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Breadmaking in the Age of Quarantine

Running out of food supplies? Try breadmaking while in quarantine. It will not only provide your family with enough food but it will also help you to de-stress and escape panic and depression.

Loaves of breads and buns against the black chalky background.

Podcast Version:

We’ve been under coronavirus-induced lockdown for a week now. (Or has it been longer? I don’t know, I’m losing track of time in this hell dimension.) As people are rapidly adjusting to having to work at home and start homeschooling their kids while others are bracing themselves for eventual layoffs, they’re also having to eat at home more than usual. Even though some restaurants are still open for takeout and delivery, many people don’t want to leave home more than necessary to avoid the risk of spreading COVID-19 or endure wait times for meals that are longer than usual. 

This is especially true if you’re older and/or immunocompromised, or live with someone in these groups. While some grocery stores are rolling out designated hours for elderly and/or disabled shoppers, the risk vectors remain. It’s only worsened by inconsiderate douchebags engaging in “panic buying” so that there’s nothing left on the shelves for the people taking more risk to go shopping or the healthcare workers putting in long hours who have no food at home. Bread, mac and cheese mix, and toilet paper have been absent from shelves, and even highly perishable items like milk and eggs are also being panic-bought. Please stop doing this!

Meantime, while some industries have completely shuttered and not even digital businesses are safe, the grocery industry is the only one seeing an unprecedented boom to the point that they can’t stock certain items quickly enough. Bread’s definitely one of them.

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Related: Quarantine Frequent Cooking | Quarantine Baking Part2 | Made Cake with Leftover Rice | Is it Worth Getting Another Freezer | Urban Planning After Covid | Backyard Chicken Farm Craze

Are Stores Running Out of Bread?

Empty bread shelves at grocery store.

Despite the waves of panic buying and shelf-clearing, there’s nothing actually wrong with the supply chains. Plenty of food is being produced and truckers are on the road delivering it. Cargo is simply being moved around differently because restaurants are now comprising a sliver of the demand from suppliers while more strain is being placed on grocery stores and big-box chains like BJ’s and Costco than ever before. Normally, restaurants of all stripes and institutional dining such as college campuses and workplace cafeterias would shoulder more of the demand placed on the food supply chain. Pre-pandemic, many people didn’t cook every single meal at home.

Interestingly, according to this New York Times report where food industry figureheads weighed in on panic buying and the current demands placed on grocery stores? Sales for rice, dried beans, and bottled water exponentially shot up by several hundred percent. Oat milk is also seeing an incredibly high demand, even more than dry pasta.

Bread didn’t even make the chart! But every store in my neighborhood is totally lacking bread. I’m pretty much glued to Twitter, and I see tons of posts about having to hit five different stores to have any hope of finding bread. Other shoppers at my store also said it was at least the third store in the neighborhood they hit and were hoping to find bread.

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So, it seems that statistics don’t always tell the full story. Toilet paper may be conspicuously absent from shelves, but a dearth of bread isn’t making headlines as newsfeeds and social media constantly splay photos of completely barren stores.

But while you probably don’t want to make your own toilet paper–better get familiar with the parts of a toilet if someone in your household flushes paper towels or old book reports, since you probably can’t get a plumber to come now–the good news is that you can make your own bread!

You only need a few simple ingredients to get started, most of which are shelf-stable. If you’re not confident in your baking abilities, you can order a bread machine off Amazon since thrifting for one isn’t an option now. But the tools required are also simple: just a nice big mixing bowl, measuring cups and spoons, plastic wrap, and clean dish towels.


The Sourdoughs of Social Media and Coronavirus Baking Sprees

Starter sourdough.

So, breadmaking is having a real moment in the sun right now despite all the panic and depression. 

In addition to having to make your own bread because the stores have run out, people also have more time to cook and bake at home now since you can’t go anywhere. What would’ve been a fun weekend project once in a while is now a gravely necessary task, and the children growing up in this hell era are highly likely to be skilled breadmakers when they grow up.

And if you hang out on Twitter and Instagram a lot, you’re probably seeing more bread pictures than usual along with the kind of elaborate meals people usually don’t have time to make. Sourdough boules and loaves in particular are really popular choices, with veteran and newbie breadmakers devoting long threads to their “starters” and describing their age and how they feed them.

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You don’t have to make and use a starter if you’re new to bread baking. I’ve never used them at all, I prefer making oat bread and other types of bread. Like did you know that you can make that delicious brown bread you get at the Cheesecake Factory at home?! Well, you can’t go there now, so you might as well bake these off. Don’t worry, I tested the recipe, this bread evaporates quickly.

Instagram-worthy styled pictures of bread are popping up like crazy right now because hey, regular people have time to do it now. Why not have fun with having to feed your family/yourself? Breadmaking can be really meditative and it’s having a moment more than almost anything else because finding ways to relax is crucial right now.

Breadmaking Tools and Techniques

Hands working with dough preparation surrounded by cooking tools and ingredients.

For some simple bread recipes, I’d highly recommend Bigger Bolder Baking. Gemma has a really fun and approachable method on camera and also has written versions of all the recipes on her website. Her 3-ingredient flatbreads, homemade English muffins, and artisanal breads are really easy to make and don’t make a ton of mess (although I take liberties and skip a few steps, like I usually don’t bother with a second rise). Check out these common breadmaking mistakes that usually discourage people!

As for what kind of tools you should use to bake your bread, it’s so versatile. I prefer shaping loaves or rolls by hand and using a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Parchment paper is a MUST here so your bread doesn’t stick to the surface! But you can also use a glass loaf pan, 9 x 9 square baking dish, or casserole dish to bake your bread and it’ll get the job done. I don’t recommend silicone bakeware for breadmaking though, because while it’s easy to extract baked goods like muffins, the dough can shape really oddly in it sometimes. I had a pair of small silicone loaf pans that nipped in the center like a corset after a while, and that it was just easier to free-form those loaves on the baking sheet or use a glass loaf pan. Metal pans also work so long as you properly line them with parchment paper, but I found the sheet easier.
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All you really need is a large mixing bowl and a wooden spoon or silicone spatula. Stand mixers are also great for making bread dough, that’s the pretty much the only reason I own one. But you can work by hand easily with simple tools to make bread. “No knead” doughs like in the Bigger Bolder Baking recipes are really easy to make, stand mixers take the load off if you don’t want to knead it by hand. But we’re in the middle of the apocalypse, you got nothing better to do, so get your hands full of dough after you’ve washed them thoroughly!

If you watched the video above, Gemma mentioned that exposing dough to the air is a big no-no. It gets this gross skin on top that totally ruins the bread’s texture, so you’ll want to put plastic wrap over the top while it rises. Keeping the bowl full of  bread dough somewhere warm is paramount.

Water needs to be warm. Cold water will make the dough unworkable but hot water will kill your yeast. Yeast is the magic in your bread that gives it those fermentation bubbles and delightful taste. Yeast-free baked goods like cupcakes often using baking powder as a leavener, but bread needs yeast to work its bready goodness.

Wooden spoons of various gluten free flour: almond flour, amaranth seeds flour, buckwheat flour, rice flour, chick peas flour.

So, most people are likely to have active dried yeast on hand in pandemic times. You can buy it bulk online (worth it if you bake a lot) or get little jars or envelopes at the grocery store, with the universal standard being 2 ¼ teaspoons of yeast per envelope. Fresh yeast is found in the refrigerated aisle near the cheese and yogurt, and has a short shelf life but makes otherworldly baked goods. Active dried yeast needs to be “sponged” first by mixing with the water (or other liquid) and sugar, honey, molasses, or maple syrup and letting it sit for about 10-15 minutes. Yeast needs to feed off sugar, you don’t need to use a lot of it since it will change the taste if you use a lot. But going without or using an artificial sweetener like Sweet N Low won’t work. If your yeast has been sitting in the fridge for a long time, test a little first to make sure it hasn’t died.

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Salt is needed too. It will prevent your bread from sinking after it bakes. However, you have to be careful with when you add it because salt kills yeast! Wait til the yeast sponges first, or keep fresh yeast on the other side of the bowl.

Now for flours. You’ll want to start with an easy flour to work with, like all-purpose or bread flour. There’s many complex flours out there like whole wheat flour, chickpea flour, spelt flour, and so on where you might want to hold off on these til you get a better handle on baking. They don’t have a 1:1 substitution for white flour in a majority of bread recipes. Oats are really fun to bake with (get regular rolled oats, not the steel-cut or quick-cooking kind) because you can grind them up into oat flour with a blender or coffee grinder, use them whole in recipes (like my bread below), or as a garnish on top.

But there’s a whole world of alternative baking out there! If you have gluten allergies, are trying to eat less wheat flour, or just want to see else is out there, check out Power Hungry. Camilla Paulson has very easy recipes for breads and sweet baking involving lentils, dried beans, coconut flour, chickpea flour, and things I never even thought of. Better yet, most of them don’t require yeast.

Rachel’s Delicious Oat Bread

A loaf of a healthy vegan oat bread.

The bread shortage in The Bronx is putting me back in the kitchen. I’m still less than useless at cooking most of my own meals, but I am a damn solid bread baker even if I skip some steps out of impatience or executive dysfunction.

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And there’s nothing I love making more than oat bread. This bread is so easy to make, doesn’t require a second rise (who has time for that, even in a pandemic?), or any special equipment. It’s also vegan if you feed the yeast with sugar or maple syrup, not honey.

Kick off your bunker breadmaking with this recipe!

  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup oat flour
  • 2/3 cup rolled oats
  • 2 cups warm water
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon active dried yeast

In a large mixing bowl, pour the water and yeast in. Sponge it with a little bit of sugar, honey, or maple syrup by letting it sit at least 10-15 minutes. Put the flours in the bowl (you can grind up ¾ cup rolled oats in a blender or coffee grinder to make oat flour) with the oats and save the salt for last. Give it a good stir with a wooden spoon or spatula, or just use your hands to knead it until a cohesive dough forms. Cover the bowl in plastic wrap and a dish towel, let rise for 2 hours in a warm place.

After the bread is done rising, divide into two loaves on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Decorate the loaves with more rolled oats if you’d like then bake for 30-35 minutes at 400℉. It may appear underdone, this is just because oats don’t brown as easily as wheat flour on its own. Let it cool, then dive into that bready goodness. This bread is incredible with salty Irish butter and Polaner All-Fruit blackberry or raspberry, but feel free to use your favorite jam or whatever you have on hand.

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Storing Homemade Bread

Storing homemade breads.

There’s one drawback to making your own bread: unlike those packaged breads at the store, there’s no preservatives. Well, that’s an upside actually as far as taste and nutrition are concerned! But when it comes to how long that bread will last before going bad, time’s not on your side here.

Homemade bread isn’t as soft and pliable as that factory-made sandwich bread that contains stabilizers and preservatives which both help soften it and make it last at least 7-10 days after purchase. This can make storage a challenge since the bread is not only going to taste different when it’s very fresh versus a few days out, but mold and staleness are likely to hit much sooner than packaged grocery store bread.

Plastic bags are the best way to store bread if you don’t have any special containers designed for it. Glass containers with a plastic lid work great and help preserve the flavor better than plastic, but plastic bread boxes work well to safely store homemade bread. The only drawback with them is that they can harbor moisture which speeds up mold, so make sure to wipe out any droplets when you go in the box again.

If you’re on Day 2 and it doesn’t look like that bread is going fast enough, get some baggies and freeze it immediately. Chop it up for sandwiches or toast first, then freeze it before mold hits.

But since most people are at home a lot more now, tasty homemade bread isn’t likely to go bad because it’ll get eaten much faster.

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As epidemiologists tell us to stay indoors to help “flatten the curve”, hopefully panic buying will curtail as our harsh reality sets in over the next few weeks and bread will be back on the shelves. But there’s no time like the apocalypse to brush up on your baking skills after all. And if you’ve been feeling let down by your government and the forces that be, which are crumbling around you right now? Don’t worry. History has shown us that bread shortages precede massive change.