Amid Bakery Renaissance, Former Techie Takes Artisanal Bread to Insane New Levels

Modernist Cuisine’s Nathan Myhrvold is back with his follow-up work: a new, five-volume, 2,642-page cookbook set on bread.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
The $625, five-volume cookbook set includes recipes, techniques and scientific information about making breads, from bagels to an intricate Brioche black and white spiral loaf.

When chef, photographer and culinary mad scientist Nathan Myhrvold hands you a gluten-free bagel, you eat it.

After all, the former Microsoft chief technology officer has built a reputation on getting your eyes and your taste buds to willingly suspend disbelief. Inside an unassuming Bellevue-based lab, Myhrvold’s Wonka-esque Modernist Cuisine kitchen (part of a larger company called Intellectual Ventures that he founded) is spinning cotton candy out of sourdough starter, churning butter from spring peas and engineering the best damn wheatless bagels around. In November, enthusiastic bakers—both hobbyists and professionals—can try their hand at creating that last item, thanks to the debut of Modernist Bread, a five-volume (plus kitchen manual) tome he cowrote with head chef Francisco Migoya.

You may have seen Myhrvold’s first opus, the same-size Modernist Cuisine, on a chef’s shelf somewhere. Retailing for nearly $500 on Amazon six years after its publication in 2011, it’s prohibitively expensive for the average home cook. But for anyone fascinated by the intersection of science and cooking, it is a veritable bible.

Photograph by The Cooking Lab; Many of Modernist Bread’s photos, such as this close-up of a crusty loaf, look like alien planet landscapes. 

The photos are a major draw—dramatic shots achieved with high-speed, macro and other advanced photography techniques, plus a team of machinists who enjoy sawing kitchen equipment in half. These pictures have been credited with reinventing how we think about food photography, and by themselves are nearly worth the price of the book. For example: a cross-section view of a pressure cooker, with roast intact; an intimately close image of an artichoke; and a photo showing how bread looks from the inside at various stages in the baking process. (Myhrvold’s signature photographic style is now in such high demand that he opened a gallery, with new photos as well as previously published pictures, at The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in May.)

Fans can expect more of the same in Modernist Bread: The Art and Science (The Cooking Lab, 2017, $625), which is perhaps the most extensive singular deep dive into the history and science of bread baking ever written, including more than 1,200 recipes. 

Myhrvold was considering what to work on after Modernist Cuisine, he says the natural progression would have been pastries and desserts. He credits a visit from Connecticut-based chef Charles van Over, whose cookbook The Best Bread Ever won a James Beard Award in 1998, for prompting him to start thinking of bread as both interesting and unusual. Van Over has spent a lifetime developing a bread technique that involves a very specific 45-second blitz in the food processor—a startling departure from the traditional hands-on approach to kneading that results in the same crusty loaf.

“It shouldn’t work, but it does,” says Myhrvold, with eyes twinkling behind his glasses, a mischievous grin spreading across his face. He loves an opportunity to turn convention on its head. “I thought, ‘Let’s try to do modernist bread.’ The very title is a contradiction.”

An important thing to know about Myhrvold is that he doesn’t do anything half-assed. In researching his topic, he ordered some 200 books on bread, from industrial texts on milling to historical works on baking in ancient Pompeii. They were cataloged in a database by his editorial staff to find similarities among recipes. He and the team flew to more than 20 countries, including Paris and Norway (to visit the Svalbard Global Seed Vault), in search of the tools used by our bread-baking ancient ancestors. He talked to food historians, statisticians, farmers and, he says, “every great bread baker we could find.”

Photograph by The Cooking Lab; This toaster has been cut in half, showing off the photographic skill and style of the series, as well as the inner workings of all things bread.

Among his discoveries: The foundation of today’s artisanal bread movement and its focus on whole grains is thanks to “a bunch of hippies in northern California” in the ’70s, he says, who were rebelling against factory-produced loaves such as Wonder Bread. They improved the quality of what was commercially available, he says, though he rejects the idea that the best bread is a purely artisan, antiquated product.

“I think the golden age of bread is now going forward,” he says. “We have better tools, we have better science, we have the opportunity to have better strains of wheat.”

If 2,642 pages perhaps sounds like too much of a good thing, Myhrvold didn’t write this beast of a book for you. Or me. Ever the inquiring researcher, Myhrvold explains: “The way I see it, there are two ways you can make a product. You can go make a product for [others], or you can say, ‘I want to do what I love, and I hope someone agrees with me.’ All the best things are made that way—and the worst, too.” His success—and those bagels—has already proven he’s doing something right. 

Modernist Bread by the numbers:
15 Pounds Myhrvold gained researching the book
19 Tons of flour used in research
22 Full-time staff members needed to complete this project
36,654 Loaves baked over four years
1,000,000,000 Words in the set

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