With Apologies to King Arthur: The Flour We Left Behind

Food Features sourdough
With Apologies to King Arthur: The Flour We Left Behind

There was nothing more nauseating than the thought of watching a thousand episodes of One Piece for an entire summer with my brothers in the upstairs den. Cooped up in our childhood home at the outset of the pandemic in March of 2020, I hadn’t taken to the show they’d become fanatical about, instead retreating into my own private world of sourdough bread. It was a momentary curiosity but something I never thought I could actually do myself. I figured as a notoriously impatient person that I’d likely quit if I didn’t immediately achieve an airy, open crumb with a bubbly, active sourdough starter to boot. 

I began, as many green bakers do, with Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast, a foundational, almost biblical text in the world of sourdough bread, a book that teaches bakers the fundamentals of mixing and maintaining a starter, kneading, oven and atmospheric temperature (which can drastically alter the end result), as well as which Dutch oven, thermometer, lame, flour and banneton to use. In fits and starts, I fed my starter a mixture of flour and water, breathing life into the microorganisms that would expel CO2, causing the starter to grow more or less ferociously based on how often I fed it. There were failed attempts because it was too cold in the kitchen, too hot in the oven, I used the wrong kind of rice flour, I attempted to handle the dough with dry hands, and, well, I forgot to pray to whatever deity would will a semi-serviceable loaf into existence. I had mixed results, but when it hit, it hit. There is simply no conversation starter, no party trick, no date gift like a fresh loaf of sourdough bread; it connotes time and effort, and when done well, infers a deft hand and attention to detail in its maker.

The most astounding part of my hobby was that I thought it was a niche one, specific enough that I wouldn’t have to compete for attention and adoration of friends and Instagram followers when I sported my many loaves online. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Somewhere around 2020, sourdough became a cottage industry, hot on the lips and out of the ovens of a populace stuck at home and unsure of what to do with themselves. The hobby had become so ubiquitous, flour so commonplace in American households, that there were quickly shortages of both flour, yeast (inessential to sourdough) and baking equipment at grocery stores. It became—like any national pastime—a cutthroat competition for some. Bakers would ratchet up the hydration levels or the percentage of water to dough of their loaves to the point where the dough could only be handled by the most seasoned or fanatical bakers. 

Many have espoused the benefits of making good sourdough. Yes, it’s delicious, nutritious, capable of sustaining a family (albeit not for long; though the pandemic was undoubtedly devastating, thankfully, it wasn’t quite so apocalyptic that we’d had to subsist off bread), and enjoyable for most—even the gluten-intolerant. I loved it so much because it provided a structure to days that felt like they had none. 

For others, baking sourdough functioned as a therapeutic practice. Amanda Hansen, owner of the popular Instagram page Sourdough Sparrow, is a baker who lives with her husband and six children in Salt Lake City. She has been a long-time at-home cook who eventually took on sourdough during the pandemic as a way of transforming her love for recipe development into something new. Her foray into the practice also crucially began as a way to mend an immense loss. She’d suffered three miscarriages in just a year and a half and had turned to baking as therapy. She named her starter “Eden” after the first child she lost and has shared her starter with friends, family and strangers alike.

She began her page during the pandemic. At the time, her husband worked in the carpentry business. However, as her following grew exponentially, she saw it as a sign from God that she and her husband should transition their focus to the business of sourdough. It’s paid off in spades; they provide their nearly 300k Instagram followers with how-to guides, sourdough starter and a wide range of baking products, growing their business exponentially.

Hansen and her husband set out to find a definitive answer to whether the sourdough craze was more than just a passing fad. They conducted a massive market research study to their following (many of whom are at-home bakers). What they found was that at-home sourdough bread baking had a predictive massive spike around 2021, topped out around 2022 and has maintained its numbers even after a return to office. This year, 2024, Hansen says, is the year we re-enter our sourdough era, though many bakers never left.  

I felt a pang of regret after speaking to Amanda, having quit baking sourdough and remembering how much I enjoyed the process and payoff of it. Personally, picking up and dropping a hobby wasn’t a phenomenon that began during the pandemic. Having offed my sourdough starter many moons ago, the thought of restarting the journey of a thousand loaves—the mess of flour everywhere, the time markings on my Notes app—felt like something insurmountable, but I jumped back in about a week. My starter, thankfully, has been coming along nicely, even given the freezing cold weather in New York. 

Speculating on the popularity of sourdough before and after COVID-19 feels a bit silly, as though sourdough bread isn’t perhaps one of the oldest foods that we’ve eaten. As folks return to their offices in person, it feels like this new hybrid work culture has allowed some people the ability to pursue time-consuming passions, like baking sourdough. Maybe there’s something ancestral about bread-baking that attracts us during times of great social upheaval. Maybe we just really love bread. 

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