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Nathan Myhrvold: Everything You Know About Bread is Wrong

DR. NATHAN MYHRVOLD’s culinary magnum opus, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, was a game changer—a self-published, nearly 2,500 page, six-volume culinary encyclopedia that sold over 200,000 copies at US$625 a pop.

Six years on, the former chief technology officer at Microsoft and his new collaborator, Francisco Migoya, are publishing its five-volume, single-volume sequel, Modernist Bread (The Cooking Lab, 2,462 pp., also US$625). C100B reached Myhrvold at The Cooking Lab, in Bellevue, Wash., to discuss the project.

C100B: When your cookbooks run 2,500 pages you had better choose your subject very carefully. Why bread?
Nathan Myhrvold: Machine-made bread sort of took over the world after World War II. Then, in the 1970s, both in Europe and in North America, you had the start of the artisanal bread movement, where people said, “If we want quality bread, we have to go back into the past.” At that point in time, they were right—but that has now played out. If your whole reasoning is that the best bread was made in the past and we can only hope to recreate it, it’s very limiting. Now we have a trend towards increasingly more ancient things like milling your own grain, your own flour, like using a wood-burning oven. What’s next? Stone tools? Flint knives? I don’t think so. Modernist bread may be a contradiction in terms for many artisan bakers, but we’re trying to say it’s OK to have new inventions. We want to push it along, and point out that a lot of this stuff that’s in the received wisdom of the past—it isn’t right.

C100B: Every great restaurant kitchen has a copy of Modernist Cuisine. Jean-Georges Vongerichten told me once that if that book had only come out when he was an apprentice, it would have spared him five years of training. Does Modernist Bread aim to be equally indispensable and leave bakers shaking their heads, muttering, “If only I’d known that…”?
NM: One of the crazy things we found is that there isn’t any decent rye flour in North America. Here it’s grown as animal feed and then some of it is diverted to human use. It’s invariably ground into a very course meal and that makes what we call brick-like bread. Now, there are some wonderful brick-like breads. If you want a smørrebrød [Danish open-faced sandwich], use that kind of bread. But calling it bread is a bit of a stretch. It’s almost grain pâté. In Germany and Austria, they have this wonderful 100-per-cent rye bread that’s fluffy and looks like bread, and that’s because they grow different varieties of rye and they grind their flour totally differently. It turns out that the volume of rye bread is inversely proportional to the size of the flour particle—the finer the particle, the fluffier the bread.

C100B: So, are there baking methods herein as iconoclastic as, say, Modernist Cuisine’s wine-aeration technique of whizzing table wine in a blender?
NM: We looked at no-knead bread, which sort of took the culinary world by storm in 2006 or 2007 after The New York Times ran an article about Jim Lahey. Trying to trace the history of this, I found on eBay a Pillsbury pamphlet from 1946 called “Bake the No-Knead Way.” Meanwhile, if you look at professional bread books or amateur bread books, unless they were specifically books about no-knead bread, they all repeat the same story: you’ve got to knead the bread to develop the gluten. Even books published after Lahey’s would sort of dismiss his method as some special case or weird thing. Well, it turns out that the kneading doesn’t do what people thought it did. Kneading is basically a fraud.

C100B: What else?
NM: There’s a lot of mythology around sourdough starters and how to get them going. There’s people that say you need to add raisins to it because the organic raisins will contain wild yeasts on the surface. Others use dried apricots. Some people say you should add yogurt because yogurt has lactobacillus in it. We tried making a sourdough starter three ways: with the weird ingredients, with the weird ingredients but pressure-cooking them first so they were totally sterile, and then just plain flour and water. What we found was really funny. The pressure-cooked ingredients do better than the normal ones—so it turns out that none of the yeast or bacteria on those ingredients makes any difference at all. The [remaining] sugar gives the yeast a head start. But in the long term that culture dies back and the flour and water take off. That’s what you want: yeast that is happy eating starch, which is what’s found in wheat. Flour and water is the better choice.

C100B: Your team started researching a book on bread in 2011—the same year Wheat Belly came out, vilifying gluten. Did its success give you a sinking feeling?

NM: Right off the bat, when someone has a compelling theory that explains everything—cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity—it’s probably wrong. Another red flag is that virtually all of the gluten-free movement is about people diagnosing themselves, whereas the only valid medical studies are what are called double-blind studies [wherein both doctor and patient are kept in the dark as to what is being tested]. Look, celiac disease is a real thing. Investigate further and you find that people who have self-diagnosed as being sensitive to gluten really have a sensitivity to something else. When it comes to gluten sensitivity, there’s really no scientific proof it even exists.

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