As epidemiologists tell us to stay indoors to help “flatten the curve,” it’s incredibly difficult to find bread at almost any store. But if you also can’t find flour, yeast, and other components at your grocery store or online, it's time to get creative.
We’re a month into this involuntary bunkering, yo. And things are getting reeeeeal.
Breadmaking has become a huge thing in the age of quarantine. Baking can be an incredibly meditative activity, and as anxiety, depression, restlessness, and hopelessness ratchet up as we’re all stuck at home unable to do many of our normal activities, anything halfway relaxing is definitely needed. Stand mixers have become a Millennial status symbol and are getting a lot of use now.
There’s also the practical element of learning how to become an adept bread baker: stores don’t freaking have bread. So when you want toast, sandwiches, and something to sop up all the tureens of soup you’re also probably making now, you gotta make it yourself.
This isn’t just any old stock photo like the pretty one arranged in the thumbnail, this was literally snapped about a week after the pandemic was declared. Right now, food supply is fine although the supply chains are working out kinks because the giant institutional customers they normally have like corporate and school lunchrooms, cruise ships, restaurants, and so forth aren’t in business. Grocery stores haven’t been well-equipped to handle this volume of customers who normally eat outside the home at least once or twice a week and/or made more frequent and smaller trips.
Even though we’re about a month into this uncertain hell now, it’s incredibly difficult to find bread at almost any store. While the initial wave of “panic buying” has mostly abated, and retailers have had time to adjust and institute limits on hot commodities like toilet paper and bottled water, millions of people still need to just do one doomsday prepper sized shopping trip every 3-5 weeks to minimize their risks of exposing themselves to the virus.
But so many people are baking now, that flour sales have hit an all-time high, doubling the units sold during the holidays and grocery stores are unable to keep flour on the shelves. Would-be bakers can’t find it at any stores, and even looking online has them coming up empty-handed. Almost every website I hit in the past few weeks has “out of stock” on virtually every flour listing, and it doesn’t look like this is changing any time soon.
Yeast, too! There’s no frigging yeast! It’s like a giant Monistat sucked it all up–oh, sorry for spoiling your appetite there. But you get the idea. No flour. No yeast. So how are you going to have sandwiches now? Well, homebodies, you gotta get creative. And I’m gonna show you how to do it!
Check if Any Local Bakeries Will Sell You Raw Materials
Does that sound kind of batshit crazy? Yes, it does under normal circumstances, but we’re not living in that blissful pre-pandemic era anymore. Remember that supply chains are totally fakakte right now. And even with the help of food delivery apps and still being open for takeout, bakeries and restaurants across the country are hurting right now. They’re not getting the foot traffic or order volume they used to and sadly, many have had to shutter.
So, here’s something you might not have thought of if you can’t find flour, yeast, and other components at your grocery store or online: see if your local bakery needs help.
If you’re cooking and baking at home a lot more now out of financial reasons and/or mitigating your exposure risk, see if your favorite bakery is willing to sell you flour, yeast, butter, and any other baking components if they’re not making and selling many finished goods. Bakeries in San Francisco are selling eggs, flour, oats, sourdough starter, and more a la carte on their websites, or if you call ahead. So if you don’t see your local bakeries and favorite haunts doing this on social media or through Grubhub or anything, make like it’s 1996 and pick up the phone.
You’re helping local businesses stay open in this hellish time, getting what you need, and the workers don’t have to toss out flour and other ingredients that could go rancid before they all get used.
Use a Non-Yeast Raising Agent
What’s a raising agent? Also called a leavener or leavening agent, it’s an ingredient added to doughs, batters, and other in-vitro baked goods that creates a chemical reaction which creates all those lovely, delicious bubbles and airiness in the breads, cakes, and crisps we all love. The trilogy of terror for raising agents are common household ingredients: baking soda, baking powder, and yeast.
Now I’m going to give you nightmares in going back to high school chemistry class where we talked acids and bases and how they facilitate chemical reactions. Actually, that’s probably what your class did. My high school had such a difficult time getting a chemistry teacher that we got this guy who the school board pulled out of retirement who almost set the desk on fire with potassium crystals, threatened to “grapple” with a student, and was like a real-life version of Mr. DeMartino from Daria, only more unhinged. So needless to say, I’m probably going to screw up describing the chemical reactions here.
Baking soda is an alkali raising agent, a base. It needs an acid to make the batter rise. White or apple cider vinegar is a common acid used in vegan and egg-free baking because it activates the baking soda and can also help curdle things like soy or almond milk to make them buttermilk-like.
Baking powder contains baking soda but they’re not one in the same. You can actually make your own baking powder by mixing 2 parts cream of tartar (byproduct of the wine-making process, you can find it in the spice aisle) with 1 part each baking soda and cornstarch, arrowroot, or potato starch if you don’t have commercial baking powder available.
Because baking powder is more balanced, all it needs is moisture rather than anything acidic to activate. Baking soda and baking powder help the dough release carbon dioxide, and sometimes you need both in a recipe. Especially if the ingredients are denser than people violating social distancing guidelines right now.
Yeast is a much more complicated creature, a literal organism, that you need to feed and temper just right.
Yeast needs to feed off some kind of sugar, and salt will kill it along with boiling water. But it’s yeast that creates that chewiness and stretchiness, because while you don’t want to over-mix something like cake batter, getting a solid kneading is what makes bread work its magic.
So, if you work with baking powder to make bread, it’s definitely not going to have the same effect. It will be a much airier bread that doesn’t have those tough gluten strands. Quickbreads won’t be as stretchy, although you can still make a softer sandwich or snack covered in spread.
If you’ve got enough flour but no yeast, it’s why sourdough starters have become so popular. You need to keep feeding it, which is something most people had no time for in the past. But if you don’t have yeast, keeping this puppy alive in the fridge is a must if you want to make your own bread.
If you’re new to the realm of sourdough baking, Bigger Bolder Baking has a very easy sourdough starter guide. Mine made it to day 7 before I chucked it in the fridge.
Work with Alternative Flours and Non-Flour Goods
If your problem is inverse in that you have yeast, but there’s no flour, there’s things other than white flour that you can use.
Whole wheat flour is something you might want to consider baking with. You can’t substitute it for white flour in every recipe, nor would you want to, because it’s super dense and can become impossible to mix unless it’s something like Irish brown bread where it’s meant to be slapped nonstop in a stand mixer and have a dense texture. Speaking of tasty Irish carbs, if you’ve got potatoes, you can make farls with whole wheat flour or a wheat-like flour, since it doesn’t require much.
There’s countless other grains to work with like quinoa, oats, spelt, buckwheat, teff, rye, millet, and so much more! Rye works awesome in sourdough starters, if you want to conserve your white flour. Quinoa and oats can help stretch your bread recipes and also work fantastically in things like waffle batter as a fun and delicious way to sneak some whole grains into those waffles your hungover ass is faceplanting into.
Then you have things that aren’t even grains at all, like chickpeas, lentils, beans, and coconut flour. I got a bag of coconut flour with ease, and noticed that it’s in stock almost everywhere. You can make a huge amount of flat bread with just a bag of dried white beans!
Tortillas out of red lentils? (Spread these a little thicker to make flat bread.)
Necessity is the mother of invention. While people on Twitter are filling their diapers about how posting pictures of sourdough loaves make you a pretentious hipster or whatever other irony-poisoned fart cloud is drifting around says, take this as an opportunity to work with limited pantries and store shelves and try something new.
From experience working with these “alternative” flours and ingredients, I definitely need to point out that they don’t always sub 1:1 in recipes calling for white flour unless the box says so, like those gluten-free flour mixes. Millet and chickpea flours are very wet and egg-like. Working with blended up beans and lentils is more like working with cake batter than bread dough. Spelt is probably the closest you’ll get to subbing white flour 1:1, though quinoa and oats can come close-ish depending on weather, age of your ingredients, moisture, and other factors. All of them vary by brand, especially when it comes to coconut flour. And they’re definitely not all going to have the same taste and texture as bread made with wheat flours in varying degrees of whiteness that you’re used to.
And for a VERY important warning: because these ingredients have so much more moisture, you will need to freeze them at light speed. Like pop them in the freezer the next day, if not the same day. I’ve had to toss many a red lentil flatbread attempt by Day 3. Chickpea-based baked goods are marginally better at warding off mold if you refrigerate them, but every red lentil creation of mine attracted mold like HOAs attract Barbecue Beckies.
Some of these legume-based bread substitutes also really need some seasoning first. I liked the white bean flatbread’s texture, but it was bland and chalky, like a Congressman. Get some spices and sesame seeds on there. Throw in cheese (nutritional yeast or Daiya shreds, if vegan), nut or seed butter, you name it.
Red lentil tortillas, white bean flatbread, oat muffins, potato farls, teff brownies– there’s a whole-ass world out there! We may be stuck at home, but you can take a journey to a whole new realm in your kitchen!
Learn How to Grow Your Own Yeast!
Okay, so alternative baking can be fun and delicious but all you want to do is just hear that satisfying crunch of your bread knife going through a homemade load of crusty sourdough, or my dense hearty oat bread with the cracker-like crust that I shared in the breadmaking post. You just want some MFing yeast.
It turns out you can make that at home too. Freaky, right?!
Friends, I learned last night over Zoom drinks that ya’ll’re baking so much that there’s a shortage of yeast?! I, your local frumpy yeast geneticist have come here to tell you this: THERE IS NEVER A SHORTAGE OF YEAST. Here’s where I’m a viking. Instructions below.
— shoelaces3 (@shoelaces3) March 29, 2020
Scientist Sudeep Agarwala went viral on Twitter when he explained how to grow your own yeast at home using a little flour, some dried fruit, and water. He says fresh fruit will work too, but it should be unwashed which isn’t going to be tenable for most people in our current environment.
The process is pretty similar to making a sourdough starter. Grab a jar, add your dried fruit, 2-3 tablespoons water, and slosh it around. Add a similar mass of flour to this mixture, and it’s okay if it’s old. You can even use old bread, crackers, or other things you’ve got laying around. Keep it in a warm place and overnight, you should start seeing bubbles that will eventually grow. This is your yeast in action.
Give it 1-2 days to loosen and soften, and similarly to making a sourdough starter, you take a little of this mixture then add it to a new jar with 2-3 tablespoons of water, add flour, and repeat. It will apparently also work with the dregs at the bottom of wine bottles, or old beer!
Try different flour or carbs, or fruit for the matter, if the process isn’t working.
Flour, yeast, and other baking components will be on backorder at most places, but ordering online can be your safest bet if you want to minimize the time you spend looking for these things at stores if you don’t have any local bakeries nearby looking to sell their raw materials. And this is also a good time try some quickbreads that don’t use yeast, legumes and different grains, or making your own starter and yeast! How are you getting creative during lockdown?