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Dough is shaped for sourdough bread in New York on Sept. 10, 2019.JOHNNY MILLER/The New York Times News Service

If you’ve seen an influx of sourdough starters on your Instagram stories, you’re not alone. Over the past three weeks, Google Trend searches for “bread” have hit all-time highs, #breadmaking has garnered nearly half a million posts on social media and grocery stores are facing flour shortages.

“We’ve seen close to a 700-per-cent increase in flour sales from our shop. The demand picked up shortly after panicked shoppers started emptying grocery shelves,” says Matthew Faust, general manager of Brodflour, an urban mill and bakery in Toronto.

The bread hype prompted Burdock, a craft brewery in Toronto, to include “MOM,” what it calls its sourdough starter, for free with local beer deliveries. High demand has caused them to consider charging a nominal fee and donating the cash to charity. “We noticed a huge uptick in people baking sourdough at home, and when we put a call out to see who was interested in MOM, the response was incredible,” says Matt Park, co-owner and brewery director at Burdock. “We’ve given away over 300 sourdough starters in the last two weeks.”

Flour mills under pressure as new home bakers take to ‘COVID baking’ for comfort

On the surface, it’s easy to attribute the rise of timelapsed loaves to boredom – it’s a wholesome activity to pass the time while social distancing – but it turns out there’s a scientific reason why everyone’s hopping on the bread-baking bandwagon.

In times of crisis, people covet creature comforts, and few things are as simple, yet satisfying, as freshly baked bread. Dating back to the Stone Age, bread making is one of the earliest chemistry experiments in human history. The first loaf was an accidental discovery after one of our Neolithic ancestors ground wild seeds and grains, added water, and left the lumpy “dough” on hot stones in the embers of a fire.

To this day, the ingredients of flour, water, yeast and salt are cheap and cheerful – and psychologically reassuring to our sapient selves that we can take survival into our own hands.

Our brains have limited bandwidth, and lately, the majority of our mental real estate has been overtaken by anxiety and fear, but the holy grail of grain gives our monkey minds an easily digestible diversion.

“Eating carbohydrate foods like bread stimulates insulin, which raises the uptake by the brain of the essential amino acid, tryptophan,” says Harvey Anderson, professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto. “Tryptophan in the brain increases production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that promotes calm and sleep in times of stress. So enjoy your fresh bread, just don't eat the whole loaf at one time.”

Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from first-year psychology? The five-level pyramid is another reason we’re indulging in carb therapy. Providing warm food for ourselves and others incites a primal sense of security, while learning a new skill elicits positive feelings of accomplishment related to personal growth. During periods of high stress and hardship, the motivation to fulfill these needs becomes stronger.

“For me, bread making is therapy,” says Joel Harrower, a musician and home chef based in Huntsville, Ont., who showcases his creations on Instagram. “Often, the tempo of life doesn’t allow for 18 hours of any one thing. Baking slow-fermented bread forces me into its cadence, and giving up that control over my schedule is very relaxing.”

The process engages all five senses. Kneading dough is rhythmic and repetitive, a cathartic activity that makes people feel purposeful and productive. The tactile task is like a kitchen meditation; while our body is busy, our minds have room to relax, regroup and refocus.

Watching dough rise and shapeshift triggers pleasure centres in the brain, while the smell of freshly baked bread instigates a Pavlovian response through “odour-cued memories,” according to food scientists at University College Dublin’s Institute of Food and Health, sparking familiar, cozy feelings from childhood.

Listening for “the hollow sound” is another crucial component of the craft. If you tap on the loaf and hear a dull thud, it’s not quite ready, but if you strike it like a drum and there’s a slight reverb, a “hollowness,” it’s good to go. Bakers often describe loaves as “singing,” “crackling,” “popping” and “whistling” as the crust contracts and cools.

When faced with emotional and financial scarcity, our brain naturally reverts to ways it can boost our spirits and stretch our dollars. Baking bread satiates those cravings. We also prioritize instant gratification when the future feels foggy. In chaos, people cling to what they can control, and following a recipe is a process that yields predictable results.

“That feeling of pulling a freshly baked loaf out of the oven carries over into the next day, making the baker more likely to keep on with the act of creative cooking,” writes Dr. Tamlin Conner, psychologist and professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand and lead author of the study “Everyday Creative Activity as a Path to Flourishing” published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.

Creating something from nothing and witnessing the fruits (or grains) of our labour is rewarding during these trying times while reminding us of the science of life. So, bake on. It won’t be this crumby forever.

Pastry chef Yasmin Johaadien shows you the correct way to fold ingredients to maintain their integrity

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