Though in my early twenties I spent a lot of time lurking on sourdough forums and baked bread weekly for roommates, during the pandemic, when sourdough loaves first started appearing on Instagram, I was driven to do the opposite.
After growing up with bagged grocery bread, sourdough had once been a revelation. In recent years, though, bread-baking has become something else entirely. Sourdough culture has become a practice in perfection: lengthy recipes, detailed with percentages and hydration levels, resulting in austere loaves that emulate Tartine Bakery’s, with bubbled, burnished crusts slashed artfully. And, more often than not, white hands holding up the finished loaf.
For some personalities, exacting recipes are reassuring prescriptions. Sourdough nerds get beyond granular when it comes to the precision of baking, from water temperatures to elaborate ways of achieving a perfect crust. There is comfort in being a nerd—I get it. It was comforting to me a decade ago, when my job required I spend far too much time on the computer. But lately, feeling less energetic than I used to, scrolling through long recipes fills me with dread. Life is a lot right now, and baking bread feels like one more thing on top of the too-much-already.
If you’ve ever felt in that overwhelmed boat, and considered baking but were too intimidated by your friends’ tossed-off Instagram crumb shots to try, Bryan Ford’s New World Sourdough is the antidote. Ford is a Bronx-born, New Orlean-raised line cook/baker/blogger who bakes, he writes, “because—like New Orleans—it’s fun and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.” The book contains no percentages, no talk of hydration, no temperatures. Instead, there are recipes laid out plainly in grams, primers on maintaining sourdough starter, and delightfully unique recipes that are rooted in his Afro-Honduran background.
Ford’s approach is the opposite of intimidation: He wants bread-baking to be accessible. There’s a section on his website for recipes translated to Spanish. He has a YouTube channel to which he posts charming process videos. The tone is so warm, enthusiastic, and generous, you get the sense that if you messaged him you’d get a response. His energy is infectious, capable of infecting even a perpetually exhausted, jaded person (ahem, me).
With his book, Ford sets out to clear up the notion that sourdough means the overly engineered Tartine loaf. It can be that. But it can also be any naturally leavened bread, like pan de coco baked in Honduras with naturally occurring yeasts. Or even challah, or cinnamon raisin bagels, or English muffins that happen to incorporate sourdough starter. Ford writes: “A dense loaf of pan de coco is no less ‘sourdough’ than a crunchy batard with an open, light crumb.”
The recipes in New World Sourdough are divided into two broad categories: “Rustic Breads” and “Enriched Sourdough Breads.” The Rustic Breads section includes, in addition to basic wheat and rustic loaves, focaccia and pretzels and pita, and “plantain sourdough”—sourdough with huge chunks of plantain baked in. You can tell how much fun Ford had with Enriched Sourdough Breads, the antithesis of overly serious bread, with recipes for Bananas Foster Sourdough, Pecan Praline Monkey Bread, and Choco Pan de Coco.
At a time when people are posting perfect loaves of bread on Instagram, Ford reminds us to “Make sure you balance your expectation for perfection with an appreciation of the processes, showing satisfaction with yourself and your bread every step of the way.” It’s a book that speaks to the gratification in bread-making, divorced from the excessive focus on the end result, written by someone who clearly finds joy in the process.
It should be noted that there are a few errors in the book’s first edition. When I made Ford’s sourdough Tortillas de Harina I noticed an extra egg, which Ford clarifies in a blog post titled “New World Sourdough: Clarifications and FAQ” should be added in step two. I didn’t see his blog post and omitted the egg. The tortillas were still delicious!
Reading the book reminded me of the first bread I ever baked, and how good it smelled: a teddy-bear shaped bread I made with the help of my mother in grade school. We gave it raisins for the eyes and belly button. Making Ford’s Pan Rustico I remembered that it was tasting my first truly good bread in San Francisco after college that drove me to bake. I remembered how magical bread-baking seemed to me then. I was all too happy to follow step four of Ford’s Pan Rustico recipe: “They say to let your bread cool, but I say dig in. Warm bread with butter is best.”
Originally Appeared on Epicurious