Modernist Bread Slices Into the Science of the Loaf
Not long after I finished college, I scored my first higher-end cooking job as an expediter and grill guy at a pan-Asian restaurant in San Francisco. It was the first place where I realized I was cooking food that I knew nothing about. Eventually, during my breaks and time off, I’d read books the chef handed to me, to help understand the method and history behind what I was doing.
Later, I came to love The Best Recipe by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated, where their scientific-method style, testing recipes over and over to find the “best” one, appealed to me. I wasn’t a science whiz, but if a team of chefs said it was the best way to do it, I’d do it that way until I had the confidence to do otherwise.
Read through some of the recipes, chapters, and volumes of Modernist Bread, the massive new tome from Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya, and you’ll realize that there’s a clear line, stretched across nearly two decades, between Best Recipe‘s style and Modernist‘s.
Head chef of Modernist Cuisine and co-author of Modernist Bread, Francisco Migoya
The Cooking Lab, LLC
Out this week, Modernist Bread is the five-volume follow up to Myhrvold’s five-volume Modernist Cuisine. This new collection lays out in encyclopedic fashion what, in the authors’ minds, is the best way to make everything from white sandwich bread to pretzels to vollkornbrot. It is the deepest of deep dives. There are stunning photos, images of gluten made with scanning electron microscopes, history, discoveries, science, and at this point you’re either amazed by the whole idea or went glassy-eyed in that last paragraph, vaguely wondering “Five books about bread?” before finding a suitable spot on the floor to take a nap.
There are discoveries of the authors’ own as well as lesser-known discoveries of others that the book spotlights. Myths are debunked (spoiler: whole grain might not be as good for you as you think), new techniques are shared, equipment is recommended and, um, there’s a photo of flour exploding.
Myhrvold, a former Microsoft exec who has a traveling wave reactor a stone’s throw from the Modernist kitchen, is a king of the geeks and bread making, even more so than for the food in Modernist Cuisine, rewards the precision of an effort like this. For the book launch, I toured their kitchen, got an advance look at the work, and tried a few of the methods that jumped out at me in my own test kitchen.
I stood in Modernist’s Seattle-area space, gaping in awe as Migoya showed me the merchandise: a centrifuge that’s notably larger than my wash machine, a spray dryer, a homemade tandoor oven made from a 55-gallon drum (“Everything you need to make it from Home Depot for 300 bucks!” he said), and an ultra freezer set to -61 degrees Celsius.
There were also plenty of curios from the bread world: freeze-dried fermented dough, corn smut, and sourdough starters given in-house names like Levain James and Ryean Seacrust. My favorite item, though, was what was inside a home oven old enough that it appeared to be the only thing in the kitchen ready to make its one-way trip to the great scrap heap in the sky.
Opening the door of the oven, which Migoya referred to as a “Samsung whatever,” revealed four cast-iron combo cookers—Dutch ovens with skillets for “lids” that allow each piece of the cooker to function as both top and bottom.
“This,” said Migoya, gesturing at both the oven and the cookers, “is the answer to making good bread in your house.”
His real fondness is for the Lodge Combo Cooker, which is “far and away” Migoya’s preference. While their use has been praised before, notably in Tartine Bread, the latter simply notes the combo cooker in passing, while the Modernist team quantifies why it’s best: Among other qualities, the skillet-like setup makes it easy to set dough into (this is especially useful for avoiding burns on the backs of hands if the cooker has been preheating in the stove), the enclosed environment promotes crust development by trapping steam inside, the cast iron is a superior heat conductor, and as opposed to the creamy white enamel that lines many Dutch ovens, and the black color is fantastic at transmitting heat by radiation.
Migoya also added two practical points: you can make stew in it, and unlike most enameled Dutch ovens which can cost a couple hundred dollars, this one costs $40 on Amazon (“free shipping on Prime!” he noted), which may make it my holiday gift of choice for friends.
If my car had the capacity to make the tires squeal, this would have been where that happened as I buzzed back to my office to try it out.
Cooking Lab founder and Modernist Bread co-author Nathan Myhrvold.
The Cooking Lab, LLC
In my test kitchen, I opened Modernist Bread, where baker Jim Lahey’s famous no-knead bread method is given prominent placement in several of the volumes, principally because it makes fantastic bread with a minimum of effort: mix the ingredients, let them ferment in a tub overnight, shape it into a ball the next morning, let it proof for an hour or two, then bake. Once you get the hang of it, it can be one of the most hands-off items in your baking repertoire.
The Modernist team also suggests doing the final proof of the dough right in the combo cooker instead of preheating it in the oven, which means less handling of the dough at surprisingly little cost to the crust.
With a lovely chewy, crisp crust, and amazing springy interior, my first loaf came out so surprisingly good that it gave me a boost of confidence. It looked like something I’d buy from an artisan baker for $10.
It gave me so much confidence that the next day, I blithely went on to bake a whole wheat loaf without realizing this should have been done using mostly bread flour and a bit of whole-wheat flour, which helps keep the loaf from becoming too dense. Nevertheless, it created a flattish loaf that tasted pretty darn good.
Later, I made a loaf with King Arthur Flour’s renowned Sir Galahad flour (King Arthur’s “flour of choice for artisan breads”), which helped create a bread that, with its crunchy crust, and an interior so pillowy and pleasingly moist that the word “juicy” came to mind. It was clearly one of the best breads I’ve ever made. The simplicity and perfection instantly earned it a place in my regular repertoire. At well under a buck per pound for the flour in the bulk section, it’s also a ridiculously cheap loaf.
So who’s to thank here? Modernist? Mr. Lahey? Someone else?
And with these little questions, we accidentally enter the thicket. The rule of thumb in the cookbook-writing world is that by tweaking a recipe a couple of times you can put it into your own cookbook. To be clear, Modernist Bread has done that. But write a monster book like this one, and it can shine more of a spotlight than when it originally came out. And it can rankle the hell out of people who think Modernist is taking more than its share of the limelight for a discovery that’s already been made. (I first heard people airing this exact complaint at the Grain Gathering, an industry event I attended earlier this year.)
To its credit, Modernist’s recipe for No Knead Lean Bread says “Adapted from Jim Lahey” next to the title, and there’s both an explanation of the bread and a one-page bio of Lahey in volume four. The book also goes on to show examples of no-knead-style bread from baker Suzanne Dunaway in 1999 and a Pillsbury pamphlet from 1945.
Modernist Bread has made what it calls “modifications” to Lahey’s technique, where it “found that doubling the yeast means the dough will be ready to bake within 8 hours, rather than the 14-20 hours suggested in the original recipe.” This echoes a 2008 Mark Bittman story in The New York Times (which had already been hyping Lahey’s bread since late 2006) where he just dumped a whole packet of yeast in there and got it done in four hours.
Do they mean “found” as in “personally discovered” or “made a first-in-the-world discovery?” I find it distressing to need to parse the semantics this way in an encyclopedic work with so many important contributions.
Kick the Can
On my Modernist kitchen tour, I also noticed breads sealed up in canning jars, an innovation that was the result of an accident. Migoya had misunderstood a blog post about panettone by baker Denis Dianin. Written in Italian, Migoya thought Dianin baked the Italian holiday treat in the jars with the lids on. It didn’t, but Migoya went on to make several kinds of breads in sealed jars, everything from white sandwich bread to cinnamon rolls to Neapolitan pizzas, complete with sauce and cheese. He made them in both ovens and—get this—a pressure cooker.
The whole “canned bread” idea (like in home canning, you “can” in glass jars) was new to the Modernist team as their print deadline was nearing. But they went with it, and now they have canned bread in their kitchen that’s several months old with an aroma that they call “concentrated” and “intoxicatingly good.” Thanks to the heat of the cooking and the vacuum-sealed atmosphere within, they say it is mold and bacteria free, which means you could stick it on a shelf for a few months, then warm it in the oven on a cold day and have it for lunch.
I made some canned bread at home and the whole thing had a bit of a wild-west feel to it. I tried making the pizza, which was a fiasco because the jar size and baking temperature were incorrect in the book, which led to melted canning jar gaskets and something akin to tomato-cheese-dough flavored fruit leather dripping down the outsides of the jars that I still haven’t been able to scrape clean. I mentioned this issue to the authors, and after a few further trials and some help from the Modernist team, I was able to make pizza that was tasty but, and I’m being generous here, aesthetically challenged enough that I’d need a while to develop my technique to get it to the point where I’d be willing to show it to anyone. (Future editions of the book will be changed to reflect the proper temperature, and corrections will be noted on the Modernist website.)
That said, the brioche was like striking gold. Since it’s the same dough recipe for both the traditional and the canned method, I made both a loaf and two jars and they were outstanding. A few months from now, I’ll pop a jar in the oven, get out the butter and get ready to breathe in those concentrated aromas.
Whether or not you think that canned bread is a discovery worth mentioning likely depends on whether or not you’re into home canning in the first place. I will say that there’s a canned baba au rhum recipe in Modernist Bread that has the potential to forever unseat fruit cake as a holiday gift.
While the multi-volume book touts scores of discoveries, one of the most interesting developments is its remake of the recipe itself. Modernist Cuisine started down this road, but Bread features helpful graphics at the top of each recipe that list factors like total cooking time, difficulty and oven type—from a bakery deck oven, to a restaurant combi oven, to a ‘Samsung whatever”-style home oven—the recipe works best with.
Ingredients are laid out in numbered groups that include weight (hooray!), volume (boo!), as well as by percentage of the whole, which is really helpful for scaling a recipe. Separate time and temperature charts break the recipe down by dough shape (loaf, ficelle, roll, etc.) and oven type. The book is also good at setting expectations, showing preference for some ovens and methods and advising against others.
“You can’t make good pizza in a convection oven,” Migoya says flatly.
So far, so good, but the general directions will take some getting used to. Using a modified spreadsheet format, each step (mix, ferment, shape, bake) gets a row. If you’re a confident bread baker, you’ll likely be fine, but the “procedure” and “notes” sections of each row sometimes refer you all over the place in the books, which gets a little hectic when it’s a five-volume set. If you’re an experienced baker, it’ll take some getting adjusted to before helping speed things along, but if you’re newer to the game, or just that kind of bread, all the flipping around between volumes can be crazy-making. By contrast, Jim Lahey’s book My Bread lays everything you need from A to Z for no-knead, including photos.
There’s no way to look at Modernist Bread and not be stunned. It’s gorgeous, and Myhrvold goes around talking about how many pounds of ink it took to print each five-volume set. Also, the team has both come up with new techniques and refined scores of old ones. People who love that Best Recipe-style scientific method taken to the nth degree will want this set on their shelves. The contributions to bread-making here are undeniable. Just remember that under the blink and bling of Modernist‘s limelight, the work stands on the shoulders of centuries of innovators and craftsmen.
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