Baking bread

Baking bread served as a comforting pastime for quarantined families during the pandemic.

STILLWATER – When the oven door opens and sweet aromas of warm chocolate chip cookies or a fresh loaf of bread waft through the house, it’s a passport back in time. In recent years, people have discovered the therapeutic art of baking that often allows them to reconnect with family through tattered recipe cards passed down through generations.

Many busy families rarely share a homecooked meal at the dinner table or slow down enough to bake treats in their own kitchens these days, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, people searched for home-based activities. As quarantined families got creative with sourdough bread and other baked goods, the trend of home baking flourished.

“A lot of the interest has to do with Oklahoma’s home bakery law,” said Andrea Graves, business planning and marketing specialist at Oklahoma State University’s Robert M. Kerr Food and Agricultural Products Center. “People are using simple, easy items to bake and earn a little extra money.”

Back to basics

Oklahoma’s Home Bakery Act of 2013 inspired a new wave of bakers when the state legislature voted to allow the preparation of baked goods in an uninspected home kitchen. The items could be sold on the homeowner’s premises. In 2017, the law was amended to permit baked items sold off-premises in select locations.

“Home baked items like bread give off an aroma that makes us feel,” said Renee Albers-Nelson, who serves as FAPC’s milling and baking specialist. “It relates us to something safe, to home – it’s how we grew up.”

A tasty loaf of bread requires only a few basic ingredients: yeast, salt, flour and water. Oil can be used to make the bread softer and sometimes a little sugar is thrown in for sweetness. Baking at home takes time but saves money.

“We all like the taste of homemade bread because it doesn’t have the preservatives like store-bought bread,” Albers-Nelson said. “You can make five to seven loaves of bread with one bag of flour.”

A community of bakers

In 2019, FAPC teamed up with the Oklahoma Wheat Commission to host All You Knead to Know, a breadmaking workshop featuring guest speakers, hands-on tutorials and field trips to OSU wheat research plots. The event attracted a huge turnout, including Oklahoma County Extension educator Taylor Conner. A registered dietitian who had little baking experience prior to her Extension career, Conner said the workshop opened her eyes to the disconnect that exists between crops and food in the world of nutrition.

“I grew up in an Okahoma suburb without an agricultural background, so seeing actual wheat at the event was just fascinating,” she said. “I didn’t make a connection with wheat and flour for the longest time, and now I have an appreciation for everything it takes to grow wheat and create food.”

Conner began experimenting with sourdough bread and joined Facebook groups about breadmaking from around the world.

“More millennials are showing interest in knowing where their food comes from,” she said. “People see value in that.”

First a hobby and now a fun side business, Conner started offering her bread this summer at a local farmers market. The loaves sell out every week.

“For me, especially over the past year, breadmaking has been therapeutic,” she said. “I like the science of it, and how you focus on one thing – it’s intentional. It takes your mind off other things going on, and once I feel like I’ve mastered a recipe, I wonder how I can stretch myself a little more and do something different.”

After the success of the All You Knead to Know event, Conner and OSU Extension partnered with the OWC in 2021 to host a virtual workshop series called The Art of Breadmaking. Over the course of four, two-hour Zoom meetings, participants used tool kits provided by the organizers to learn how to make basic bread dough, explore bread and dough shaping, bake Focaccia bread and try bread painting and decorating.

“We thought we could manage 50 people,” said Chris Kirby, OWC marketing and communications director. “It sold out quite quickly with both male and female participants of different cultures from all over the state.”

Before the pandemic slowed everyone’s pace of life, Kirby said people reached out to the OWC with questions about food origin. Beginner bakers were hooked and wanted to learn more about bread, such as how to mill their own flour.

“We’ve been contacted several times by people researching how to buy wheat berries or seed to grind their own wheat into flour for baking,” Kirby said.

Panic buying and comfort baking

Consumer research conducted by the nonprofit Home Baking Association in September 2019 also had indicated a rise in the frequency of home baking.

“In the past, the top reason we baked was for the craft and care of the people we love – for community,” said Sharon Davis, the HBA’s program director who also serves as a family and consumer sciences and baking educator. “But the new trends include an increased consumer desire to bake more frequently and buy local with ingredients that sustain the environment. Our research showed 80% of consumers want to control the ingredients used in their food.”

Although home baking skills had diminished over the decades, that began to change. Time was always a factor in why people didn’t bake. The pandemic’s shelter-in-place orders provided time and an opportunity to learn. From banana bread to flatbreads, new bakers kept their ovens hot with batches of dough. Online traffic for recipes dramatically increased, and bags of flour flew off the grocery store shelves as fast as toilet paper. Surveys organized by the HBA in late 2020 showed a 120% increase in home baking.

“We were swamped with media interviews from the BBC to television stations in Seattle,” Davis said. “Everyone wanted to know why they couldn’t find flour and yeast at the grocery store. Nothing eclipses learning to bake at home, and the skills people developed during COVID supported a new understanding and appeal for family and home cohesiveness. People were craving the opportunity to join a community again.”

Oklahoma-based milling companies such as Shawnee Milling Co. worked around the clock to keep up with consumer demand. Sarah Haselwood, vice president of food sales, said with safety as the No. 1 priority, employees in every department quickly adapted to COVID protocols to continue serving customers.

Shawnee Milling produced six times the volume in April 2020 alone than it did the prior year in flour, corn meal and standard baking mixes. The holiday rush of baking ingredients lasted all year.

“We had people call and say, ‘I’d just feel better if I had a bag of flour in my pantry,’” Haselwood said. “We even received calls from others who weren’t our typical customers requesting a truckload of flour. We shipped flour to anyone we could help.”

With cooler temperatures on the horizon and the holiday season just a few months away, both Shawnee Milling and the HBA are gearing up for another busy season of baking. Davis with the HBA said interest sparked during the pandemic remains high, and she doesn’t look for people to stop baking any time soon. That’s where partners such as OSU Extension rise to the occasion.

“We’re always sending people to Extension research,” she said. “This idea of home has taken on new meaning – a new normal is emerging, and Extension serves that area.”

Whether in-person or virtually, Conner with Oklahoma County Extension plans to host a couple of holiday breadmaking workshops later this year. Also, OSU’s FAPC hosted a Playing in the Dough session for beginners during the pandemic, and Albers-Nelson said another edition is in the works for this fall.

While the pandemic contributed to a worldwide surge in home baking, people are finding comfort, healing and a taste of nostalgia in the art, and that’s not expected to fade any time soon.

To learn more about upcoming baking workshops, contact Taylor Conner at taylor.conner@okstate.edu or Renee Albers-Nelson at renee.albers_nelson@okstate.edu.

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