Sourdough bread's popularity remains elevated after surge in interest during COVID lockdowns
Thousands turned to intensive baking to pass the time during stay-at-home orders.
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Amateur bakers are maintaining high levels of interest in sourdough bread months after thousands of Americans adopted the complex, intensive baking habit amid the early spring's hard COVID-19 lockdowns.
Americans in the wake of those shutdowns turned en masse to cooking and baking projects, depleting grocery store shelves of flour, yeast and other grocery items in an effort to tackle difficult kitchen ventures to pass the time amid indefinite stay-at-home directives.
Among the most popular projects during that time, as evidenced by its ubiquity on social media accounts and news feeds during the spring, was sourdough bread, the artisanal product made not from mass-produced baker's yeast but from wild yeasts and bacteria cultivated using a "starter."
Sourdough has enjoyed a rising cachet in the U.S. in recent years, spurred on by superstar bakers in urban centers along with the purported health benefits of naturally leavened bread. Producing a loaf of sourdough bread is a significantly more difficult project to master than baking with commercial yeast; bakers must maintain their starters with daily "feedings," and the fickle nature of wild yeasts can present a difficult learning curve for amateur chefs.
Still, Americans flocked to baking it in the spring, regularly posting their triumphs online while seeking out advice from fellow bakers on Internet forums. Google searches for sourdough hit a 16-year high in April, skyrocketing above earlier rates at the height of lockdown orders across the country.
Interest remains high even after lockdowns eased
Publishers of sourdough-focused websites — where bakers can go for recipes, tips and baking equipment — say that, even as the earlier spike has ebbed, interest in home sourdough baking has remained elevated.
The spike in interest when the pandemic first struck in March and April "tapered off during the summer months, but remained much higher than the same period last year," Eric Rusch, the founder of the sourdough resource website Breadtopia, told Just the News. "When the weather turned colder and especially moving into the holidays, the popularity has once again reached much higher than normal levels."
"Even after the holidays, and as the pandemic winds down, I definitely think many people will continue baking," Rusch added. "Once people experience how easy it is to make incredible home-baked sourdough bread at home, going back to store-bought bread just doesn't cut it."
Aysha Tai with True Sourdough offered a similar assessment of sourdough's popularity.
"Although there has been a decline [in interest since the spring], it hasn't gone back to how it was," she said. "Awareness has certainly increased dramatically, and that has meant that many more people are discovering the wonderful benefits of sourdough in their lives that they didn't see before."
Traffic to Tai's website has similarly declined after a spike in the spring, she said, but it's "still a lot higher than it was before the pandemic."
Maurizio Leo, who has run the website The Perfect Loaf since 2013, also saw a major traffic spike on his site in the spring. He echoed the belief that sourdough bread's popularity will endure even after the recent spike in interest ebbs.
"In general, baking can be a time-consuming task," Leo said, "but I think once people discover how it's such a satisfying pursuit — plus the fact that having freshly made sourdough bread at home is fantastic — they’ll stick with it."
Sourdough enjoys prestige today as a craft product produced by highly skilled artisans. But for many thousands of years it was the principal — if not the only — way of making bread, until alternative methods, such as byproducts of beer-brewing and eventually baker's yeast, offered bakers much simpler ways of producing bread.
Bread has been among the key commercial and cultural products that have shaped the course of humanity over millennia. Sourdough features prominently in several chapters of American history, including the California Gold Rush and the Klondike Gold Rush. During the latter, old-time settlers were often referred to as "sourdoughs" for their reputed mastery of naturally leavened bread on the frontier.
Sourdough's popularity began rising in the U.S. particularly into the 21st century amid growing interest throughout the country in artisanal food and drink. Famous bakeries in the U.S., such as Tartine in San Francisco and Sub Rosa in Richmond, Va., have further cemented its status in the American food landscape.
The Financial Times this week named "sourdough" one of its words of the year for 2020. "[O]nce begun," the magazine said, "breadmaking is not hard to continue and the uplifting smell of baking bread reminds us that not all of our lockdown year has been wasted."
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