These days, thanks to social media, nothing travels faster than news -- except maybe Johanna Hellrigl. In the early days of in the US, when lockdowns were just beginning, Hellrigl offered to share a sourdough starter with her 6,000-plus Instagram followers. At last count, the former executive chef at Doi Moi has distributed more than 500 iterations of her starter. And in doing so, she's created a sprawling network of baked goods, and goodwill, in rather dark times.. Just ask 31-year-old chef and Washington, DC, resident
Read more: How to make your own sourdough starter
The bread starter in question was made from an apple Hellrigl brought back from a trip to Italy, where most of her family lives (you can make a starter from almost anything that ferments). As payment for each new starter she's bequeathed to a fan or follower, Hellrigl has asked recipients only for a commitment to help restaurant workers in whatever way they can.
Hellrigl told The Washington Post, which first reported the story, about the hundreds of starters she's distributed around DC, and the not-so-small family of comfort foods that've resulted, including pizzas, pancakes, doughnuts and of course, lots of bread. Hellrigl has received a steady flow of pictures of baked goods spawned from her starter, along with thank-you notes, social shoutouts and records of how folks have helped or donated to restaurant workers in an effort to soften the blow of COVID-19.
"I wanted to use my platform to be a helpful citizen," Hellrigl told the Post, "but I admit that I've been surprised by the response."
In addition to the starters Hellrigl has already doled out, there's a waiting list of more than 100 people hoping to get their hands on one. Hellrigl has been leaving the starters on her front porch to be picked up, as a way to avoid unnecessary contact with those taking them.
Obi Okolo, one of the first few people to take Hellrigl up on her offer, told the Post that the starter provides reassurance.
"Everything feels entirely out of control right now, and no one knows what's coming, what's happening or what has happened," Okolo said. "But there's this thing, this simple little combination of flour and water, that does its thing all by itself, ready to help provide sustenance. It's almost this reminder on our kitchen counters that the world is still turning."
Sourdough starter is famously tricky to get right. It takes time and patience to develop properly, which may explain the fervent interest. There's also been a shortage of yeast in many grocery stores, but as Hellrigl has proved, you don't necessarily need it.
If you can't get your hands on any of Hellrigl's sourdough starter, check out Chowhound's guide to making sourdough starter yourself. If you make a good one, it's easily shareable, so don't forget to pay it forward to an interested friend or neighbor.
For some inspiration on what to make, check out Hellrigl's Instagram account, which is brimming with ideas. She suggests trying these simple sourdough banana pancakes for a first attempt at working with starter. "I'll always be available to give something to somebody," Hellrigl, who grew up around cooking and restaurants, told the Post. "But someday I hope we're all busy enough that we're not baking bread all the time."