When social distancing was implemented last month in Washington County, Suzanne Wybranowski of Canonsburg added a couple of items to the grocery list for her husband, Jeff, to pick up on a shopping trip to Sam’s Club: yeast and flour.
Jeff Wybranowski returned with bags of groceries, including two one-pound bricks of yeast and a 10-pound bag of flour.
Before the lockdown, Suzanne Wybranowski, a senior clinical consultant for a medical technology company, traveled frequently and didn’t get a chance to bake much, but she’s making up for it now.
On Sunday, Suzanne baked a loaf of jalapeno cheddar bread.
“It was really good. I specifically looked up a recipe that was easy for people who’d never made it before,” said Suzanne, who used a Dutch oven. “It was bread making for dummies. It didn’t need much kneading and you didn’t need much bread making skill.”
Later, Suzanne and her mother, Mary Ann Baker, who bakes often, planned to make a batch of buns, using Mary Ann’s mother’s recipe.
“We’ve been baking a lot lately,” said Suzanne. “It’s nice to be able to sort of step back and focus on things at home, rather than on my busy life.”
Suzanne Wybranowski isn’t the only person who has picked up baking as a hobby while stay-at-home orders because of the COVID-19 pandemic are in place.
The demand for baking supplies has exploded, and staples – especially yeast and flour – are hard to find at local grocery stores as people have discovered a need to knead during the pandemic.
According to Nielsen data, sales of baking yeast were up 457% over last year for the week ending March 28. Flour was up 155%.
In a message posted to its homepage, Red Star Yeast wrote about the “unprecedented” demand for its products.
“Rest assured, we are making yeast around the clock, while keeping safety as a priority for our employees and across the distribution chain,” it said. “We are shipping product every day to stores and our online vendors. We also encourage our customers to only take what they need for now so more people can purchase yeast and bake bread.”
The North American Millers Association said in a statement the global pandemic has resulted in unprecedented demand for flour and other baking ingredients. The organization said the shortages in stores are a result of increased demand, not a lack of supply, and companies are working to produce and deliver flour and yeast.
Linda Romano of Canonsburg has been baking “since I sat at my mother’s knee.”
“My mother and grandmother always had the big 25-pound bags of flour, and I always make sure I have flour and yeast in the house, said Romano. “But I was panicking that I wouldn’t be able to make my Easter breads, because you can’t find flour at the store.”
She tracked down some bags of bread flour and all-purpose flour at Giant Eagle, “but there wasn’t much there.”
Tim Solobay, chief of Canonsburg Volunteer Fire Department, makes pizza from scratch, and he has encountered supply shortages.
“I was lucky. During Holy Week, I was at the store and there was a box of yeast, so a grabbed a couple of packets and left some for everybody else. There were half a dozen bags of flour, so I grabbed one,” he said. “The other day I went to Shop ‘N Save and the shelf was bare. There was no flour. I didn’t even bother to look for yeast.”
Solobay’s mother taught him to bake bread, and he’s been making white bread, Italian bread and pizza crusts for decades.
Since the quarantine started, his oldest granddaughter, Ava, 12, has been baking with Solobay’s wife, Karen, and their daughter, Kristen.
“It’s kind of fun baking now. I enjoy eating,” said Solobay, laughing. “My mother taught me when I was a kid that I’d never go hungry if I could cook.”
Selina Progar, executive pastry chef at Altius in Pittsburgh, said people who haven’t had time to bake now find themselves with extra time.
“It takes time to bake real bread, and more than ever, time is so limited. Everybody’s so wrapped up in day-to-day activities. But now, everybody has time because nobody’s at work, and a lot of people are doing things right now they wouldn’t be able to do in their normal lives,” said Progar, a Canon-McMillan graduate. “Now you have time to read those family recipes, and dig into that old recipe box your grandma had.”
There’s comfort, too, in baking those carbohydrates.
“I like to listen to music and zone out when I’m kneading bread. If you do it by hand, you get your hands in the product. You’re attached to something real,” she said. “The satisfaction of knowing you started it from scratch and saw it through to the end is calming.”
For bakers who can’t get their hands on yeast, Randi Ross Marodi of Bentleyville suggests making your own using a sourdough starter that requires flour, water and time.
Mix roughly equal parts flour and water and place it in an airtight container, feed it every day for five days with more flour and water, and when the mixture is bubbly with a pleasant sour smell, it is ready to use.
As for Baker, she plans to keep on baking through the pandemic, and encourages other to try it.
“I don’t think it’s hard once you do it a couple times,” said Baker. “It’s time consuming, but we’ve got time on our hands.”