It’s not that Bryan Ford didn’t love those tall, quintessentially crusty, flour-dusted, rustic French and Italian sourdough loaves — the kind you’ve seen cross-sectioned and shot from every angle on bread blogs and in cookbooks and on Instagram. The kind an algorithm may have even directed you toward with a far higher frequency since the pandemic pushed more home cooks to care for sourdough starters. He loved those breads! But Ford, a Honduran-American baker from New Orleans, also wondered why other breads weren’t valued in the same way, and why other doughs, especially doughs that predated the sourdough fad, and that went through their own processes of wild fermentations in home kitchens all over the world, were left out of the conversation.
The slow, overnight fermentation of dhokla leads to an airy, tangy batter, steamed so it’s very tender. But until I read Ford’s work, it never even occurred to me to refer to it, or to so many of the other everyday fermented batters I grew up making and eating as “sourdoughs.” I couldn’t explain why, though maybe it’s because their techniques and their visual languages were just so different from the wide, open crumbs and crackling edges fetishized on Instagram. And maybe, if I’m being honest, it’s because I didn’t think I was allowed — sourdough, intentionally or not, has an exclusive Eurocentric definition as crusty bread built with a starter. As a result, many of the world’s great fermented breads, from injera to dosa, are often left out. But Ford didn’t wait for anyone’s permission to expand sourdough’s definition.
Ford grew up in New Orleans, a child of Honduran immigrants. Once a week, sometimes more often, his father picked up a bag full of pan de coco from a Honduran bodega, and Ford would grab one or two of the dense little rolls from the bag and run off to eat them to tide himself over before dinner. His parents sat on the porch to have theirs, dipping them in coffee, talking. Honduran pan de coco, traditionally made with coconut milk and some whole-wheat flour, might be used to soak up soup or sauce with a meal, or eaten plain as a snack. “It’s such a beautiful thing,” Ford said, “and for me, that is good bread.”
In 2018, when he was working as a baker in Miami, he changed the way he thought about sourdoughs, expanding it to include fermentations from all over the world and applying the word to breads that had most likely benefited from natural leavening in warm kitchens in the past. “Before, I’d been posting rustic loaves, baguettes, crumb shots, all the same-looking thing,” Ford said. “I was getting trapped in that mentality.” But when his mother came to visit, Ford baked pan de coco with a sourdough starter instead of yeast, complicating the bread’s flavors and changing its texture. He documented the process with just as much care as he had before. “People saw I was proud to be Honduran. My following grew.” Soon, Ford started posting his bread recipes in English and Spanish, fielding questions from home bakers all over the world about doughs not rising properly, about caring for a healthy starter and about the abyss between their homemade loaves and the ones posted by professional bakers on Instagram.
Ford’s cookbook, “New World Sourdough,” published in June, is full of deep expertise that answers many of these questions, but it’s also an unusually warm, friendly invitation to making sourdough bread, a subgenre of the baking world that isn’t known for being so inclusive and approachable. In the introduction, Ford writes that he wants bakers to change their expectations of bread. “I really really mean it,” Ford said. “People get into baking bread with an idea of what it’s supposed to be, but when you lose those expectations, you can make a roti or naan or semita, and you can appreciate it just as much.”
The first recipe I made from the book was a version of Ford’s pan de coco, sweet, mottled brown with cocoa powder and chocolate chips, the tin greased with coconut oil. As it baked, it filled my kitchen with the rich smell of coconut. It came out of the oven airy, pulling apart with threads that let out puffs of steam, smearing my fingertips with melted chocolate. But it cooled to a more dense and wholesome texture. I wasn’t sure if I got it right, if my starter was in a good place when I used it and if this bread was the way Ford intended it to be. Had I failed? I wanted to show him a photo of the bread, the way it looked when it was risen, the way it looked when I tore it open and ate it, standing in front of the oven. But I didn’t need to. “When someone messages me about a failure, I’ll always ask, well did you share it? Did you like it, did your friends and family like it? OK, then be proud of making delicious bread!”
Recipe: Choco Pan de Coco