What do we do in the winter? Bake. Bake for the new year, for Valentine’s Day, because we are cold, because we have been stuck in the house for two months due to poor weather.
Since the advent of boxed cake and cookie mixes, baking has never been easier to do in a dorm kitchen or with ingredients you have on hand. In fact, in many pantries, you’ll find a box or two in case you ever have a craving in the middle of a snowstorm. However, the plastic packaging and even the uncertain ingredient qualities of homemade baked goods may have bakers questioning their impact on the planet.
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Ingredients in the face of climate change
Caroline Saunders began her baking journey with a passion for food and climate writing. After attending pastry school at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, she is now a baker and the deputy director of food at a pre-launch climate organization.
Saunders used the terms plant-rich and biodiverse ingredients to describe the baking she aims to do. Climate change affects what Saunders calls goldilocks crops — crops that can only be grown in specific conditions. With cold fronts and months-long dry periods, these perfect conditions are disappearing.
“When we think about the world beyond the climate crisis, we don’t just want to have reduced emissions. We kind of want to have rejiggered the food system in a way that takes better care of the planet, but also the people,” said Saunders. “Buying from small and medium-sized farms that are doing sustainable land management in your area is a huge thing you can do now to bring about a better future for everyone.”
This means thinking about the fact that Madagascar produces 80% of the world’s vanilla and the climate effects of grazing cows threaten butter, milk and cheese. Even plant-based milk solutions like almond beverage can result in extreme water usage.
This is why Saunders doesn’t ask everyone to be vegan all of the time. “People should just do what they can. If you have a recipe where you can feasibly sub dairy or eggs for something else, do it. And if not, that’s okay this time.”
In response to the 2008 wheat crisis that was itself a result of the economic recession occurring at the same time, Jennifer Lapidus began her journey towards Carolina Ground. Lapidus had been milling flour in-house as a baker and was learning more about a public wheat breeder that moved to western North Carolina a few years earlier. This sparked her interest in establishing her own mill.
Now the founder, general manager and principal at Carolina Ground, Lapidus brings together farmers, millers and bakers where they naturally collide: bread.
“Bringing together bakers is all about sustainability… It was very much driven by this let’s lessen our food miles, let’s create relationships, let’s bring this back. That was the concept [behind Carolina Ground],” Lapidus said.
When the roller mill was invented in the 1860s by Hungarian bakers, it created a way to easily go from wheat berries to flour with a longer shelf life, but it removed flavor. Carolina Ground and other regional mills are returning to old practices to bring back flour as an active, flavorful ingredient.
“It was practically overnight that community mills disappeared,” Lapidus said. “[Community mills] really align with the idea of slow food. We have the right to understand where our food comes from. We have the right to slow down and appreciate flavor.”
That’s the community spirit and deeper understanding of our food that Lapidus and others are trying to revive with the regional grains movement.
Saunders too recognizes the importance of alternatives to producing and using flour. Growing buckwheat, for example, contributes to regional economies as well as replenishes soil, repairing it for the next rotational crop.
While using locally-grown and processed ingredients lend a big hand towards sustainable kitchens, some ingredients will have to be replaced. Saunders suggests trying out carob powder as a chocolate replacement and experimenting with different flavoring agents that are better adapted to climate change.
Baking will have to change with the climate, and that movement has already begun.
Reducing kitchen waste
Once you’ve researched and tested new ingredients for your baking, or perhaps before, plastic and food waste are other areas that improve the sustainability of baking.
Nearly every dough recipe asks that you wrap the dough in plastic wrap to rest in the fridge, rise or simply set aside dough you’re not currently working with. However, plastic wrap is a relatively new invention while bread, pasta and cookies are, well, not.
Plastic wrap and Ziploc bags have been enumerated on the internet for years, but the best solution is already in your kitchen. A clean, damp kitchen towel does the same trick for keeping dust out and moisture in when it comes to dough. Other solutions include covering a bowl with another bowl, plate or pan or investing in reusable silicon bags, now available at most grocery stores.
Composting eggshells, vegetable peels and fruit rinds is another piece of the sustainability puzzle, but one of the biggest problems in the United States is food waste.
Many recipes suggest freezing cookies if you don’t eat them in two or three days, and when you do go beyond that suggested time frame, you know why. Baked goods can dry out and mold easily if not properly stored. Additionally, you may not want to eat the two dozen cupcakes a recipe makes.
In recent years, small-batch baking has become popular with books such as Edd Kimber’s “Small Batch Bakes” and websites such as Dessert for Two. These resources provide solutions to waste, including what to do with leftover egg whites or yolks should a recipe call for one and not the other. Making less is the first step to eliminating waste altogether.
Baked goods at home
Home baking is one of the easiest ways to better understand where ingredients are sourced and how your waste is impacting the planet. But sometimes we need a well-designed cake for a few dozen people at a birthday party, and the local bakery is the best place to go.
Saunders suggests talking to your local bakers and letting them know you’re interested in sustainable and biodiverse ingredients that you want them to reduce their plastic packaging. Lapidus too reminds people about the importance of community among the millers, between the farmers and millers, and especially for the consumer eating baked goods.
You don’t need to go to culinary school or study food science to be a more sustainable baker. Buy local fruit to make pies with. Search for local dairy products and eggs to support local farmers. Try out buckwheat and dates and carob powder. You don’t need to be vegan 100% of the time to make an impact.
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