Thoughts on a bread baking renaissance in the pandemic

Bread seems to be having a renaissance: amid the coronavirus pandemic, people seem to be buying bread (if they can find it), flour, and yeast at unprecedented rates. I’ve been a bread baking and journalism evangelist for a good while, and I was honored to talk little about my journey so far, and about home bread baking on the radio recently.

I was a guest (not the host!) on the Sound of Ideas with my friend Mike McIntyre. I transcribed some of my bread thoughts for you, in case you missed the show. If you have any other ideas, please get in touch!

Also, please check out my book: Kneading Journalism: Essays on baking bread and breaking down the news!

Screenshot of the TV simulcast of my appearance (by phone) to talk bread!

On how I got into bread, and why I think others are into it during the coronavirus pandemic:

“Yeah, well, the arc of my bread history is long, you could say. After college I was freelancing for a regional public radio network in the Northwest and that work was, you know, sporadic, so I actually picked up a job in a bakery at a food co-op, and I worked there for three or four months as a baker’s assistant forming baguettes and doing our wheat loaves, Asiago breads, and specialty breads like that.

And over the years, I tried to come back to baking, but I traveled quite a bit—my career took me to Europe for many years—and then coming back to Cleveland, and growing our family, and deciding that bread was a staple that I would like to create myself, for a number of reasons, both being able to involve the kids in it, but also knowing exactly what ingredients are going into that bread.

So for the last 7 months or so I’ve been making all of the sandwich bread in our household, so when the pandemic came along I thought, “ah, I was ahead of the curve!” You know, baking everything my family needs. But I think a lot of people are getting into it because, one: just a practical reason, like you said, you can’t find bread at the stores.

And a lot of people, I think there’s a magic to bread baking that people who haven’t done it before maybe don’t know exactly how it works. It’s like you put things together and it goes in the oven and it’s a magic box and it comes out. And maybe we finally have time to invest ourselves to to figure out the magic, maybe. And for other people, it’s diving into a craft and a skill that they really want to hone. So I think time and necessity are going into our situation now.”

On whether I understand people who see baking as a meditative activity:

“I do, yeah, I mean, I want to say at the get-go here that there’s kind of two ways, and probably more than two, two ways to approach bread: one is really taking your time at every step of the process. You can have a simple loaf of bread that takes a day, two days, depending on whether you have a starter this could be a week process before you’re getting into the bread in the first degree. So you really have to be deliberative and plot your steps along the way.

Now, on the other hand, there are shortcuts in the bread making process. I was reading a book from the 1920s, I believe it’s the Women’s Institute of Cookery Series all about bread, and it has the long way and the short way. So if you need bread today then this process is only going to take you maybe 2 hours or 3 hours, depending on how you go instead of multiple days.

So there is this meditative aspect, so for people who want to invest in like I said that craft and maybe they want to focus on the chemistry of breads, focus on the hydration that’s going into it, and exactly how their starter is interacting with different flours and types of flours. That’s one way, and the other way is kind of a shortcut, really practical, get something on the table for your family. So bread is an inclusive activity. If you have a tribe you want to find, you will find it in the bread-baking community, which is great.”

On what people are asking me, and some of the go-to breads are for people interested in bread:

“I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me especially since this pandemic began, they’ve been saying, you know, ‘I’ve been watching the evolution of this project—The Baking Journalist project—for about two years, and now I’m actually going to do it. I have no skill.’ And it’s like, well don’t be so hard on yourself—all of my videos and recipes are made for people just to jump in. I talked to Edible Cleveland recently and they said one of the things they liked about this project is that I did walk people through. So I have a Salted French bread which is just your basic bread: this is flour, water, salt, yeast, and that’s pretty much all you need to get it going, and you can make it. Also the sandwich bread is very popular, because even though people do want to improve their diets, other people maybe are just eating pb & j everyday, and that’s okay, too, but you need bread to have your pb & j!”

Final thought:

“Don’t be afraid, just bake!”

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