Sourdough bread gives rise to community of bakers during pandemic

From the alchemy of the yeasty starter to the wonders of a crusty, scored loaf, professional and home chefs share their secrets

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Devorah and David Katz of Pat Bamelach, the Efrat-based artisanal bakery that shares its sourdough recipes and starter, particularly during corona times. (courtesy, Pat Bamelach)
Devorah and David Katz of Pat Bamelach, the Efrat-based artisanal bakery that shares its sourdough recipes and starter, particularly during corona times. (courtesy, Pat Bamelach)

It took a global pandemic for home bakers to latch on to the magical alchemy of baking sourdough bread, that crusty, scored bread with a soft crumb and slightly tangy flavor created from a bubbling brew of yeast.

A run on yeast in US stores helped foment what has become a COVID-19 baking craze. In Israel (which only saw a run on eggs and toilet paper), and elsewhere, it was the extended period of time at home that helped prompt a mass venture into the world of wild yeast, for sourdough is a task that requires time and patience.

This is a bread made with the simplest of ingredients, just salt, flour and sourdough starter, created from the fermented mixture of flour and water, a substance that takes about 10 days to emerge.

When it is time to make the actual bread, the rising process with sourdough takes longer, as does the kneading process, because the gluten is built slowly, unlike manufactured baker’s yeast.

The sourdough starter sits alone in the fridge for long chunks of time. But it is often first borrowed from someone else’s starter, whether from the artisanal bakery down the road, your neighbor, or your sister-in-law’s best friend. It is what you could call a communal baking process.

A jar of sourdough starter, from Chaya Suri Leitner’s sourdough challenge, during the 2020 coronavirus (Courtesy Spice and Zest)

Even those who do make their own starter, angling after that chemical reaction between yeast and bacteria, tend to follow the global community of sourdough bakers, keeping in steady contact with their son-in-law, sister or Facebook friend — whoever knows more than you do about sourdough.

“Sourdough by definition is communal,” said Anomorel Rotem Ogen from The Village Baker, a combination bakery, sourdough lab and workshop space in Abu Gosh, outside Jerusalem. “It’s a microbiological community and somehow, the communal aspect is very strong in the nature of working with it. Right now, when we have social distancing from one another, this is even stronger.”

It certainly seems that way, given the sourdough Facebook groups, Instagram photo albums of home-baked breads and the sheer number of times that “sourdough” appears in Google search results.

Managing to bake some sourdough-based goods is the kind of experience, and success, that people just want to share.

Artisanal bakery Pat Bamelach in Gush Etzion gave away portions of their starter after Passover, when the sourdough craze seemed to hit a new high.

A loaf of scored sourdough bread from Pat Bamelach, which had to close its Efrat cafe during the coronavirus, but remained open by doing home deliveries. (courtesy, Pat Bamelach)

“If you can be a home baker, then be a home baker,” said Devorah Katz, who runs the business with her husband, David Katz, a former teacher who turned to sourdough after mastering matzah as part of his hands-on classes. “Now that everybody is at home, it was time to try it.”

The Katzs have always loved the idea of home bakers walking in and angling to learn their trade. They usually hold workshops at the bakery, including one-on-one lessons for customers who can spend the early hours of the morning at the business in order to understand starter and try their hand at it.

One customer spent an entire day with them, went home to the US and opened her own business. Another customer smuggled some of their starter home to the US, with the Katzs’ blessing.

The bakery, which had to close its Efrat cafe during the virus crisis, but has survived the home closure period with deliveries of its different breads, crackers and other baked goods around the country, had so many calls for sourdough tips that David Katz made a series of short, how-to videos.

“Virtual sniffing,” said Devorah Katz, of his efforts to describe certain stages in sourdough development. “It has been really rewarding and hilarious.”

Their nerdy delight in sourdough has become “accidentally trendy,” she said.

In pre-coronavirus times, David Katz regularly held workshops for tourists and Israeli visitors, including kosher supervisors for food manufacturer Tnuva, and doctors from the Meuhedet health maintenance organization, who had wanted to understand how gluten works.

But right now, the coronavirus experience can be very isolating, said Katz.

“You’re in your house and self-enclosed,” she said. “Food and sourdough is very opening, you want to share it, it connects people to something they’re passionate about.”

A passion to try something new and different is a big chunk of what drives these newest sourdough bakers. It is a baking process that has been out there for thousands of years, but it took the pandemic, with its provision of long stretches of free time, to entice people to its wonders.

“All of a sudden, the one resource we do have is time, which we never had before,” said Zak Stern, known as Zak the Baker, who owns a successful artisanal bakery and cafe in Miami, Florida. The bakery has been reduced to home deliveries, as he aims to keep his 50 staffers employed.

“We’ve been optimizing our lives with exercise and fast casual, this whole life of optimizing every fricking second, with no time to waste and all of a sudden, it stops. And bread is the craft of time,” he said.

Zak the Baker (left) and Adeena Sussman, fellow chefs and friends in Tel Aviv in 2019, in pre-corona times (Courtesy Zak Stern)

Cookbook author Adeena Sussman noted that she could have found the time to develop sourdough before the advent of the coronavirus. After all, the “Sababa” author works from home most days. But it was only during the crisis that she began her own starter in her Tel Aviv apartment, and baked her very first loaves of sourdough bread.

“I think I was looking for something to take care of, and nurture and follow,” said Sussman. “It becomes a friend in your house.”

She followed a course given by Instagram darling Chaya Suri Leitner of Spice and Zest, (who is currently offering a free two-hour crash course in sourdough) and  has been receiving hundreds of messages from followers every day in the last two months, as newbie sourdough bakers pepper her with questions.

Not that she minds.

“There’s something about the fact that people are baking it, understanding it, loving it, and that I can get them from where they were, to where they are now,” said Leitner.  “It’s all about starting something from scratch and creating something you can nourish yourself and others with.”

Royi Shamir, a Jerusalem architect, ventured into sourdough back in January, when he was looking for a job.

Now, after binging on YouTube videos and figuring out a weekly sourdough schedule, he has got a routine down pat, including using his “discard” to make pancakes, English muffins, and pizza.

(Discard is the extra sourdough starter, made as the starter is “fed” flour as part of the process of caring for it. The discarded starter cannot leaven a bread, but it can be used in other baked goods, rather than thrown out.)

“It’s embedded in our weekly routine,” he said of his now Instagram-worthy breads.

Architect Royi Shamir with one of his sourdough breads, a skill developed during unemployment and the 2020 coronavirus (Courtesy Yitz Woolf)

Shamir is so dedicated to his sourdough that he brought the dough on a recent date night with his boyfriend, in order to keep folding it in readiness for baking.

“It demands a lot of attention,” said Shamir.

Better yet, it offered a bonding experience with his boyfriend’s mother, who is working on her own sourdough starter at home in Toronto.

“I spoke to her this month more than he did,” said Shamir. “She FaceTimes me with questions about it.”

It helps to have a mentor in this yeasty experiment — to have a community, if you will.

Even Katz, an accomplished matzah maker and olive oil producer, was trained by Ogen in the craft of sourdough, turned on by his wood-burning oven skills.

Ogen was a former chef who had become religiously observant and sought something culinary that was not inherently changed by keeping kosher.

“Bread was the thing,” he said. “Sourdough never ceases to challenge you so it keeps you interested and engaged. You can’t really stabilize it.”

Anomorel Rotem Ogen, a sourdough master baker, researcher and teacher, who loves the communal, teaching aspect of sourdough baking taking place during the coronavirus (Courtesy Anomorel Rotem Ogen)

Ogen immersed himself in a scientific study of sourdough, apprenticing with a sourdough baker in northern Italy, where he extrapolated knowledge in order to ferment dough at 40 degrees in the summer, or six degrees in the winter.

He ended up building a hugely popular sourdough bakery, visited by a community of customers from north to south who traveled far to buy his breads, baked in a wood-burning oven from his home in Klil, a northern community that is off the grid.

The 1,000 loaves of sourdough bread Ogen baked each month stopped abruptly when he was diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer. He thought he would not bake again, but following extensive rehabilitation through music therapy, he began receiving calls to help, teach and consult about sourdough.

He now consults globally, and teaches workshops including the bread program at Tel Aviv’s Bishulim cooking school.

Engage Ogen in a conversation about sourdough, and it diverges into flours (he prefers whole grain to white, stone ground to refined, and is dismissive of any of the 80% flours), but he is a pragmatist, and wants people to push themselves as far as they can, but not overly so.

Ultimately, Ogen wants them baking sourdough bread, and he is happy to help them in any way he can.

“Whether it’s conscious or reacting to something, sourdough bakers and bakers in general tend to be fairly communal,” he said. “And it’s taken on a life of its own during the coronavirus.”

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