Now more than ever, home is where many of us are seeking refuge and solace in light of the novel coronavirus. This is a tough time, but we’re here for you—whether it’s a new pantry recipe or a useful tip for your kitchen, here are some ideas to make things run a little more smoothly for you and your loved ones.
Sarah Jampel, Bon Appétit editor and former Food52 staff writer, tweeted earlier this week about a noticeable lack of yeast in stores, as did food writer Aaron Hutcherson, who also noted an absence of flour.
Today’s dispatch from the wild: Still not able to find yeast. Stores all out of all-purpose flour. Still tons of fresh produce. People seem to have made a run on unsalted butter, but there was some available. pic.twitter.com/IkPRLLyYgM— Aaron Hutcherson (@thehungryhutch) March 19, 2020
At the time of this article’s publication, the popular Northeast grocery delivery service FreshDirect was completely out of dry active and instant yeast, as well as all-purpose, whole-wheat, and bread flour.
After reaching out to friends in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Georgia, who noticed either a lack of or significantly reduced amounts of these items (the Connecticut store was limiting shoppers to two bags of flour), it’s clear that this is not just affecting New York City bakers. While Hutcherson did end up locating both yeast and flour later in the week, the mere fact that suppliers were even low is unprecedented.
Though the New York Times reported last week that there has been no major disruptions to the American food supply chain, consumers have been stockpiling. This fear-induced behavior has created an environment where grocery stores—which are typically stocked with enough items for daily, not multi-weekly, need—cannot keep up with demand.
Even as supermarkets, warehouses, and food manufacturers add shifts to keep shelves stocked, it’s going to take some time to adjust to this new system. The CDC recommends having a two-week supply of food at home while still limiting trips to the grocery store, which means people need more food, but less often.
While at this point we can hopefully assume that a couple weeks from now the stores will have restocked on these dry goods, one question consumers have been asking is: What do I do if I don't have any right now?
“There has honestly never been a better time to build your own sourdough starter,” NYC-based pastry chef Zoe Kanan told me in an email. Requiring just flour, water, and time, sourdough starter relies on wild yeast naturally present in flour and in the air of your home. As the starter ferments, it negates the need for a packet of yeast to make a loaf of bread. “I like thinking about the bacteria and yeast in my apartment's environment which colonize my starter's mixture,” added Kanan. “In this moment when the entire world is at war with something microscopic, lactobacillus are definitely the good guys.”
Cookbook author and sourdough whisperer Tara Jensen also recommends making starter from scratch, noting that the process can take anywhere from one to two weeks to become active. You can use starter in almost any baked item, she explained to me, but with a caveat: “The key thing to remember is that there is much less yeast, and more unpredictable yeast, in a sourdough starter than in a package of commercial yeast,” adding that a starter can be almost 100 parts bacteria to one part yeast.
“While it improves the flavor of everything it touches, it also works very slowly," she said. "The rise times require patience and attention. Your best bet is to find a sourdough specific recipe for what you want to bake. But since sourdough predates commercial yeast, almost anything you can think of can still be made.” Jensen also mentioned the beauty of baking with sourdough discard, which is the extra starter that is removed from the main starter during feedings.
Experienced bakers may have an easier time substituting starter for commercial yeast, but there are plenty of recipes out there that already call for starter instead of dry active or instant yeast. Try a starter focaccia, like this recipe from cookbook author Alexandra Stafford, or starter cinnamon rolls—I’m partial to this recipe from Maurizio Leo.
Of course, if you don’t feel the need for a starter in your life, simply bake things that don’t require yeast. Kanan recommends breads that are leavened with baking powder or soda instead, like skillet flatbread, Irish soda bread, and cake salé.
And if it’s flour you’re lacking right now, I’ve noticed that many gluten-free flours are still lining the shelves. Though they take a bit of getting used to, they can easily be made into cakes, cookies, and more.