Why bread baking is so popular in the bread baking articles Covid

Why bread baking is so popular in the bread baking articles Covid

“When we all started social distancing a couple weeks ago, one of the first thoughts I had was, ‘I could make bread with Mom.’ The starter that my mom insists on using is my grandmother’s starter from years ago. Like, the early 1990s!” says Sara Huffman, a home baker from Virginia. “My grandmother was an avid baker and used to make bread every week for herself and her neighbors. She gave some of her starter to my mom who has been carting it around with her — through several moves, mind you — since then. My grandmother passed away in 2002, so my mom is determined to keep that starter alive and working.”
When Locke and I spoke, Passover was imminent, and they pointed out how central bread is to that religious celebration. Bread is also central to Christian traditions, in the form of the bread broken for Communion, a bread that my fellow Christians and I aren’t consuming together right now.
To look at the history of bread is to feel the eye-blink that is human history against the grand sweep of space and time. It is not so very far to travel from those prehistoric humans slowly discovering how to cultivate their own yeast cultures to you and me at home, coaxing a sourdough starter to life.
While writing this story, I talked with more than 50 home bakers, as well as professionals and experts in the field. Some of those home bakers have been baking for years. Some started just a few months ago and were surprised to find themselves part of a trend. Still others found themselves with a lot of time on their hands because of world events and thought, “Hey, I’ve always wanted to bake some bread.”
So we cannot discount the appeal of science, of control, of the idea that you might, in some small way, take a living organism and force it to give you delicious bread, or that you might take the ground-up kernels of a grain crop of some sort and create something delicious with it.
“I’ve seen people with all sorts of meters and thermometers and probes and ultra-electronic monitoring systems for their starter. I don’t even know what’s happening,” says Saffitz. “Sure, bread baking should still be a scientific process, but it shouldn’t only be a scientific process. It should also be a tactile process and, I think, sort of pseudo-spiritual.”
“I’m sure 95 percent of the sourdough starters people make during this lockdown ultimately will die in the backs of people’s fridges when life starts to get back to whatever ‘normal’ is going to be, but it’s something to do right now while waiting,” says home baker Annie Bullock. “It’s an investment in the future, a way of telling myself I’ll still be here after this crisis ends, and I’ll want this.”
“I don’t think that my homemade bread has any more value than the bread that I buy in the store or bread that I buy from a bakery. It’s not necessary for me to do,” Lohman says. “And that’s great. When it was necessary for me to do, stuff like that took up all of my time, and I wouldn’t have got to have the career or the life that I have as a woman.”
“I like that it is antithetical to disruption and innovation, and that people have been doing it in much the same way for generations,” Keyes says. “It’s nice having control over something so positive in this frightening and unsettling time.”
Michelle Kondrich for Vox Step 3: Rising, and the weird wonders of nature Seriously, how much do you know about yeast? Because it’s so fucking cool .
So, how long have we been eating bread? “When I wrote Flour Water Salt Yeast , research at that time suggested bread had been made in Western culture for about 5,000 or 6,000 years. Most of the evidence went back to the Egyptian era,” Forkish says. “Now, I’m seeing references that archaeological discoveries since have turned up evidence of bread baking going back 10,000 years.”
“Never would we have expected to not be able to find things like bread, peanut butter, and eggs in the grocery store within our lifetime. That was something I learned about historically, studying rationing during World War II, but not something I imagined for myself,” Lohman says. “Does having to make your own bread when you can’t get it reaffirm how valuable and ephemeral access to food can be? Maybe. Is it scientific for some people? Is it the fascination ? I think it’s super individual.”
Figuring out the exact right amount of time to let bread dough rise is more difficult than you’d expect. It involves trial and error and testing hypotheses, an extremely individualized version of the scientific method.
“I was mixing dough, mixing all these flours, and for the first time, it really clicked how, like grapes are to wine, wheat and flour are to bread. The better quality wheat you use, the more that fermentation process unlocks incredible flavor,” Saffitz says.
“For me, it’s a process. Even though I have to time it and set timers for myself, it takes me out of the clock-watching that happens during the day. Like, ‘I have a phone call at 3, and I wanted to get this email sent by 5.’ It just helps me to gauge time a little bit differently. I always say, ‘I’m on the bread’s time. The bread is not on my time,’” says Saffitz.
Bread baking is a thing we do in a crisis, perhaps because bread is one of the very foundations of human civilization, and perhaps because it has been marketed to us as life-giving. In the midst of quarantine, we have turned, seemingly collectively, to techniques from the past, like coaxing yeast out of the air, the sort of sufficiently advanced technology that is indistinguishable from magic. We have learned to create something from nothing.
Consider the fields where your wheat was grown, and what they used to be, before they were wheat fields. Everything we have in America is stolen and soaked in blood, even the bread in your mouth. Your bread is not the truth no matter how hard you knead it with your hands. Your bread is not a political action. Your bread is just bread. You either feed people with it, or let it get stale with waiting.
This ability to mess with the fundamental building blocks of bread for different results — What if I did this or did that ? — is what’s drawn more scientifically minded at-home cooks to the hobby. Indeed, Forkish attributes a former career in the sciences to his success as a baker. He took processes that he’d learned elsewhere and applied them to an entirely different field, then passed those ideas to at-home bakers.
What I can tell you is why I bake bread.
There are probably few people in civilized life who were the question put to them directly would not say that they consider bread one of the most, if not the most, important article of diet which enters into the food of man. And yet there is in reality almost a total and universal carelessness about the character of bread. Thousands in civic life will for years and perhaps as long as they live eat the most miserable trash that can be imagined in the form of bread and never seem to think that they can possibly have anything better nor even that it is an evil to eat such vile stuff as they do. And if there is occasionally an individual who is troubled with some convictions that his bread is not quite what it should be, he knows not how to remedy the difficulty.
The loaf I have just baked will be eaten by me and my wife. The first few slices, right now, have butter melting atop them, and later, I might spread honey on mine. I have joked to my friends that once quarantine is over, I will bombard them with bread I baked just for them, and I think, sometimes, about leaving a loaf or two downstairs in the mailroom for a neighbor I do not yet know.

So let’s talk about nurturing. And let’s talk about women.
“‘Emptins’ is the yeasty mass left at the bottom of a brewing container. In the 18th century, brewing was largely done by women. It fell under the purview of domestic duties. So you would scoop yeast out of the bottom of whatever you were brewing and use that to leaven your bread,” says Lohman, the food historian. “The other major method was, of course, sourdough, which is in historical cookbooks. … It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century, when wet and dry commercial yeast was beginning to be produced, that you could buy in a grocery store or order from a company.”
But bread also reminds us of time in the micro, as anybody who has kneaded dough will tell you. The bread I am perfecting requires no kneading — the act of mixing it is enough to get it to rise — but I’ve made many a loaf that requires 10, 15, or 20 minutes of kneading, of leaning over a floured countertop and pinching and folding the dough, to create the long chains of gluten molecules that give bread the contrast between the crunch of its exterior and the pillowy warmth of its interior that makes for the most pleasurable experience.
Michelle Kondrich for Vox Step 5: Eating, or what it means to have optimism Around a week after my wife and I began quarantining, I emerged from my apartment for the first time to a Los Angeles that had changed utterly. It was cool and rainy, the streets slicked with colors painted by traffic lights. I saw almost no one on my nearly 3-mile walk. I had it in my head that a small grocery store on the other side of my neighborhood might not have been picked over, might have the handful of items I still needed.
Home baker Emma Keyes similarly connects bread baking to a seemingly bygone art: darkroom photography.
I think Lohman maybe has it right when she says that the romanticizing of bread is an attempt to create nostalgia for a past that was not as rose-colored as we might imagine. But for me, baking bread is a way to create nostalgia for the future, to believe that the world will not just come back to life but will somehow become better. The past is not trapped in a bubble somewhere. The past is inside our homes with us, sitting on a rack to cool, waiting to be slathered with soft butter while it is still steaming and warm. We might learn something from it still. It might inform the future, in the sense that we might take what we need and leave behind what we don’t.
You cannot rush yeast. It makes its own time. But you can learn to work with it. “ Yeast is an organism, a biological entity. It eats. It breathes. It ejects waste,” says Forkish. “And in the right environment, it will multiply and prosper. Once you learn the variables, what are the environments that give you the results you want? You feel like you can have a little bit of control over using these to get what you want.”
The rise is where I keep screwing up. My loaf will rise beautifully, and then, just as I am preparing to put it in the oven to bake, it will deflate, the top looking like a piece of crumpled paper. The bread that results is still incredibly tasty, but it doesn’t have that lovely round shape.
Lohman, however, cautions against making too much of bread as the building block of all human civilization. Certainly American cultures — Native Americans and European colonizers — had ample access to grains such as wheat and corn, which grind up nicely into flour and cornmeal, which can then be made into loaves or flatbreads. And though nearly every culture on Earth has come up with some kind of bread independently of one another, the centrality of bread as some sort of pillar of society holds sway, especially in Europe and the United States.
There is another way of seeing. The empty streets and closed grocery stores are a sign of something sustaining, healing. To take care of each other, we all went indoors, many of us voluntarily. It is collective action like I have not seen in my lifetime. The world that I knew is still here. It was never just the groceries I could buy or the conveniences I took for granted. The world that I knew was also the people I loved and the pleasures I took from the things life gives me for free — those rain-slicked streets, the feel of the morning sun, my cat insistently butting her head against my arm, the smell of baking bread.
Historically, the domestic work that was written off as “women’s work” has been considered unimportant. It is not the sort of thing that ends up in history textbooks or epic novels centered on the great sagas of the past. I am not making a particularly new observation when I say that this disparity is intimately tied to the misogyny and sexism of the past, to the self-interest of the predominantly white men who for too long decided what was important.
But bread is also remarkably forgiving. What is most likely happening to my loaf is “over-proofing,” which is when the air bubbles within a ball of dough become too big and pop. And because bread will bounce back from most of what you might do to it, over-proofing is fixable — if you don’t mind giving yeast another chance to do its thing, which means more time, more waiting, more process.
“I don’t want to get between anybody and their pleasure,” Forkish says. “But for me, it’s a culture. That’s exactly what I think of it as. I maintain it in a very specific way so that when I’m ready to introduce it into a dough mix, it’s in prime condition.”
And in particular, if you’re a woman, this nostalgia for bread is ultimately a romance for a world when women were more or less chained to their kitchens, baking loaf after loaf. Bread baking can be a hobby for me and for others. We now have that luxury. But 300 years ago, we would have been so sick of baking bread. Even now, there are huge class disparities in who gets to stay at home and bake bread and who has to be out making sure we can buy the ingredients required to do so.
Does that make all of what I’m writing here a cliché? Kind of, argues Lohman, the food historian.
In contrast, the yeast you can buy on store shelves is a dried-out version of one naturally occurring fungus that is specifically cultivated to provide faster rises in bread dough. Despite what you may have heard from sourdough starter partisans, neither method is necessarily better than the other. In his essential 2012 text, Flour Water Salt Yeast , Ken Forkish writes, “I often prefer to add small amounts of commercial yeast to my levain bread doughs to get the best of both worlds: bread that has wine-like complexity and acidity as well as a light texture in the crumb.”
But while acknowledging the ways that bread stands in for a kind of small-c conservatism, a longing for a world where gender roles were more defined, I don’t think it’s wrong to romanticize bread. There’s a reason we tend to bake it in times of crisis, and a reason so many people started baking bread during this crisis. It does reorient you in time and connect you to the past, even if it’s just your own past.
“I really do like to think of what happens in fermentation — how it’s a breaking down, a decay, and with that comes something nurturing, something that can feed you,” says home baker Angela De Manti. “There is a transformation. I’m feeling a lot of despair these days , and trying to widen my perspective on the pandemic, knowing, eventually, there is light on the other side.”
Bread was not always the symbol of warmth and home and domesticity that we might think it is. That image of bread was created for us, bread baking articles and it was largely created for us by one man — the Rev. Sylvester Graham, who in 1837 published the book A Treatise on Bread and Bread Making , which begins:
I am supposed to be able to tell you why everyone is baking bread. But the answer is not so simple as, “The rise of cookbooks like Forkish’s and YouTube videos like Saffitz’s created a nation of wannabe bakers, and the quarantine gave them time to indulge their desires,” or, “Bread sits at the perfect intersection of science and artistry that allows for numerous entry points,” or even, “Bread reminds us of some forgotten past when things were better.” The answer is all of those things. It is none of those things.
I’ve been trying, with some success, to perfect a simple English muffin loaf at the behest of my wife. She misses the ready availability of such loaves, a staple of our Midwestern childhoods, on supermarket shelves here in California. The process always begins with measuring flour, spooning it into a measuring cup bit by bit, then scraping off the excess with a kitchen knife once it mounds up over the top. Pouring the flour into the mixing bowl has the feeling of turning over an hourglass, individual grains dropping down, marking the passage of time.
My emails with home bakers old and new glitter with tips, from the man in DC who found a tiny convenience store nobody else realized carries flour to the woman in New York who ordered one of those 50-pound bags in February because she just really liked baking and thought she could use it over the next couple of years, only to find herself running through it far more quickly than she imagined when the early days of the coronavirus pandemic made it that much harder to find store-bought bread.
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The cultivation of just the right kind of yeast is its own form of agriculture. It doesn’t require some sort of pseudo-mystical belief in the power of the mind to understand that we took a single-celled organism and slowly but surely domesticated it to do our bidding — namely to consume sugar and then fart out carbon dioxide in a way that makes dough airier and fluffier. Watching a ball of dough rise in a buttered bowl for an hour or two feels a little like magic, sure, but it’s magic you can understand, can control, can prepare for.
Emily VanDerWerff is Vox’s critic at large and the former TV editor for the A.V. Club. She previously wrote for The Highlight about the unexpected cost of passing as a trans woman .
“I introduced things like pre-fermented dough, poolish and biga , or sourdough cultures in ways that I hadn’t really seen other writers cover before,” Forkish says. “In my previous career, I had that sort of structured way of thinking about how stuff works. … I felt like I was able to gain access to the mindset of someone who wanted to learn how to bake.”
It’s not necessary to have yeast to make good bread, but just hearing the word probably makes you think of a warm loaf, fresh out of the oven. And because we’re humans, and because humans eat a lot of bread, that might make you think of sustenance, of wholeness, of life. Yeast isn’t magic, but it is life. It’s literally alive, feeding and growing and making things delicious.
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I can look at my evening ramble through downtown Los Angeles early in quarantine in one of two ways. In one way of seeing, the empty streets and closed grocery stores are a sign of something breaking, rupturing. The world that I knew wasn’t put on hold, to be revived someday. It had ended forever, and what will replace it remains frightening and uncertain.
We know a lot about bread, about yeast, about gluten. If you want to do a deep dive into the science and process behind bread, you can start using terms like “autolyse” or “saccharomyces cerevisiae” . Even the recorded history of yeast is fascinating.
Either you’re making a no-knead bread, or you’re doing the physical, sometimes strenuous work of kneading. We have yet to invent a shortcut for this, have yet to come up with a method to circumvent all that time spent doing this. A stand mixer’s dough hook comes close, but nothing quite matches the actual physical process of doing the work.
But let me argue that bread really is that important. I can smell this loaf of mine baking. It will be ready to remove from the oven in a few minutes. The aroma in my kitchen in Los Angeles in 2020 is likely little different from what that first prehistoric person to place a risen and fluffy mash over flame would have smelled, from what some anonymous woman on the frontier would have smelled, from what the Rev. Graham might have longed to smell as a boy, from what a factory worker strolling by a bakery in the early 20th century would have smelled, from what my neighbor and his neighbor will smell as their own loaves come out of the oven.
Slowly, I add to it. Sugar and salt and baking soda and yeast, then water, milk, and olive oil. I’ve mixed the loaf together by hand and with a stand mixer, and it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.
A reminder of time and of our place in history might even be useful right now. For Katherine Locke, a home baker from Philadelphia who has three separate sourdough starters they are testing against one another, those starters give them time that they are guaranteed to spend on something that is not thinking about everything else.
That might change. Lohman points out how many of the best-known bread bakers in the US are men, which often presages something being viewed as more “important” in the mainstream media.
I do not believe that the world will change as much as I hope it will. I do not believe that it will change as much as I fear it might, either. Status quos are nasty things. My bread is not a political action. My bread is just bread.
Correction: A previous version of this article used the wrong pronouns for Katherine Locke. It has been updated to reflect their pronouns. We regret the error.
In a time of food shortages unlike any experienced by Americans in living memory, our return to bread baking ties into our own history. Lohman points to her own attempts to figure out what she can and can’t make with the ingredients she has on hand, or with those she can get from friends and neighbors.
So here, now, let’s make a loaf. Why not? I have time, and even if you don’t, maybe you can follow along. And maybe along the way we’ll understand this hold that bread has over us.
This is to say that we have absolutely no idea how or when bread was first baked. We know from fossilized poop that Paleolithic humans were munching on starchy grains, and from there it’s easy enough to imagine bread slowly evolving. Food historian Sarah Lohman, the author of Eight Flavors , suggests how that might have happened.
“You’ve got this mash of cattail roots and some wild grains and who knows what else. And it’s ground together and mixed with water. Maybe you cook it all. But if you don’t and you leave it sitting out overnight, then maybe some yeast from the air has decided to take up residence,” Lohman says. “Then that mash the next day is now bubbly. When you cook it, it’s much lighter and has a more pleasing texture. It’s very easy to learn how to do that intentionally, to leaven your bread.”
You can argue that our love of bread baking is just marketing, just some idea of consumption as central to our existence. But even if it is, I’ll take it. There is a satisfaction to bread, to watching dough slowly grow, to seeing it brown up in the oven, to slicing into a loaf and sharing it with those you love or just eating it yourself. The world is scary and uncertain. Bread is just science. Or it’s magic. Or it’s both.
But the road from “all around you, all the time” to supermarket shelves encompasses most of human history. Somehow, we coaxed an invisible creature out of the world around us and into our food. In its naturally occurring form, yeast is a single-celled fungus that pops up everywhere. If you’ve seen the sourdough starters that have bubbled and risen throughout social media feeds, you’re seeing natural yeast at work, gnawing on water and flour and giving off carbon dioxide that causes that mixture to grow.
The more I talked to people who really understand bread, the more I realized that the more you know, the less you buy into bread as a metaphor for the human condition — or whatever I, an amateur, might bring to the process. It may feel like magic, but it’s really all about scientific know-how.
So is that it? Is baking bread all about finding our place in human history, as airily philosophical as that might sound?
Why bread baking is so popular in the bread baking articles Covid
Why bread baking is so popular in the bread baking articles Covid
Finding these groceries had become, in my mind, a kind of stand-in for the belief that things would ever be okay again. My mind, prone to fixation, had seized on the idea that I could perhaps reassure myself by finding a place where the world remained as it had been, a bubble out of time.
The world that was might creep back out from whatever bubble it’s in to take hold of us all again. Already, many in power are insisting that it’s time to get back to normal, that this collective sacrifice was not worth it. They try and try to convince us that the value of our lives is not intrinsic — that it is, instead, tied to our monetary potential. They believe the only world worth living in is one cloaked in their own shadow.
“ was a time in which there were plagues and pandemics and people really struggled, and the inability to get bread is such a central part of that holiday,” Locke says. “That I can’t find yeast anywhere in the store right now feels similar. We have to make do with what we have, and this is one way of making do and carrying forward and sharing with our community.”
“The world is always modernizing. There are always people romanticizing the past. One of the main tenets of Graham’s lectures and teachings was bread as central to the household, especially whole-grain, homemade loaves,” she says. “Even in the mid-19th century, we see the emphasis on nostalgia and romance for the past, and we see it manifesting itself through bread.”
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We’re baking a lot of bread in the middle of this pandemic. Flour and yeast shortages have hit stores all over the country, and books like Forkish’s have become hot sellers. Claire Saffitz, the premier baker for Bon Appétit’s popular YouTube channel and author of the upcoming book Dessert Person , says bread baking has crept into her life, too — even though she’s not particularly known for baking bread. Her texts from friends and Instagram DMs from strangers, she says, are full of messages from people who want her to look at their loaves and offer some seal of approval.
“I remember very early on in my bread baking process trying to be, like, ‘This is supposed to be easy,’ and being very frustrated that it was not easy, and it came out regularly mediocre, and it did not suit my needs,” says expert home baker Melissa Newman-Evans. “That seemed like a loaded metaphor for citizenship and being an American.”
Most of us ran into a major hurdle: The ingredients with which to make that bread became incredibly hard to find. Yeast grew scarce, which led to a boom in sourdough starters, with all their natural yeast. And so did flour, which is more difficult to create in your home. As of mid-May 2020, the best deals on Amazon are for 25- or 50-pound bags of flour, so big that few home bakers would ever use all of them. Smaller, 5-pound bags remain elusive .
Bread is meant to be shared. By its very nature, a loaf is almost too much for any one person to eat on their own. We break bread with those we wish to find common ground with because bread is so core to what we — a broadly Western “we” — understand to be true of human culture.
Except maybe not so fast. Every time I get too deep into the science of bread, somebody reminds me that for all we understand about how it works, we don’t always understand how it makes us feel.
Sourdough starter is a similar phenomenon. It’s something that can’t be hacked or cheated. You have to mix flour and water and wait day after day for natural yeast to float in and do its thing. Baking bread requires time, and even if our modern methods will always be faster and easier than those of our long-ago ancestors , they are a forced reminder of patience, of the idea that you can’t rush certain things.
“In some way, if I keep these starters going, it’s a reminder of this time that I was staying inside. This is some sort of memorial that I carry forward with me of this time. It’s marking a certain time in my life,” they said. “ is time where I am not on my phone and obsessively refreshing the Johns Hopkins map and reading articles about the pandemic endlessly. It’s time when I’m just feeding the sourdough starter.”
And, indeed, in my conversations with at-home bakers, I only talked to five men who were baking. If there’s a move toward bread baking represented by the people who responded to my Twitter callout for sources, it’s overwhelmingly skewed away from one gender and toward all of the others.
By the time I got to the store, it had closed early. Quarantine hours.
So should we romanticize bread? Maybe not. Maybe we should be ready for the time when we can again walk into a grocery store and see shelf after shelf of options before us. Maybe we’re fetishizing an idea of domesticity that belongs in the past.
Maybe we shouldn’t get too froofy about all of this.
“If we start with bread, at some point somebody mixes in eggs, and at some point, someone has sugar, and you get cake,” Saffitz says. “Bread is basically the root of everything from a culinary standpoint and from a life standpoint.”
That reminder of your own personal understanding of time and the natural processes that cannot be set to your own internal clock is useful in general. But it also might remind you of your own most obvious connections to the past: your parents and grandparents. I talked to numerous home bakers who were using bread baking as a way to connect with generations that had preceded them.
Take the suddenly omnipresent sourdough starters. Properly cared for, a sourdough starter can provide the yeast you need for decades or even centuries. Sourdough starters are passed down across generations, and San Francisco’s Boudin Bakery claims to use one begun by a miner in 1849. Because yeast is naturally occurring, a sourdough starter is hard to kill. One can sit dormant for months or even years, then be coaxed back to life by a patient baker. They also require time, which is sometimes in short supply but maybe not right now. fairy bread article