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The pandemic-fueled sourdough frenzy isn't over

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, HOST:

Remember the sourdough portion of the pandemic?

KAREN QUINONES: You know, we were on our phones a lot. We were watching the news a lot, and something that kept coming up on my news feeds were sourdough, sourdough, sourdough.

DOMONOSKE: That's Karen Quinones of Monrovia, Calif. She was a nurse whose surgical center was shut down. Surrounded by lockdowns and curfews and isolation and wildfires and an earthquake, she decided to try baking this bread she kept hearing about. It grew into more than she'd imagined. Today, Quinones is the owner of Wildflour Bakery. I asked her how her very first attempts at sourdough turned out.

QUINONES: Bad, really bad - at the time, my first loaf was May of 2020, after making my sourdough starter about two weeks prior, and I thought it was the best-tasting bread I had ever tasted. But now, in hindsight, I take a look at the bread, and it was actually pretty gummy. And it was over-fermented. I just didn't know what I was looking for. I really didn't know what I was doing. I was just happy that it looked like bread and it tasted like bread.

DOMONOSKE: I have made many a loaf of sourdough like that (laughter).

QUINONES: Yes (laughter). So I was just like, wow, I'm making bread, you know? So it's kind of a magical thing to be able to do something like make bread. I've been a cook for a really long time, and there hasn't been anything as satisfying to me as making a loaf of bread.

DOMONOSKE: Right. And how did you learn how to make sourdough in these conditions where you're in lockdown, you're not working, everyone's stuck at home? How did you do it?

QUINONES: You know, I always say I went to the university of YouTube. That's where I got my education. So I followed some YouTubers. Joshua Weissman - I used his first loaf. And then from there you kind of branch out. As things kind of opened up towards the end of 2020, I finally had a Tartine loaf, and they're pretty famous in San Francisco, kind of globally now. And I bought their cookbook, and that cookbook actually really helped me streamline the baking that I do now. It's very straightforward, and that's kind of what really, I would say, improved my baking because I started having a better understanding of fermentation, of temperature, of what I'm supposed to be looking for.

DOMONOSKE: And so today, you have a bakery, Wildflour, and you use local, freshly milled grains, which is a trend that seems to be growing among bakers. Why is that important to you?

QUINONES: I really wanted to invest in my environment. I wanted to invest in farmers who are doing right by, you know, our ecosystem. It is more expensive. Hopefully one day, it won't be an expensive thing to invest in, but it became part of my bakery ethos.

DOMONOSKE: And Karen, you described the process of teaching yourself to make bread. Did you - on this journey, did you ever struggle with feelings of doubt about whether you'd be able to pull off becoming a professional bakery?

QUINONES: I still struggle with that a little bit. Sourdough is very temperature related, humidity related, and it seems like even now, four years in, I'll have a bad bake, usually when the seasons change. I get accustomed to what my temperature is for, let's just say, winter. And then spring will creep up on me, and then I'll find, oh, I'm over-fermenting my bread. So I still make mistakes. We all make mistakes. So I have to allow myself that. I hate to use the word failures because, you know, with any mistake you make, it's a learning opportunity. But, yeah, I do definitely struggle with that still.

DOMONOSKE: I make bread badly, lots of - I will use the word failure very easily. The process is - it can be long. It can be messy, sticky. What about it appeals to you?

QUINONES: So many things - I love the transformation. How you can get - in the beginning, it's just like a sloppy, sticky - like, you know, just messy - and how it evolves as it's starting to become alive, if you will. It looks very inert, unalive and boring. And then as the yeast and bacteria and the microbes do their job, it completely transforms into a tender, smooth, soft, airy, jiggly thing in your hand, and I love handling the dough. I love how mindful it is. I love that you need to pay attention to it. And the microbes are really doing all the work. You're just kind of the steward of it, and you're making sure things don't go too far. You're not pulling it too soon.

You know, when I used to recover a patient coming out of anesthesia, you really had to watch the patient and keep an eye on and make sure everything was fine, they were OK. So bread is very similar. You really have to keep your eye on it. It's mindful. It changes in your hands. I love shaping dough. It's so relaxing. I envision one day that I would have a huge shaping table, and I would have friends around the table. And we're all shaping dough, just talking and making bread. It just, to me, is the most relaxing thing I've ever done.

DOMONOSKE: Does your starter have a name?

QUINONES: It does. It's a political name, so I generally don't like to say it, but I call it Michelle Dough-bama (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

QUINONES: So I don't tell that to everybody because I don't want to polarize anyone, but...

DOMONOSKE: Well thank you...

QUINONES: I love her. I love her. So it's Dough-bama.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you for sharing that with us, Karen Quinonez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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