Meet the challah-tinkering yeast scientist who’s helping pandemic bread bakers get a good rise

Sudeep Agarwala is a yeast scientist and challah enthusiast whose guidance for home bakers has taken off online. (Courtesy of Agarwala)

Few people have any great solutions for this difficult moment in human history, but Sudeep Agarwala is one of them.

As a yeast scientist, Agarwala spends much of his time thinking about the single-celled fungi that allow bread to rise. So when he learned that home bakers had bought out the world’s supply of active-dry yeast as they prepared for weeks of quarantine baking, he knew just how to help.

On Sunday morning, he published a Twitter thread explaining how to use dried fruit and other household ingredients to make a sourdough starter without any grocery-store yeast. That thread has been shared more than 25,000 times and already inspired multiple kitchen experiments.

But Agarwala isn’t just a yeast geneticist laboring in the labs of Gingko Bioworks, a Boston biotech firm that is shifting its focus now to tackle the coronavirus. Raised Hindu in the Chicago area, he’s also a devoted challah baker who began applying his yeast know-how to Jewish food when he met his husband, a British Jewish classics professor at Harvard University. (They’ll be sharing a Zoom Passover seder this year with his family in London.)

Just two tweets before his thread, Agarwala had posted a snapshot of the latest loaves to emerge from their oven in Cambridge, Massachusetts: two picture-perfect braids — one with poppy seeds, the other with sesame — that would kick off Shabbat dinner for two.

We chatted with Agarwala about what inspired his thread, what he’s baking these days and how he’s approaching the yeast-free holiday of Passover. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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