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What is 'new world' sourdough? How to make more than just bread

A dense loaf of pan de coco is no less "sourdough" than a crunchy batard with an open, light crumb.
/ Source: TODAY

Whether you are a home baker or a professional, this is a great time to be a new world sourdough bread baker. The internet and social media, like in most industries, has made detailed information about the craft readily available. But how much is too much? Should a brand-new baker be worried about hydration levels and crumb structures? I learned how to bake long before I had an Instagram or Facebook account and it was out of curiosity, pleasure and necessity. My dad really liked cinnamon-raisin bagels form the store, so, when I was a boy, I learned to make a cinnamon-raisin bread for him.

Bryan Ford is an award-winning bread baker with Honduran roots and a New Orleans upbringing known for experimentation and innovation.
Bryan Ford is an award-winning bread baker with Honduran roots and a New Orleans upbringing known for experimentation and innovation. Stephanie Lynn Warga / Tiny House Photo LLC

It was pure imagination, not with the goal to make a bread with a certain type of crumb structure, but to make something to please and nourish my loved ones. He even liked it when I didn't grease the loaf tin and burned the loaves to a crisp. And although my mother's tortillas had the perfect flavor and shape every time, she never used a recipe. They weren't perfect because she, initially, sought to make perfect tortillas. Her mastery of the craft came simply through repetition and using her instincts as her guide.

Her tips and tricks to kneading the perfect masa are hilariously unorthodox, like oiling a cutting board and putting it diagonally in the sink to get the right angle to amasar, or knead. Although I won't get into the whole history of bread, 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.

Speaking of aesthetics, what is it that makes a sourdough bread distinctly a sourdough bread? At grocery stores I always find it interesting to see packaged loaves labeled "San Francisco" sourdough. Most people equate the word sourdough with a certain flavor profile and appearance. Although I do enjoy a nice, crusty loaf of sour bread, I perceive sourdough as simply a means to make different kinds of bread rise in a healthier and more natural way. In Honduras, a traditional pan de coco was not even leavened.

As the coasts were abundant with coconuts, the meat and water from the coconut were mixed with flour and water and baked in stone ovens. Before the introduction of commercial yeast, one can imagine that the beginning of wild yeast and natural leavening occurred unintentionally and instinctually in the baking process. If you let a flour and water mixture sit long enough, it will ferment — especially in a tropical climate. A dense loaf of pan de coco is no less "sourdough" than a crunchy batard with an open, light crumb.

My intentions for writing my book are not only to share my recipes and stories with you, but also to embrace a more simplified bread-making process that celebrates creative approaches to flavor while appreciating the quality of every single loaf that comes out of the oven. Your hands are powerful tools, eager to learn new things. I want you to use this book and feel inspired to create and explore. I want you to lose your expectations of bread. I want you to see baking differently. I want you to understand yourself better. I want you to enter a new world.

Pan Rustico (Country Bread)

Rustico, or "rustic" in English, is the word I like to use to describe the baseline sourdough bread that is the starting point for understanding how to bake with a sourdough starter. Why? Because it is a process that uses just three ingredients and yields today's quintessential perception of sourdough — a crunchy, toasty, rustic loaf with a blistery dark exterior and a creamy, fluffy interior. There is something about having fresh, rustic bread in your kitchen that can't be compared with anything else. It doesn't matter what meal you are preparing to eat, fresh bread will always have a place at the table. It is the purest form of making a delicious loaf of bread. All you need to do is create a sourdough starter, understand when to use it and grab your three ingredients.

One of my favorite stories that my dad ever told me was about when he was growing up in La Ceiba and he would eat johnnycakes all the time. He'd always need permission to eat them, though, and one day he decided to go rogue and just take a few extra on his way to school. Thinking he was sly, he made it half way to school that morning and decided it was time to take the johnnycakes out of his bag and eat them — not knowing his mom (mi abuela) had chased him down! Long story short … he didn't eat those johnnycakes or have any for quite a while after that.

By the way, you're probably wondering, what is a johnnycake?! Think biscuit meets cookie meets pan de coco. Often eaten in the Caribbean and Central America, these dense treats are best when warm and can be hooked up with anything from raisins to chocolate to, of course, sourdough discard!

This bread will be soft enough to pull apart when it comes out of the oven so don't miss out on eating it warm. Traditionally not too sweet, this bread is usually served with different soups and beans. In fact, once upon a time, it was not even leavened at all. My version, however, is different in both of those regards, as I like to sweeten it up just a tad and also, I enjoy a much fluffier, softer version than what you might traditionally find.

The most significant difference in my version is that I'm using my sourdough starter, which makes this pan de coco naturally leavened, and thus healthier and easily digestible. Most importantly, it's more delicious to eat this way. The process is not too complicated, so make sure you have as much fun as possible when making it!

Excerpted with permission from "New World Sourdough: Artisan Techniques for Creative Homemade Fermented Breads; With Recipes for Birote, Bagels, Pan de Coco, Beignets, and More" by Bryan Ford © 2020 Quarto Publishing Group USA Inc.