Along with toilet paper and pasta, little packets of bread yeast have been flying off grocery store shelves. But a Boston-area sourdough expert came up with a solution: he's teaching homebound bakers how to cultivate their own yeast starters the way it's been done for centuries.
Andrew Janjigian is senior editor at Cook's Illustrated magazine and, as he put it, “sort of the resident bread guy.” When he noticed the shortage of dried, commercial yeast Janjigian saw an opportunity to share his skills and passion through a sourdough starter project on Instagram.
“Maybe if I hadn't come up with such a kind of clever name for it – calling it a 'quarantinystarter' – it might not have taken off quite so quickly,” he mused. “I'm sort of an inveterate punster, and I have a feeling that a good hashtag is part of the secret here.”
The “tiny” part of the name #quarantinystarter refers to the smaller-than-usual amount of flour Janjigian is using because, as many a home baker has noticed, that basic ingredient is also hard to find. Before the coronavirus crisis hit, he used a few pounds of all-purpose flour to grow his sourdough yeast and it made him wonder, “What if you could do it with just a couple of teaspoons of flour at a time each feeding?”
You have to “feed” a starter because it's alive. Some people say it's like having a pet.
“And it is in some ways,” Janjigian agreed, “but it's also not like a pet in that pets generally are easy to understand, and you can follow a couple of rules about how to take care of them and they'll be fine.” A starter requires you to adapt to it, Janjigian continued, “and you have to understand its life cycle in order to keep it happy.”
When he talks about this stuff he calls it “microbial husbandry.” It all happens in a small container, like a glass jar.
“So the way that you make a sourdough starter is you take flour and water and mix them together and just let them sit,” Janjigian explained. “The organisms that make up a sourdough culture are bacteria and yeast. And those organisms are already present on a kernel of wheat as it sits in a bag of flour. If you continue to take the mixture of flour water you start with, and add it to another mixture of flour and water periodically – say once a day, then twice a day later on – the yeast and bacteria that you want to be there will start to multiply to the numbers that eventually will allow you to leaven a loaf of bread with.”
In time their numbers and vigor will allow you to use them to make a loaf of bread. At that point, the frothy blend is called levain, and Janjigian said getting there takes between 14 and 21 days of scheduled nurturing.
Raising yeast and making sourdough bread can be a little intimidating though. Before working at Cook's Illustrated Janjigian was an organic chemist in pharmaceutical research. When he started this experiment he had no idea if he could teach newbies how to culture yeast from a distance, through their computers and smart phones. But over the past month he said about 800 people have taken the leap, including Erin McGrath.
“Like a lot of people I think I'm baking a little more right now,” she said laughing. “It's a stress reliever. But also, I just love a science project and that's what this is.”
Before McGrath moved to working from her home in Arlington she baked a lot of breads using commercial yeast, but she'd never created her own. “Yes, I was nervous,” she admitted, “and I will say the first few days it didn't look like much was happening.”
But soon her yeast began bubbling and expanding.
For McGrath it's been soothing to have a routine that gets her up from her desk to feed her starter more flour. “It gives me something to think about that isn't either my job or my anxiety about what's going on,” she said, adding it's also been fun to be part of a new bread community.
“I think the weirdest part is that humans have been doing this for so long,” McGrath reflected, “when we didn't even know what the yeast was or why it worked.”
She's has made a few loaves with her #quarantinystarter so far, and it's still alive and kicking. Alas, Janjigian said other first-timers haven't been quite as lucky, but he's glad they're not giving up.
“There's just something meditative about working with bread and slowing down to its pace,” he said, “and I think now we have a lot of time on our hands, maybe we're a little anxious about everything else around us, and finding something kind of quiet and centering is helpful.”
Plus Janjigian believes there's nothing better than a home-baked loaf. He hopes his new followers keep taking care of their starters. They do seem invested. A lot of them have even given their new pets names.
“Things like the Yeastie Boys, Courtney Loave, Quarentiny Dancer. Quarentiny Turner. Quentin Quarentino,” Janjigian listed off, “Vincent Vandough. Holy Doughlightly. Otis Breading. Angelina Doughlie...”
What would you name yours?
You can follow Andrew Janjigian's #quarantinystarter project on Instagram. His handle is @wordloaf and he also created an email newsletter with detailed directions and recipes.
This segment aired on April 22, 2020.