Part science, part art, the allure of sourdough bread is rising in Utah and across the nation during the pandemic

(Courtesy photos) For many home cooks, baking sourdough bread has become a passion during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For many people, it’s a new hobby — a way to fill the free time that has come with staying at home.

Other folks have decided it might be a good skill to possess, especially if yeast disappears from the stores again.

Some simply like it because it fills their kitchen with a comforting aroma in these uncomfortable times.

Whatever the reason, baking sourdough bread has become one of the new pastimes of the pandemic. Add it to the list next to planting a garden and raising backyard chickens.

This craft that dates back centuries is on the rise among professional chefs who are out of work; home cooks wanting to improve their culinary skills; and first-time bakers interested in being more self-sufficient.

There are many signs it’s a phenomenon across the country and in Utah. Google searches for the word “sourdough” shot up by 500% between February and April.

During the past 30 days, 10,000 people have joined the Perfect Sourdough public page on Facebook and have posted thousands of questions from how to feed a starter to the best method for proofing in a home oven. And, as Serious Eats writer Tim Chin wrote, there are social media photos — lots of them.

“My Instagram feed has become an endless flood of blistered, perfectly imperfect boules and batards,” he wrote, “and is peppered with snapshots of fledgling baby starters bubbling away.”

Closer to home, Utah State University’s Extension has seen an uptick in interest, said Teresa Hunsaker, a family and consumer sciences educator in Weber County.

“We have definitely had more calls and requests for sourdough recipes,” she said. The calls have come from regular constituents, neighbors “and even within my own family.”

Baking round loaves of artisan breads in large enameled Dutch ovens was already a trend, she said, but when yeast became difficult to find in the early days of the pandemic, “people turned to sourdough. Plus it’s easier to bake when you’re home and can watch it.”

Good bacteria

With bread now readily available in stores and bakeries, what is the allure?

It is part science project — which may have attracted a few parents home-schooling their children — and part art, because no two loaves are ever the same.

It also defies current logic. At the same time we are fanatically hand-washing and wearing face coverings to avoid the coronavirus, we’re also building up a bowl of bacteria — the good kind — on the kitchen counter.

Chrisella Sagers Herzog has made sourdough before but not consistently. Since the Salt Lake City resident has been home during the pandemic, though, she has reenlisted in the growing army — making everything from sandwich bread to hamburger buns.

“I love baking with sourdough. There’s just something sentimental and maybe old-fashioned about it for me,” she said. “The science of it is fascinating — adding this bubbling glop into a bowl and turning it into bread.”

That glop, of course, is the starter — a mixture of flour and water that has been allowed to ferment. Those live cultures serve as the inner soul of the bread, creating edible masterpieces with crispy outer crusts and soft interiors.

For each loaf, a portion of the starter is used as leavening — instead of commercial yeast. The remaining starter can be kept going for years — even decades — simply by adding or “feeding” it equal parts flour and water after each use.

During the pandemic, getting a starter from a family member, neighbor or friend has been a quick way to jump on the sourdough train. With social distancing in place, it wasn’t uncommon to leave a half-filled jar on the porch for pickup.

It’s your baby

Andrew Stone has lost count of how many starters he has given away in the past two months. “Definitely more than a dozen,” he said. Stone traded for a package of toilet paper once and fermented hot sauce another time.

Stone fortuitously picked up sourdough baking about nine months ago, after taking a break for a few years. When he gives out a starter, it comes with a warning. “I tell them it’s like having a child you have to feed,” he said, “but there are no diapers to change.”

He called it a “living, breathing creation that you care for. And when you’re not going to use it, you need to stick it in the fridge.”

It’s a commitment that many people struggle to maintain.

“My starter is hibernating in the fridge, where I try to pretend it’s not there,” said Gwen Crist. “The sight of it induces great guilt.”

A friend has provided the Salt Lake City resident a new starter several times “and every time I kill it,” Crist concedes. “Now that you brought it up, I have to go to the kitchen immediately and try to revive it.”

Annie Call started researching sourdough recipes when the stay-at-home directives were issued in March. The South Jordan resident initially planned to make her own culture, but a neighbor shared one that, at least according to family lore, is more than a century old.

“She got the start from her friend who is about 75 years old,” Call said, “and this friend got it from her grandmother.”

While it "has been awesome to use this very old start,” she added, it comes “with a feeling of responsibility” to care for it.

It’s an obligation she has enjoyed.

“Who knew sourdough could be so fun,” she said. “Even searching the internet for recipes has turned into a pleasant way to pass time.“

While sourdough is having a moment, overall baking has mushroomed during the pandemic. The passions vary by region.

According to one study, by Bid-on-Equipment, banana bread is big.

In April, recipe searches for the quick bread topped 2.7 million, a 586% leap from the previous 12 months. Rhode Island, New Jersey, Washington, Oregon and California had the highest number of recipe searches. Utah came in at No. 33.

While easier to make and less of a commitment, banana bread doesn’t hold the enchantment of sourdough, said Ogden resident Landon Jeffery.

"There’s something intriguing and special about utilizing the naturally occurring yeast and bacteria,” said the home-brewer-turned-professional-beer-maker at Ogden River Brewing.

"I love the fact that mixing water and flour can eventually yield this bubbling concoction of life,” he said. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d be apt to believe it’s magic.”