Sourdough beyond white bread
Reviewing New World Sourdough
There are two kinds of people: the ones who decided the pandemic was the perfect time to learn how to make sourdough, and the ones who missed being able to find flour at the grocery store. I was in the latter group.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I have pretty much avoided baking with yeast until literally the year 2021, so I was not sucked into that particular craze, but I wanted to spend some time on sourdough as a major quarantine trend. Since I have no experience with it, I tapped my friend Brittany Wienke, who has been baking bread for nearly ten years, to talk about her baking journey and review an exciting cookbook that had been on my radar since the start of the pandemic: New World Sourdough.
The author of New World Sourdough, Bryan Ford, is working to reclaim sourdough from the land of meticulously Instagrammed crumb shots and white bros speaking in formulas on Reddit. In a interview with Taste Cooking, he says he wanted to shift readers’ perspectives on sourdough away from the “traditional European-style or American West Coast-style loaf.” In the book, he adds sourdough starter to breads from his own Honduran heritage and across Latin America, and showcases sourdough recipes from that region that aren’t as well known by readers from the States.
Brittany first tried her hand at sourdough shortly after graduating college, working from a cookbook called Nourishing Traditions that emphasizes slow, scratch-cooking methods. She had a number of “spectacular failures” and ended up taking a break from sourdough for a few years, until a friend gifted her a starter. Eventually, she gave up on Nourishing Traditions and began baking a sourdough adaptation of the famous Jim Lahey no-knead bread recipe. She drilled down on the Jim Lahey recipe, baking it regularly and gradually tweaking it to fit her own tastes until she had her own recipe, which she now bakes weekly--that is, until she got her hands on New World Sourdough.
Brittany is steadily working her way through this new book, and has baked nine recipes so far. We spoke about the way it expanded her conception of what sourdough could be and how to work with it; the wins and challenges of the recipes; and why it makes a great resource for beginners.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What excites you about this book?
Bryan Ford is of Honduran descent and he really dives into Latin American breads of all kinds. He has a recipe for pan de agua, a Puerto Rican bread. Has also has a recipe for flour-based tortillas which incorporate coconut milk into the dough. That was so cool to me! I didn’t know that flour tortillas were the go-to tortilla in Honduras, which is different from other areas in Latin America where the corn tortilla is the the standard.
There are other things in there too, for example, the Semitas de Yema. I’ve seen them for sale in bakeries and grocery stores, but it never seemed like something I could make at home. It both made me realize and reminded me that every food product starts off being made in a kitchen somewhere. It’s possible to reverse engineer things you think are beyond your ability to make at home.
Tell me about what you’ve made so far. What are the standouts?
I’ve baked nine types of bread out of this book so far. A standout would be the pan de gallego, which is a Gallician bread. It’s a really distinctive loaf of bread that has a topknot at the top. That’s actually a Spanish bread, not Latin American bread. That was something I had never heard of and had never seen. It was very visually appealing. You don’t have to score it (which often you do have to do and does require some amount of finesse and practice) and everyone knows how to tie a knot so that’s pretty simple! And it’s so delicious. It was a very mildly flavored sourdough, the rye flour really took the acidity out of it, so if you don’t like a super sour loaf, this one is good for that. It’s also extremely versatile. It can go really well as sandwich bread or you can use it as croutons. Unlike some of the other breads [in the book] that are denser, this lends itself really nicely to airy crumb structure, which is encouraging to people when they see that when they cut into it.
Because I have so much practice baking “rustic” bread, I’ve had much more success with the breads that are just flour, water, sourdough starter, and salt. He also has a whole wheat sourdough loaf that turned out pretty well. The olive oil and sea salt tin loaf was really good and and made entire house smell fruity and sweet when it was baking and it was really delicious.
What did you find challenging?
The one I struggled with the most was this Coco Rugbrød, which is a mashup of a Honduran pan de coco and a Danish rye bread. It is considered a “rustic bread” but there’s also coconut milk, oat flour, sunflower seeds, brown sugar, coconut oil, shredded coconut, and quinoa. A lot! The process is, make the dough, let it rise, put in the fridge for cold fermentation, then take it out and shape it. But when you add coconut oil, coconut milk, and shredded coconut, you introduce all this fat into the dough mix and when you refrigerate it, it gets really hard. And you actually can’t shape it when it comes out of the refrigerator. It’s like a cookie dough almost--you have to cut into it. He tells you to roll it out into a baguette shape and that was impossible because it was super hard. Perhaps it’s easier for him because I think he lives in Miami and his kitchen is probably warmer than an NYC apartment kitchen in the middle of January.
A realization I had when I was working through it was, when you add all these extra ingredients in--shredded coconut, coconut oil, sugar, quinoa--it’s no longer a “traditional sourdough bread” and I needed to adjust my expectations for how it would behave. I’m really familiar with how sourdough normally behaves--it’s a soft and pliable dough when it’s at room temperature; you can manipulate it when it’s cold--and that just wasn’t the case here, because it was different. I needed to look at it as a different baked good rather than a loaf of sourdough bread. Sourdough became an ingredient and a leavening agent, more like an egg, rather than the dominant flavor.
Anything else you want to make sure readers know about this book?
I actually think this would be a good book for a beginner.
The book is broken up into two parts. Part 1 is tools, tips, and techniques; Part 2 is recipes. In Part 1, he does a really good job stressing that the climate and where you live is going to affect how your bread behaves. That’s missing from other bread recipes that I’ve read.
I really like how he encourages the user to improvise. He says at one point, “I want you to bake the recipe as written once, and if you want to bake it again, adapt it so it works for you, your life, your kitchen, and the ingredients you have access to.”
He also has really clear and specific instructions on how to knead and how to mix the dough. When I started out baking, I felt that my kneading wasn’t right and it wasn’t stretching the gluten out sufficiently. In his recipes, instead of saying “knead the dough for five minutes until it’s elastic and smooth,” he has a really clear step-by-step process on mixing. He’s like “don’t mix, squeeze. Use your hands, and squeeze all the ingredients together.” Which is great because you don’t get any flour pockets, which would happen if you were using a spoon. You squeeze it all, and you can feel with your hand to make sure that everything is getting mixed evenly. For kneading the dough, he has photos that show: “roll it with your hand and pull back with your fingers.” Which is the kneading gesture, but is never described in detail in other recipes. They tell you to knead but they don’t tell you what that means.
He also has very clear, step-by-step pictures of how to shape the dough. That’s something I felt was missing in other recipes [by other writers]. Often, a step is “shape the dough and let it proof.” What do you mean, “shape it?” Shape it how? What shape? I feel like a lot of the pains I went through as an early stage baker could have been avoided if I had a clear guide like this and I had the patience to sit down and read the whole thing. He explains what’s happening, but he doesn’t get too detail-oriented, but it’s not condescending either.
Next issue: On Friday, I’ll share Brittany’s personal Western-style sourdough bread recipe that she makes weekly, along with her tips for beginners.
In two weeks, I’ll be reviewing the Xi’an Famous Foods cookbook.