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Bread bakers old and new leave flour, yeast in short supply

Updated April 9, 2020 - 9:55 am

Lily Starr used to have a cupcake bakery in California, but she’d never baked bread — until she was laid off because of the coronavirus shutdown.

“I love to bake,” Starr said. “I guess I just steered clear of bread because I thought it was hard.”

But she had a helpful neighbor with experience.

“I went over there one day and watched her make one type of bread and she gave me the recipes,” she said, “and I’ve been trying different ones from there.”

If you’ve noticed supermarket shelves that normally display flour and yeast have been bare lately, it’s because there’s been a renewed interest in bread baking. Kelsey Roemhildt, a corporate communications manager with General Mills, said the company had experienced a spike in demand for flour and is running its plants at full capacity to meet it.

Kaitlin Janes, a representative for Bob’s Red Mill, said they’re seeing a lot of orders for wheat flour, yeast and powdered milk for baking bread.

Like Janes, Carey Underwood, director of mission-driven partnerships and programs at King Arthur Flour, said there’s no shortage of flour or wheat.

“It’s just that the demand is outpacing the inventory in our warehouses,” Underwood said. “It’s just an incredible amount of volume we’re experiencing right now — double the volume of what you would see for holiday baking.” She said the flour supply on the company’s website has been sporadic lately, and she expects that to continue for a while.

“All indicators are that people are out there baking, and they’re baking a lot,” she said. “The people who would normally be baking once a month are now baking once a week. People who would bake once a week are now baking every day. And there are a ton of new bakers.”

Normally, she said, the most popular recipe on the company’s website, kingarthurflour.com, is for a cheesecake, but lately it’s been the one for no-knead crusty white bread. The site’s page for sourdough starter got 600,000 hits in the past two weeks — four times as many as the next highest page. (The surge in interest in sourdough starter has probably been the result of the scarcity of yeast, because the starter, and resulting bread, doesn’t require it.)

Bill Mansfield said he’s baked bread in the past but had been too busy when he was working. But somebody recently gave him some sourdough starter, he scored a 40-pound bag of flour before the demand exploded and he has more time now.

Rebekah Johnson, 42, has been baking bread since she was 10. She got a little concerned when she couldn’t find flour because she didn’t want her sourdough starter to die. But she said she finds the renewed popularity “interesting.”

“I think people got a little bit worried when the bread was sold out,” Johnson said. “The next alternative to that was, ‘I’ll bake my own.’ Some of my friends are baking for the first time and they’re really enjoying the process.”

Sara Anton, who learned to bake Portuguese sweet bread from her grandmother when she was 4, finally acquired a large kitchen recently and was looking forward to continuing the family Easter tradition.

“I have nothing but time to bake but can’t find the supplies,” she said.

She thinks novice bakers won’t stick with it.

“I’m sure there are people who will bake bread occasionally, but once we’re back to normal, they’ll go back to the convenience,” she said.

But Mansfield isn’t so sure.

“It’s all over Facebook,” he said. “I think that’s great.” And he plans to continue.

“The smell in the house, the taste,” he said. “I know there are no preservatives.”

And Maria Raso, who’s been baking bread for about five years but doubled her production lately, offered some encouragement.

“It’s a process,” Raso said. “Your first couple of attempts may not come out the way you like it. Keep baking bread, because the more you do it, the better it tastes.”

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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