Obviously, Americans are baking a lot of bread right now. Don’t believe me? Just look at the aisles of your local grocery store — nary a packet of yeast to be seen.
According to NPR, sales of baking yeast were up 647 percent during the week ending in March 21, and 456 percent the week following. But if you can’t find those elusive packets to make your loaves/waffles/focaccia rise, don’t despair! One geneticist has a solution.
Sudeep Agarwala, a geneticist specializing in yeast for biotech company Gingko Bioworks (the parent company of alternative protein company Motif Foodworks), posted a tweet at the end of March that made a pretty bold claim:
If you’re an adamant baker, you likely know where Agarwala, is going. In the tweet thread he goes on to describe how to make your own sourdough starter using dried fruit (which is covered in natural yeast!), water, and flour. If you follow the instructions correctly you should be able to have your own burbling sourdough starter in two days.
For those of us who have been on Instagram lately, the fact that you can make sourdough starters at home is not exactly ground-breaking news. You likely know someone right now who is giving you updates on their starter’s progress — maybe you’ve even got one going yourself! Agarwala’s tweet also gives tips on how to experiment by adding wine or beer to tweak your starter’s flavor profile, or incorporating breadcrumbs to keep the starter fed when you can’t find flour.
What was more surprising from Agarwala’s tweet — and our subsequent phone conversation — was his broader take on bread’s role in the current pandemic.
“Yeast is technology, flour is culture,” Agarwala told me, as things turned anthropological on our call. “I can tell you the technology, but the actual cultural reasons being all of this… that’s a much bigger question.” His take? We’re baking so much bread because it’s familiar and comforting; “bread returns us to our childhood.”
Well, at least some of us. Agarwala did note that the fact that everyone in the U.S. seems to be using their fermentation skills to create bread right now is, well, a little basic. “There are plenty of other things that can be fermented — lentils, oats, rice,” he said.
Maybe as the rising mania around homemade bread starts to overproof and fall, we’ll see consumers begin to experiment making fermented comfort foods from different regions around the world. The next hot “it” food flooding your Instagram could be Indian dosas, thin pancakes made of fermented lentils and rice, or injera, the spongy Ethiopian flatbread made from teff flour. “Now is the time for all the multiculturalism we’ve been harvesting to take precedence,” Agarwala told me. “It’s exciting.”
Bonus? These dishes don’t require flour — another sought-after ingredient that’s nearly impossible to track down at your local grocery store.