Maybe you've noticed it, too. Loaves of bread have begun appearing in social media feeds — tops slashed, edges burnished — from people who you didn't know to be bakers. Was it a passing anomaly? I thought so, until I received an unexpected text from a friend.
“How do you make yeast?”
My longtime pal had never baked — not a cookie, not a brownie, certainly not a loaf of bread. Yet here he was, on the hunt for yeast — which, let's face it, can’t easily be manufactured at home. Except in one particular way. “You mean, make a starter?” I wrote back.
Yes, that is what he meant, a sourdough starter. Still, it was puzzling: Despite panic buying in March, there still seemed to be plenty of bread in supermarkets and bakeries. By contrast, flour and yeast had vanished almost overnight, and soon enough, legions of hitherto non-bakers had begun firing up their ovens.
Quarantine baking is real, but the bread offshoot is a fascinating one, because it's not an easy road. Yeast and flour have almost become contraband — hard to find both in stores and online — and the process itself can be lengthy and tricky. The first time I baked sourdough, from my own new starter (using a process I had found through Googling), it emerged from the oven looking like a baked frisbee, having hardly rose. It had taken approximately the entire weekend to produce. Still, it tasted amazing, and I had officially caught the sourdough bug.
So has Monika Robinson, a photographer in Oceanside, who had been stymied in her search for baking ingredients after shelter-in-place was ordered. “All of a sudden, everyone was baking,” she said. “I went to the supermarket and there was absolutely no flour, no yeast, no nothing.”
Robinson had never baked before, either, but the idea had possessed her during the first week of quarantine. She eventually scored some yeast from a neighbor and made a no-knead bread “that was the most beautiful bread ever," she said. In the meantime, Robinson also began her own sourdough starter — essentially a slurry of flour and water that you “feed” daily until it becomes a living dough, a source of yeast you draw from for future loaves.
Robinson’s starter took about five days to become active, and then she tried her first loaf of sourdough. “As I kneaded the dough, I thought I was gonna pass out. My arms were killing me!” she laughed. Still, after the many hours of rising, proofing and baking, Robinson had a loaf that filled her with pride, even if she made small beginner mistakes — such as not scoring the top of the loaf to direct the oven spring, or rise. “It was so much work, but the smell when it was baking it reminded me of Poland,” Robinson said — more specifically, of loaves she used to buy from a bakery in her grandmother’s small Polish village. “It felt so good to have my family enjoying it, and for my daughter to say ‘this is the best bread ever.’”
Robinson planned to make her second loaf for Easter, to accompany a traditional Polish soup called żurek, or white borscht. “You need homemade sourdough, or a nice rye or country-style bread,” to go with the soup, she said.
Brooke Filosa, who also lives in Oceanside, had baked focaccia before, from a family recipe (her family is from Bari, Italy) but that’s where her bread-baking experience stopped. “I never branched beyond [focaccia], but I thought there was no better time than now to try different styles,” she said. Filosa went all in, buying a 25-pound bag of flour from Costco. “I was having a hard time finding yeast, though,” she said, until a friend hooked her up.
Filosa, who has two young children and owns her own PR company, plunged into multiple styles: A plain, white no-knead bread; an olive no-knead bread; and a Pullman loaf, aka white sandwich bread that’s baked in a square pan. “I figured, why not? I had just run out of store-bought sandwich bread,” she said. “Now I don’t think I’ll ever go back [to store bought]. I had a sandwich today, and it was so good. I can see myself making it over and over again.”
Further east, in Central Islip, Jim Donahue has been baking on the regular too, but not necessarily because of quarantine: He started his practice under another kind of duress, when he was laid off from a longtime job five years ago. “I had always been scared of baking with yeast, as earlier experiments had not gone terribly well,” he said. “Once I started doing it regularly, I got really good at it.”
Donahue began to turn out a spectrum of breads, from artisan loaves to sandwich rolls, but also pastries and enriched breads, or those with higher fat content; he recently did a Facebook live on baking chocolate babka, and is planning another on hot cross buns. Donahue's advice for new bakers is persistence. “Be patient, don’t be discouraged, even if your first attempt doesn’t work out,” he said. “Keep at it. Yeast can be mysterious, and every once in awhile, even if you do as you’re supposed to do, it doesn’t work. That’s okay — I just throw it away.”
That spirit of adventure seems to partly drive Gay Snow, an avid cook in Bridgehampton who recently decided to take up baking — though not before receiving a vital tool. “I was going to do it all by hand but thought, ‘wait a minute, there has to be a better way,’” said Snow. She’s ordered a KitchenAid for kneading (it comes equipped with a dough hook).
Snow used to go the store frequently for fresh bread for her family, but as for everyone else, those visits have dwindled. “Now that we’re all housebound, I decided I should just bake bread. I know what I like, so I can make my own and play with the crust,” Snow said.
Before COVID-19 arrived in the U.S., a prescient Snow stocked up on yeast, flour and other baking essentials (as well as hand sanitizer) months ago. Once she has her Kitchen Aid, she’ll be rolling. “The beauty of [baking bread] is less dependency. There’s so much we don’t have control of right now,” she said.
For Filosa, baking has also somehow brought about a deep gratification during an uncertain time. “It’s fulfilling to conquer something you’ve always wanted to try,” Filosa said. “I’ve also been giving loaves of bread to friends and family, and it’s been nourishing my heart.”
SOURDOUGH TIPS FROM AN EXPERT
Ray Smith, co-owner and baker at Blacksmith’s Breads in Long Beach — whose sourdough loaves have a devoted following — teaches classes on bread baking, and offered some advice for aspiring and amateur sourdough bakers:
Use simplified starter: Throw out any starter recipe that has any more ingredients than flour(s) and water. You don’t need honey, potato starch, sugar.
Use bread flour for starter: All purpose flour works fine, but can be slack and fall quicker than bread flour when it reaches its peak.
Add whole grain flour: A little whole grain flour helps to speed up the process, especially if you’re starting one out from scratch yourself. More natural yeasts are found on the bran and germ present in whole grain flour.
Find recipes that use percentages and weights: Using a digital scale is more precise than relying on volume measurements.
Stay calm and carry on: “Don’t overthink it, it’s just bread,” says Smith. Spoken like a pro.