The Unique Way to Save Your Bread When Going on Vacation

About a year ago, the world slowed down as we, collectively, tried to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Most people and businesses weren’t prepared for to do so, though, and as a result, we had some odd shortages of various goods. Toilet paper topped that list, as manufacturers had to shift from making product for commercial use to an increased amount of at-home use. But with a lot of people stuck at home, there were other products in short supply as well, such as yeast. People who otherwise were out and about now found themselves with time to bake, but were lacking a key ingredient in any effort to bake one’s own bread.

And so began the great sourdough boom of Spring 2020. The good news about bread is that you don’t actually need store-bought yeast to make your own loaf; you can, effectively, grow your own wild yeast with just flour and water — and time, patience, and attention. Millions of people took to Google, trying to figure out how to make this — the sourdough starter — as this Google Trends graph clearly demonstrates. Instagram photos flipped from vacation pictures to sourdough glamour shots. One entrepreneur even created a social network for at-home bread bakers and began selling a device that helps you figure out when your starter needs to be fed. Sourdough bread baking became the thing to do.

But as any successful sourdough baker knows, that sourdough starter needs attention — the yeast won’t thrive on its own. The starter, even if stored in the fridge, needs to be “fed” at least weekly or it will go dormant. If you forget, it’s not the end of the world — you can always restart it with some extra time and effort — but that’s just extra work (and can give you a different result). You’re better off attending to your starter like you would any other living thing. 

As the world inches back to normalcy, though, that creates a problem: what do you do with your sourdough starter when you go on vacation? The question, a quick Google search shows, has perplexed bread bakers for years; the King Arthur Baking Company says to dry it. The Kitchn says that’s possible, but freezing is also an option. A sourdough blogger leads her list of options with refrigeration. Baking communities are split as to whether to freeze it or fridge it or whether it’s a fool’s errand either way. But award-winning cafe RC Chocolat has a better idea:

Just give it to them.

Well, if you’re leaving Sweden, at least. The RC Chocolat cafe located at Stockholm Arlanda Airport, located in Terminal 5, if you’re familiar with that airport. In Sweden, workers get as much as five weeks of annual vacation time — a great amount of time to recharge your own batteries, but a dangerously long time to go without tending to your sourdough starter. So, in 2015, as Vice reported, the cafe/bakery “launched a 24-hour hotel for sourdoughs. Anyone can store their sourdough there and be sure that it will be fed, massaged, and well taken care of.” The service comes at a price, but a reasonable one. Per NPR, “for $3 a day, a flour-covered aficionado can drop off her sourdough at the bakery’s Stockholm Arlanda Airport location, fly off to exotic places, and return home to reclaim a happy and well-fed bucket of glop.” 

With the bakery closed for the time being due to the pandemic, it’s unclear what happened to the last of the starters before it temporarily shut its doors. We’ll likely never find out, though. At the RC Chocolat cafe and sourdough starter hotel, privacy is important. As one baker told Swedish publication The Local in 2016, when it comes to those who kennel their starters with them, the bakery “like[s] to be confidential so we don’t keep any records. The customers like it that way.”

Bonus fact: If you have a particularly good, and ideally a unique sourdough starter, maybe you should go to St. Vith, Belgium. There, you’ll find the Puratos Sourdough Library, which Atlas Obscura notes is the world’s only sourdough library. On its refrigerated shelves are more than 100 starters from around the world, many of which date back decades or more. And some have creative names; number 102, for example, is called “Levian James.” But don’t expect to tap into the library if you want to make your own bread. As Atlas Obscura sadly points out, “unlike most libraries, you can’t check out the starters in St. Vith. The library isn’t open to the public (although if you’re in St. Vith and contact [librarian/proprietor Karl] De Smedt through social media, he’ll happily show off the collection), and De Smedt says that the starters are still the property of their home bakeries, so he can’t dole them out.”

From the Archives: Perpetual Stew: The bonus item is about sourdough.