On Sourdough Baking

While the world continues to panic over the latest developments in the COVID-19 pandemic, something is quietly brewing (or should I say fermenting?) in the stillness of people’s kitchens. All over the globe, people are suddenly taking new interest in sourdough baking. It makes sense in the new normal of grocery shopping far less frequently, that making bread at home would be more top of mind. Except for essential workers, most of us have more than enough time on our hands. But why sourdough in particular? Why not just regular homemade bread?

Because there’s a yeast shortage.

It’s temporary, of course, because yeast is quite literally everywhere around us—in the air, on those brown bananas sitting on my counter, hanging on the grape clusters out in the vineyards, everywhere. We’ll never actually run out of it. But the usually available commercial form of baking yeast—you know, in the little yellow square envelopes—has gone MIA. During the initial coronavirus pandemic freak-out, it seems people (some who have never even baked before) went bonkers and snapped up all the yeast. In the wake of that, we are learning that it takes a good bit of time to replenish (you can’t rush nature), and with the supply chain already stretched nearly to the point of breakage, it’s dicey. Thankfully, my baking hasn’t slowed down one bit amid the crisis at hand. You see, I’ve been riding the sourdough train for just over four years; this little critter was born in early 2016:

This picture of my starter still brings joy to my heart!

That’s my natural sourdough culture, and although I’m suddenly feeling slightly ashamed that I’ve not given appropriate thought to naming my culture, I am quite diligent about nurturing it and we most definitely have a solid relationship. And I’m thankful, because we all need sourdough culture more than ever.

I will have a lot more to say about sourdough, and that discussion will develop over time (pun intended). The main impression I hope to make today is that sourdough is not a flavor of bread. Sourdough is a method of natural leavening in baked goods, bread or otherwise. A sourdough culture is yeast. If that seems confusing, consider this visual example of two completely different breads I’ve made with my sourdough culture:

The crusty round bread (or boule, as the French would say) is most likely what you imagine as sourdough, with its slightly tangy flavor and firm, chewy crust. But the soft, buttery pumpkin sesame knots on the right were crafted from the same culture. Different ingredients, different ratio of liquid in the dough, different baking method—all amount to a different outcome, but still sourdough. I even make sweet things, like cinnamon rolls, out of sourdough. Because, again, sourdough is not a flavor.

If you’re pondering whether you could do this, too—yes, you can. And I’ll be happy to help you get started. Hey, if you live close by, I’ll even offer you some seed culture so you don’t have to build your own starter from scratch (though you’d probably be a better parent and give yours a name).

For now, check out this easy recipe I’ve been making recently, along with an alternate recipe if you happen to be among the lucky ones with a yeast packet in your pantry. Sourdough English Muffins, y’all!

Sourdough English Muffins

Grocery Shopping During a World Pandemic

OK, I need to rant a little. I know I’m not the only one feeling a tad overwhelmed with the changes that have come with stay-at-home orders and grocery shopping. This whole thing is soooo different from our usual, “grab a few things at the store on the way home” routine. My husband, Les, and I have been doing our best to be strategic and organized, so we can limit our time in the market and, ultimately, our exposure to others who may or may not be sick.

I could give you a long list of examples to describe how we are messing this up, but the upshot is that we stay pretty well stocked on essentials, but are too often over-buying fresh ingredients that we can’t use up quickly enough. Here’s a visual example of how that worked out for us this past week:

And this is a big, big problem for me because, in a nutshell, I hate wasting food!

Can I get an amen on that? Or am I the only Gen-Xer who was told repeatedly at the dinner table about “all the starving children in China?” Apart from that, I am legitimately aware of the fact that far too many people and families in our own country actually do struggle with food insecurity. So when I open the refrigerator to discover that my biggest problem of the day is that we had enough resources to buy too much food—well, I have to find a way to reconcile that. Today’s new recipe is a step in that direction, and I hope you enjoy trying it.

There is a movement right now dedicated to turning scraps into food. And I don’t just mean thrifty moms and grandmas helping you learn to pinch pennies and use up every crumb. There are well-known, professional chefs on board with this idea. And I think it’s an important one. While I’m not advocating you eat food that is legitimately “gone bad” (i.e., moldy or truly spoiled), I am definitely rethinking my shopping habits to purchase only what I need, and to use everything that I buy. And that, my friends, takes some planning. It goes without saying that we should have a list for every grocery “essentials” run right now, so I won’t dwell on that. Rather, here’s my approach to grocery restocking during COVID-19:

1. Plan

Write up a menu plan for the next couple of weeks, including what meals you want to make and how you’ll use the leftovers. Plan around any other things that might be happening in your house to dictate mealtimes. For example, we are having some work done in our home and it will keep us completely out of the kitchen all freaking day next Tuesday. So whatever I’m planning for Monday must be re-heatable in the microwave on Tuesday, or else we have to use the grill. Then what if it rains Tuesday? Looks like Monday will be a casserole night—to give us options for Tuesday. And I’ll plan accordingly.

2. Plan some more

Take inventory of the foods you already have in the pantry, fridge and freezer, and build the next grocery list around it. It’s entirely possible that I may have perhaps gone completely overboard in stocking up on shelf-stable proteins when the COVID-19 crisis began to unfold. Yes, I’m admitting that I might not have needed 16 cans of black beans or a 7-pound bag of mixed lentils as much as I anticipated.

Was this really necessary? I am confused and ashamed.

Now, I’m digging through my memory of recipes to find ways to use the things I’ve stockpiled. Frankly, some of this stuff is just in the way right now. At the same time, I didn’t quite plan well enough to stock staple condiments such as mayonnaise. After all those deviled eggs, well… So, I’ve been taking inventory of the refrigerator door to see what else I missed because we are eating at home even more than before, and some things need to be replaced more quickly than usual. Like toilet paper, but that’s another story.

3. Be Realistic

Choose fresh produce carefully, especially when it comes to things that spoil or wilt more quickly, and think about how (or whether) you will use everything on your grocery wish list. I love salads, but I’m looking more at cabbage than lettuce right now, because it’s sturdier and also happens to be pretty darn versatile. I can sauté or roast it, or I can make cole slaw (again). Cauliflower and broccoli last a good long time, but they also take up the entire space of the produce drawer. We have plenty of good uses for baby spinach though, sautéed in omelets or on pizza, and fresh handfuls tossed into my morning smoothies. Les loves it so much I could work spinach into breakfast, lunch and dinner all in the same day and he’d be thrilled. Hell, I could probably put it in ice cream for him. So that’s a delicate vegetable that deserves the prime real estate of the fridge right now. I love bananas, but honest to goodness, at least four bunches of them have turned completely black on the counter since this thing started because we aren’t going through them fast enough. Thankfully, bananas can be put in the freezer and I have a fantastic banana bread recipe that I’ll share with you soon (hint: there’s dark chocolate involved).

Gone bananas. Literally, me and them.

But here’s the other thing: the freezer space is at a premium just like the fridge, so I really don’t want to be counting on just throwing things in the freezer. Harder fruits like apples and oranges last longer, so they’re on the shopping list, and I’m loving the big bags of dates and prunes I picked up at Costco a while back. I’ll have enough of those to last until Christmas.

4. Combine Errands

Try to coordinate to run other errands while you’re out for a trip to the market. I’m getting better about keeping a running list for the various things we need to purchase or accomplish, and this might mean hitting the grocery, the pharmacy and the pet store, all in a single outing. Every time we go out into the public among the countless people who may have been unknowingly exposed to the coronavirus, we hit the reset button on a two-week isolation period. Aim to get more done in one trip.

5. Be a Team Player

Finally, before the grocery run, check in with your friends. This goes for senior neighbors and family members, too. Not everyone can get out right now, and frankly, to keep up the good work on flattening the curve, fewer of us should. Ask to see what your people are having trouble finding these days. And if you spot something they haven’t, be a pal and pick it up for them. Drive by their house and toss it out the window to them on the way home. These are bizarre times, and we’ll get through it better if we all look out for each other.

And that brings me to my closing point, or rather question – anybody out there need some coffee???

Because I cannot get enough caffeine.