Slicing through myths to rethink bread

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.
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.PHOTO: NYTIMES

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON (NYTimes) - Two years ago in Paris, Nathan Myhrvold wandered the Louvre on a mission, camera in hand, documenting every image of bread he could find. "Sadly, art historians don't catalogue paintings by whether or not there's bread in them," he said.

So Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer of Microsoft and a founder of the investment firm Intellectual Ventures, built his own catalogue. 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 Nov 7 by the Cooking Lab, Myhrvold's own publishing house.

Written with 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 - over 2,000 pages, with step-by-step images and a hefty list price of US$625 (S$851) - 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," Migoya said. "And there's always a better way."

The Cooking Lab's headquarters are in Bellevue, across Lake Washington from Seattle. 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.

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

It offers fresh techniques for solving all sorts of infuriating baking puzzles. To combat the density and dryness of whole wheat bread, 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 as an 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 he zipped through the kitchen, past his sketches for a bread sculpture inspired by Giuseppe Arcimboldo paintings, a timer beeped. He reached for a tub of rising dough, a gassy network of bubbles visible under its dark-grey surface.

He had folded in a puree 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, he 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."

He had mixed the whole wheat dough with Sir Yeast a Lot, one of two 4-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 he 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.

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 pate a choux.

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

One mystery eluded 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."

Early in the book's genesis, Migoya worked for months on a bread family tree - lean, enriched, flat, brick-like - 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."

After he 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," he 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, he had charred chilies 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 grey 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," Migoya said. "It's only bread and butter."