Quarantine bakers are making flour a hot commodity
The art of baking at home, while not exactly lost, has been on a decline as Americans slowly shifted from eating in to dining out. But with over 90% of the U.S. under some form of stay-at-home order due to the ongoing pandemic, it appears that an increasing number are dusting off old recipes for breads, pastries, cookies and cakes.
As a result, baking staples can be hard to find at grocery stores these days as society finds comfort in carbohydrates. Sales of baking yeast were up 457% over last year for the week ending March 28, according to Nielsen data. Flour was up 155%, baking powder up 178%, butter up 73% and eggs up 48%.
Americans are “home baking more than ever before,” said Kelly Olson, a spokeswoman for Red Star Yeast. The company said the demand spike was unexpected and it’s doing all it can to replenish empty store shelves. “We hope to have availability at retailers back to normal within a few weeks,” Olson said.
Flour makers haven’t been spared in the chaos. Central Milling, with locations in Utah and California, said on its website that “significant” increases in online orders have led to out-of-stock items. Bob’s Red Mill, a Milwaukee, Oregon-based company known for its wide selection of grains and flours, also posted a note to customers on its website describing an “unprecedented” surge in demand.
“People have time on their hands and are trying to save some money.”
Kentucky-based Hopkinsville Milling Co. is packing twice as much flour as normal, according to company president Robert Harper. This is usually a slow time of year for the mill, which sells mostly self-rising wheat-based flour and corn meal. Home bakers tend to slack off as winter turns to spring, but about three weeks ago, the orders started pouring in. “It started to look like Thanksgiving and Christmas all rolled into one,” Harper said. “People have time on their hands and are trying to save some money.”
While restocking of grocery shelves isn’t happening as fast as consumers are buying, there’s no actual shortages — though the global food supply chain is beginning to fray in other areas.
“Here in the U.S., our wheat supplies would be considered abundant at this point,” said Erica Olson, market development and research manager at the North Dakota Wheat Commission. Bare shelves are a logistics problem, not a supply issue. “People were rushing to buy flour they may or may not use, and the mills were not prepared for that,” Olson said. The disconnect between what is produced in American fields and what ends up in the baking aisle is a temporary blip, she said.
It’s a similar story in Europe. British millers have been working around the clock, “genuinely milling flour 24-hours-day-seven-days-a-week to double the production of retail flour in an effort to meet demand,” said Alex Waugh, director general of the National Association of British & Irish Millers. Coldiretti, an Italian farmer group, said purchases of flour surged.
While the Great Depression turned the Great Generation into frugal home bakers, Baby Boomers — especially women — turned away from cooking and toward working outside the home, said Sharon Davis, a director at the Home Baking Association, a non-profit consortium of farms and commodity groups.
Home baking began dropping off in the 1960s, and today, with many households having two working parents, there’s less time for even basic meal preparation, never mind baking. Food away-from-home accounted for 54.4% of total food expenditures in 2018, compared to 26% in 1953, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. Still, a rising U.S. population contributed to consumption gains for wheat-based flour in recent years even as per-capita use dropped from 146 pounds in 2000 to 132 pounds in 2018, DOA data show.
Now, stuck at home and trained to perform for social media, Americans are posting pictures of their edible triumphs under hashtags like #isolationbaking and #lockdownbaking. The influx of artfully-staged food photos has already sparked backlash, even among food writers. Alison Roman, a New York Times food writer best known for viral hit recipes, recently joined a growing chorus of people expressing frustration with sourdough bread fans.
For those who still don’t have the time or inclination to work from raw ingredients, there are other options. Indeed, the lazy route to home baking greatness may support the devastated restaurant industry. Food-service-centric bakers are coming up with new products that take advantage of bake-at-home trends.
Chicago-based pastry chef Aya Fukai says she lost 70% of her business almost overnight as restaurants and cafes that once carried her cookies, scones, biscuits and croissants shut down due to the coronavirus. Looking to replace some of that income, Fukai began offering her usual products in frozen form, ready to be baked at home.
“I came up with it because so many people were going to be bored at home,” she said. Sales have taken off. Baking brings people “a little bit closer. That’s why it seems to be so popular.”