depict the flours a day-and-a-half later (2/25/13 – morning):
Note the leavening of Rye, Barley and Wheat; and the lack of activity of Rice and Corn

Note the leavening of Rye, Barley and Wheat; and the lack of activity of Rice and Corn

Rye and Barley (front) hav been affected in ways the Rice and Corn (back) have not

Rye and Barley (front) have been affected in ways the Rice and Corn (back) have not

2013 Procedure:

In case you want to recreate the experiment for yourself or explain another way to conduct the experiment, here is what Yohanan did.

  • Add 1/4 cup of flour with 1/4 of bottled spring water to a mixing bowl
  • Mix well
  • Cover with a cheese cloth

It really is simple. Not much detective work it turns out.

As alluded to earlier, Yaqub al-Qirqisani reported that millet did not become hametz; but Aharon ben Eliyahu found that millet became hametz after several days. We may do the experiment again in the future with millet to see how long it actually takes to become hametz, if at all.

Happy Passover! And a special thanks to Yochanan.

* As noted in the link at the Karaite-Korner, Karaites themselves debated what precisely is “hametz” and not all Karaites have historically agreed with these dividing lines with respect to the flours.


Filed under Aharon ben Eliyahu, Karaite Korner, Passover, Yaqub al-Qirqisani

4 Responses to The Karaite Kitniyot Experiment

  1. maurice

    This is good to know when debating the Rabbanites. Also, those who feel they do not observe can be assured that they are by way of these simple experiments. I’ll be spreading the word on this one.

  2. This is interesting. I often make dosa which involves soaking rice and lentils separately and then combining and blending them into a batter. The combination of rice and lentil together DOES indeed leaven and become sour, like a traditional sourdough. Curious why the combo does leaven but not the individual grains do not.

  3. Keren DeTorno

    Every individual environment, (thus each household kitchen and pantry) has its own varietals of “wild yeasts” that inhabit it, determined viable to cause leavening based on the exposure of specific past grains and legumes and available complete amino acid combinations that continue to remain airborne or affixed to its surfaces, walls, windows, curtains, containers in the room, facility, or even in the yards and fields surrounding your habitation.
    Hazzan Zaqantov attracted these wild yeasts with his basic starter recipe (note it does NOT contain any leavening agent itself) but its attracts wild yeasts from his environment in order to create its own wild sourdough starter from the wild yeasts leftover and that are remaining viable in that environment. This does slightly skew his experiment outcomes. And, yes each individual grain and legume has its own protein (amino acids and glycogen properties). These are attractants for specific wild yeasts.
    Thus, every experiment is subject to whatever “wild yeast” varietal is actually available in your own environment. Consider that It is why Alaskan Sourdough has its own unique properties of leavening and subsequent taste, from San Fransisco Sourdough! So be aware of these issues when factoring outcomes and when you try out this experiment to prove what grains or legumes are “leavening”. What leavened in Hazzans physical testing environment; based on his internal home temperature, and what caused the wild yeast properties of his available homes “seeding yeasts”, will not per se be the same reaction and outcome results that you will achieve in your own kitchen. The Life Span of yeasts is factored by its availability of its glycogen uptake and stores. This varies with each yeast varietal.
    But, the viability of repopulating wild yeasts once populated, can sustain and repopulate on surfaces and airborne for a very long time, IF it has an environment and a food source to foster it to repopulate.
    See this interesting article.

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