Using Science and History to Unlock the Secrets of Bread

October 2, 2017

nytimes.com
Tejal Rao

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Two years ago in Paris, Nathan Myhrvold wandered the Louvre on a mission, camera in hand, documenting every image of bread that he could find. “Sadly, art historians don’t catalog paintings by whether or not there’s bread in them,” he said.

So Mr. Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer of Microsoft and a founder of the investment firm Intellectual Ventures, built his own catalog. That day, he shot about 100 buns and rolls that peeped from underneath oil-rendered French linens and gleamed in dark Dutch still-lifes.

Each one became a data point in his obsessive study of bread and how it’s changed through the ages: “Modernist Bread,” a five-part cookbook to be released on Nov. 7 by the Cooking Lab, Mr. Myhrvold’s own publishing house.

Written with the chef Francisco Migoya, the book is a single-subject follow-up to “Modernist Cuisine,” the encyclopedic 2011 boxed-set cookbook that used hard science to demystify culinary techniques, and dazzled cooks with its cross-sectional photographs showing hidden processes inside pressure cookers and charcoal grills.

The new book — stretching over 2,000 pages, with step-by-step images and a hefty list price of $625 — chronicles the history and science of bread-making in depth (“Baking is applied microbiology,” one chapter begins), breaking frequently for meticulous, textbook-style tangents on flour and fermentation. Its recipes require a commitment to close reading, and to flipping back through the books for deeper explanations. But each has useful variations that work with many kinds of mixing and cooking methods, for both professional and home kitchens.

Above all, the book is a call for cooks to rethink one of the world’s oldest foods — to understand how bread is made, using more than their instinct and intuition, so they can push the craft forward.

“You do things one way, until you learn there’s a completely different way that’s even better,” Mr. Migoya said. “And there’s always a better way.”

The Cooking Lab’s headquarters are in Bellevue, across Lake Washington from Seattle. Mr. Migoya runs a spotless kitchen on the second floor, equipped with many types of ovens, a freeze dryer, a three-dimensional scanner and an ultrasonic bath.

The kitchen has become a base for low-tech investigations, too, like the authors’ re-enactment of a first-century fresco that shows a man handing out bread in Pompeii.

To reproduce the squat loaves, they procured a bronze Roman bread stamp from an antiquities dealer in New York (yes, he was horrified when he found out it would be put to use in a working oven) and called in a costume designer to dress a few of their bearded colleagues.

What might sound like cute cosplay for bread nerds also sums up the spirit of “Modernist Bread,” a book that demands bakers look into the past without romanticizing it.

The history of bread has been ugly at times, and the wedge loaves of Pompeii, according to Mr. Migoya and Mr. Myhrvold, weren’t exactly delicious. The book insists that the most exciting time to be a baker (or bread lover) isn’t a golden age that has passed us all by. It wasn’t Pompeii, or medieval Florence or 18th-century France, with its wheat riots. And it wasn’t Northern California in the 1970s, where the American artisanal bread movement started in response to the industrialization of bread.

It is right now.

So Mr. Myhrvold is puzzled by the uniformity of bakeries and bread aisles, and the persistence of what he calls “an ethos of primitivism,” or a resistance to innovation, among so many contemporary bakers.

It’s this ethos, he believes, that has led American bakers to idealize wood-fired ovens (“an absurd fetish”) and to push aside radical discoveries, like no-knead bread, as a kind of novelty.

“It’s led to ever more primitive techniques,” Mr. Myhrvold said, noting the current preference for sourdough over yeast, for wood over gas and for grinding flours in-house. “My rhetorical question is, ‘What’s next, stone tools?’”

Before no-knead bread was popularized, by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York, many cooks assumed that kneading was a necessary step in developing bread dough (though Pillsbury Mills had published a recipe pamphlet about no-knead bread in the 1940s, and Suzanne Dunaway had dedicated a book to the technique in the late 1990s). Somehow, a revelation that should have rocked the bread world, several times, never did.

“Modernist Bread” finds inspiration in a variety of sources, industrial as well as artisanal, offering a defense of high fructose corn syrup alongside a guide to caring for wild sourdough starters, and debunking the idea that water purity affects the rise and flavor of bread.

It offers fresh techniques for solving all sorts of infuriating baking puzzles. To combat the density and dryness of whole wheat bread, Mr. Migoya adds in the bran and germ later, only after the dough has developed significant gluten, to bake a more lightweight, airy loaf.

To prevent the inexorable balding process in which bagels shed their toppings, a fine slurry of modified tapioca starch works like a powerful, edible glue, firmly affixing a dense, even layer of toppings to baked bagels. A little gelatin makes high-hydration doughs — those gloopy, fussy darlings of the bread world — much easier to handle, with the bonus of a browner crust.

Some of the tips are dead simple: To rescue an over-proofed dough, punch it down and reshape it.

As Mr. Migoya zipped through the kitchen, past his sketches for a bread sculpture inspired by the paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a timer beeped. He reached for a plastic tub of rising dough, a gassy network of bubbles visible under its dark-gray surface.

He had folded in a purée of huitlacoche, the rich, earthy fungus that grows in corn, as well as some fresh yellow kernels. Though he had access to more equipment than most fine-dining restaurants on the planet, Mr. Migoya followed a hands-on method that relied on plenty of visual and tactile cues.

“There’s tech for determining flour strength, hydration, staling, all of these things,” he said, “but when it comes to how to determine proper proofing, you need a finger. It’s the best instrument there is.”

Mr. Migoya had mixed the whole wheat dough with Sir Yeast a Lot, one of two four-year-old sourdough starters that are fed daily, so they’re up and ready to work by 10 each morning. Every half-hour, he gave it a quick fold, until he could stretch the dough into a membrane as sheer and ephemeral as a chewing gum bubble.

When Mr. Migoya lifted the lid on the wobbly sourdough, to add bran and germ, an ancient smell wafted out: fermented grain, rich with perfume, high and sweet and alcoholic.

Mr. Migoya, 43, was born and raised in Mexico City, where piles of huitlacoche filled the markets during the rainy season. He worked as a pastry chef at the French Laundry, and later as a teacher at the Culinary Institute of America, and wrote several cookbooks as well as the Quenelle, an early food blog with a cult following in the restaurant industry. He once spent seven years, off and on, improving on his recipe for pâte à choux.

He was running his own chocolate shop in the Hudson Valley when Mr. Myhrvold, now 58, tapped him to head up the Cooking Lab’s kitchen in 2014.

One mystery eluded Mr. Migoya as he worked on the book: understanding the specific, glorious smell of just-baked bread. “Sure, there are a lot of compounds transforming during the baking process,” he said, “but there isn’t a complete answer as to why bread smells so darn good.”

He studied academic papers, and his team did some of their own chemical analyses, trying to distill the essence of the aroma in a rotary evaporator. It wasn’t possible.

Neither, Mr. Myhrvold says, is predicting the future of bread. He notes that while culinary movements like nouvelle cuisine have continually shifted restaurant culture, the world of bread has been slower to change.

“I’m not quite pompous and narcissistic enough to say, ‘Here is where bread is going,’” Mr. Myhrvold said. But he hopes the book explodes some misconceptions for bakers.

Mr. Migoya thinks that flour may come to be valued, like chocolate and coffee, as a product worth a premium price. “I don’t want bread to be an elite thing that no one can afford,” he said, “but there should be some breads that are highly regarded for their ingredients, and for the craft of their bakers.”

The authors credit innovators like Mr. Lahey and Chad Robertson with recent breakthroughs. Mr. Robertson popularized high-hydration breads at Tartine in San Francisco. (He also wrote an introduction to the book, and the recipe for Surfer Sourdough is a homage to his flexible proofing method).

Some professional bakers have wondered how Mr. Myhrvold, who hasn’t been handling fermentations or mixing large amounts of bread daily, for decades, might teach the industry something new. “I was skeptical at first,” said Melissa Weller, formerly the head baker at Per Se in New York, and later Roberta’s in Brooklyn. “But now I’m curious.”

Ms. Weller, who worked with a wood-fired oven for years (and found it inefficient for bread), also has a degree in chemical engineering. Like many bakers, she has pieced together a deep knowledge from independent reading — Nancy Silverton, Jeffrey Hamelman, Michel Suas — and many years of bread production in different kinds of kitchens.

“Bread-baking is a hard-earned knowledge,” she said. “So far, I’ve never seen a book that’s able to express it all.”

Early in the book’s genesis, Mr. Migoya worked for months on a bread family tree — lean, enriched, flat, bricklike — tracing relationships in ratios and practices across the world, narrowing categories and setting down definitions for words that have often resisted them. “The history of bread is full of human folly, which is great,” he said. “It’s part of what is beautiful about bread.”

What excited him now was the idea of someone reading the book and going her own way, of bakeries in New York, Tokyo and Paris with utterly different menus. “Maybe new kinds of bread will come to light, and someone will invent a new type of bread,” he said. “That would be so exciting.”

After Mr. Migoya baked his huitlacoche sourdough, it had a dark, crackling crust. Sawing it open with a serrated cake knife, he revealed a tender, stretchy core, a gelatinous sheen along its wide, open crumb.

“It’s beautiful,” Mr. Migoya said, as if he hadn’t cut into thousands of similarly beautiful loaves.

He had been tinkering with a huitlacoche bread for some time. For this version, the one he planned to serve on a publicity tour for the book, Mr. Migoya had charred chiles and slow-cooked a traditional red mole from Puebla, Mexico. He mixed it with butter in a Pacojet, which sent a high-speed blade spinning through, top to bottom, turning it smooth, shiny and just the right temperature to eat.

He used a piping bag fitted with a flat tip to squeeze a generous amount of butter down the middle of each slice, sweeping crumbs away, keeping his cutting board pristine. The bread was the deep gray of wet pavement, and the crimped ribbon of mole butter was bright red.

It had an intense, satisfying crunch and chew, and an elaborate rush of heat and tang that carried on long after the last bite. It was familiar, but also entirely new.

“Bread and butter,” Mr. Migoya said. “It’s only bread and butter.”