The author of New World Sourdough wants Americans to re-evaluate their definition of artisan bread to be more inclusive.

By Margaret Eby
June 18, 2020
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When you hear the word “sourdough,” what kind of bread do you picture? On Instagram and a slew of online baking forums, a certain kind of loaf has a stranglehold on the term: a round or oblong country-style boule with a dark, crackled crust, flour-dusted and elegantly scored, with an interior crumb that’s evenly speckled with openings like a flour-made honeycomb. Bryan Ford has a simple mission, he told me over the phone: “I want to destroy that.”

Stephanie Lynn Warga

Ford, an accomplished baker who gained a sizable following through his Instagram account and blog Artisan Bryan, is Afro-Honduran, grew up in New Orleans, and now lives in Miami. He noticed how narrow the idea of artisan bread had become, particularly with regards to naturally leavened breads. “Most people think of sourdough as a Tartine country loaf, a specific-looking bread that has specific ingredients,” Ford told me. But that excludes most of the world’s rich history of bread. Indian dosas, Ethiopian injera, and Armenian lavash are all naturally leavened too, why don’t those fall into the popular definition of sourdough? For Ford, sourdough also included many of the Honduran breads he grew up on. “If you let a flour and water mixture sit long enough it will ferment—especially in a tropical climate,” Ford writes in the introduction of his new cookbook New World Sourdough. “A dense loaf of pan de coco is no less ‘sourdough’ than a crunchy bâtard with an open, light crumb.”

New World Sourdough is Ford’s exploration of making breads from North, Central, and South America with natural fermentation, but it’s also an opening volley against a stale idea of what artisan bread should be. “I realized being a baker shouldn’t be a one size fits all,” Ford told me. “Too many people look at food that way, and look at bread this way.” His book begins with rustic breads, like a seeded sourdough loaf and a pan integral, a whole-wheat boule made in Spanish-speaking countries. But then Ford veneers off into refreshingly different territory: naturally leavened New Orleans-style French bread, a naturally fermented adaptation of his mother’s Honduran flour tortillas, and semitas de yema, the dense, slightly sweet Honduran buns “capped with a crisp mixture of oil and sugar, and... best served with a warm cup of coffee,” as Ford writes. 

Stephanie Lynn Warga

New World Sourdough is a refreshing, inviting book, which feels like a rarity in the world of sourdough baking.  Ford is invested in encouraging his readers to experiment and have fun rather than to attempt perfection. As he writes in his introduction, “I can’t imagine that, for the thousands of years in which bread has been baked, the end goal of a perfect crumb structure and aesthetics dominated the conversations between the village miller and baker.” So much bread advice focuses intensely on precision, and on the right equipment and flours. It can be off-putting to a new baker, and come off as scolding

 “That shit drives me nuts,” Ford said. “Bread was being made 5,000 years ago in a Honduran wood-fired oven. The goal was to make something you could eat.” To Ford, the way that tropes of the professional baking world have crept into amateur baking is ultimately harmful. “You get this culture of exclusivity. The people we’re supposed to be helping are hindered by that stuff,” Ford said. “People run off scared.”

“People are entitled to have obsessions and to seek certain characteristics in their bread. I’m not trying to prevent people from achieving those results.” Ford said. “What I want to combat is the culture behind how you interpret bread. Let's be more inclusive. Let’s accept that pan cubano is also sourdough, and pan de coco is sourdough and look at it as such.”

Opening the worldview of home baker to other forms of bread also, Ford hopes, will help people relax a bit around the process of baking. Making bread that’s delicious and eating it are the goals, far and away above aesthetic perfection. The photography and food styling in the book reflect that inclusive attitude, too. The loaves in his book are more often ripped than sliced, and that’s intentional. Ford wanted to avoid the classic “crumb shot”—the sliced open sourdough loaf that showcases perfectly distributed openings in the bread’s interior. The cover of the book showcases a loaf of bread ripped in half cupped in Ford’s hands. Compared to the typical social media shots of European-style sourdough bread, it’s strikingly imperfect. But it looks every bit as delicious and inviting—and even more achievable.

Celebrating the bread cultures of previously overlooked countries comes with its own challenges. Take Ford’s recipe for birote, a darkly baked Guadalajaran sourdough bread typically used to make torta ahogada, a salsa-drenched sandwich. The characteristics of birote are specific—it’s made to stand up to the sauce it’s soaked in without turning to mush. But European-centric bread culture doesn’t have a set of vocabulary to readily explain birote, so Ford finds himself having to invent it, or fall back on inexact comparisons. 

“I hate to use the word ‘baguette,’” Ford said. “In order to describe a bread that’s existed in another part of the world for centuries, you have to use a naming convention from another country. Birote is not a baguette. I’d be hard-pressed to think one culture can really own a tube-shaped bread.”

But the work of introducing breads like birote to a wider American audience that might be more familiar with baguettes is essential. Breads from the New World don’t just taste different from European breads—they’re constructed for different purposes. Semitas de yema are dense because they’re meant to be dunked in coffee, and New Orleans-style French bread is built to stand up to the fillings of a po boy. By being specific about these breads, their history, and their uses, Ford is making an argument that the breads in his book are every bit as crucial a contribution to world cuisine as croissants and brioche. And he’s right. 

“Honduras is a small country that’s not in the culinary forefront. But shouldn’t the bread hold as much weight as any other bread in the world? If you’re going to say no, you’re saying no to the people from that country. If you’re not giving credit to a certain type of bread, you’re not giving credit to a culture and a people,” Ford said. “My bread’s important, too.”