Why home-baked sourdough is the hottest thing since sliced bread

Sourdough from Brickfields bakery in Marrickville, Sydney.
Sourdough from Brickfields bakery in Marrickville, Sydney. Photo: Supplied

Millennials are making it, couples are kneading it and hatted chefs are obsessed with perfecting it. Home-baked sourdough is the hottest thing since sliced bread.

Google searches for sourdough have skyrocketed by 400 per cent in Australia since social distancing rules were announced in March, while Instagram is rife with images of beautifully burnished loaves from chefs such as Jock Zonfrillo of Adelaide's three-hatted Restaurant Orana. 

Chef Xinyi Lim who is posting free sourdough yeast starters to people around Australia.
Chef Xinyi Lim who is posting free sourdough yeast starters to people around Australia. Photo: Janie Barrett

"We've had a lot of customer requests for fresh yeast and sourdough starter, which we're still trying to help people with," says Phillippa Grogan, founder of the Phillippa's bakery in Melbourne. 

"In fact, we can barely find enough fresh yeast for our own baking needs because there are so many home cooks using the products we would normally buy. 

"People have definitely moved towards comfort food eating and, when there's uncertainty about people's incomes, bread is an affordable product to bake."

Sourdough loaves at Phillippa's bakery, Melbourne.
Sourdough loaves at Phillippa's bakery, Melbourne. Photo: Supplied

Sourdough is bread made with natural active culture (known as a sourdough starter) rather than commercial yeast. Starter can be created by combining flour and water and letting the mixture bubble and ferment for a few days.

Home cooks can also source starter from a friend or professional baker with enough natural yeast "mother" to spare.

"You can potentially have better loaf success if you use a starter from someone who has been baking a long time," says nutritionist Kate Levins, who has started making her own sourdough as a result of spending more time indoors.

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"With the amount of kneading, resting and folding involved, however, sourdough is a serious labour of love. It can be a four-day process, if not a week-long process if you need to make your own starter."

Co-owner of Sydney's Brickfields bakery Simon Cancio says having a starter "on the go" is similar to the way home kitchens operated thousands of years ago.

"Those ancient times when people had ferments ticking over in the background while they went about their daily business of trying to survive. In a way, we're going back to that."

Brickfields bread sales have doubled at its outposts in Chippendale and Marrickville over the past four weeks, says Cancio. 

"The fresh bread demand is huge at the moment. I think more and more people are realising that when you make a sandwich with bread only out of the oven for a couple of hours, the texture, taste and smell are on a different level to a loaf that's been sitting on a supermarket shelf all day." 

To help budding home bakers experience more fresh bread during the coronavirus pandemic, Sydney-born and New York-based chef Xinyi Lim is mailing sourdough starters to people around Australia.

Anyone is welcome to direct message Lim through her Instagram account @MegaFaunaFood to receive a five-gram sachet of dehydrated sourdough starter resembling shards of a wafer-thin cracker. The starter is free; recipients are asked only to provide a small donation to cover postage.

"I flew back to Sydney for my sister's wedding at the end of February, but that was postponed so now I'm in a bit of a limbo," says Lim. "A friend of mine in New York has a project called Bread on Earth and she's on a mission to send sourdough starters around the world and map their locations. What I'm doing is part of that." 

Lim also provides a guide with instructions teaching people how to dehydrate their own starter to give to friends, thus spreading healthy sourdough, not sickness, throughout the country.

"It's about returning to an old-fashioned way of cooking and being in touch with the food we eat," she says.

More than 450 people have requested a sachet from Lim so far, and although such a large amount of starter is time consuming to make, the chef remains committed.   

"If someone has a commercial kitchen I can use, I would be pretty happy to play in that," she says. "At the moment I'm just moving between my sister and mum's places and spreading starter over all their benchtops."