- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 6, 2020

Debbie La Bell has been helping people make some dough for a while, but she said she has never seen anything like this before.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, “people are desperate for flour,” said the general manager of Hayden Flour Mills in Arizona.

Home bakers have swept supermarket shelves bare of flour and yeast, said Ms. La Bell, adding that her mill has shifted production from wholesalers to grocery stores to meet the demand. Online sales at the mill, just south of Phoenix, have increased 150%.

At-home bakers with time and money on their hands have started making their own bread. Google searches for all-purpose flour have risen 350% since March 1.

Searches for Red Star Yeast, one of the biggest suppliers of the fungus that makes bread rise, are up 350%.

Bill Hanes, vice president of marketing and strategy for Milwaukee-based Lesaffre, which owns Red Star Yeast, said production has shifted from mostly cream yeast (the kind that big bakeries use) to dry yeast (the kind on supermarket shelves).

“Our challenge has not been to grow enough yeast but to put it in the small, specialty package sizes for home bakers for a long shelf life versus much larger package formats usually demanded by bakeries/restaurants,” Mr. Hanes said.

He said web traffic on the Red Star site is three times higher than usual.

Home baking has been big business for some time. In 2016, retail stores sold $6.02 billion worth of baking mixes, supplies and flour, according to Statista, a German company that compiles statistics for market and opinion research.

Flour and yeast, the essentials of every loaf, have been hard to come by in grocery stores recently, industry professionals say.

But Sharon Davis, director of product development at the Home Baking Association, said there is no shortage of either ingredient — only a shift in business from wholesale to consumer-driven products.

She said baking association members, which include Red Star Yeast and King Arthur Baking Co., have increased production of family-sized packs.

“They have milled 24/7 to meet the demand,” she said.

Ms. Davis said association members are confident that the rise in interest in homemade bread will last a while.

The International Food Information Council, a nonprofit that provides science-based health information, recently released a study on American consumers’ behaviors and perceptions of food. The 2020 Food and Health Survey reported that 85% of Americans changed the way they eat because of COVID-19, and 60% of them reported cooking at home more often.

With ingredients in hand, home bakers often need direction … or directions. For many, YouTube is their recipe book. Daily views related to baking sourdough bread were up 458% in March and April, compared with January and February.

Chef Billy Parisi offers lessons on how to cook from scratch on his YouTube channel. Two years ago, he posted a video on how to bake a country loaf of bread. That video has just over 1 million views and almost tops results in a search for “how to bake bread” on YouTube.

Since the pandemic hit, Mr. Parisi said, people “just can’t get enough” of bread recipes. He now features at least one bread recipe per month.

“It’s been neat to watch. … People are starting to cook again, which is an art that’s been sort of lost in our country, especially in the last 30 years,” he said.

Epicurious, a Conde Nast online magazine that publishes recipes and other food-related topics, has reported higher web traffic in the past several months. Many readers are taking advantage of a new feature that makes cooking more affordable.

David Tamarkin, digital editor at Epicurious, said the company created a guide called The Smart Cook in response to the economic downturn.

“Plenty of our readers have been furloughed or lost their jobs or had their salaries reduced … and groceries can be one of the more expensive items on your budget,” Mr. Tamarkin said.

The Smart Cook features $10 dinners, recipes with minimal, basic ingredients and tips for cooking on a budget.

Ms. Davis, of the Home Baking Association, said she isn’t happy about the unemployment of many of her restaurant friends, but “you want to look for some bright spot.” For her, that bright spot is more people cooking.
She said she hopes the cooking and baking skills people learn now will carry beyond the pandemic.

“I read this all the time. People say they’re ‘stuck at home.’ That feeling isn’t fun, but if people can dig a little deeper and realize there’s some skills there that will be good for their life, I hope that’s the silver lining here,” Ms. Davis said.

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