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