NATHAN MYHRVOLD: 'BREAD IS TOMORROW'S INGREDIENT'
A chat with the famous American scientist, about his book Modernist Bread and the science of making this delicacy.
“The potential for bread is so much greater than we realize today,” pronounces culinary polymath Nathan Myhrvold. Bread may be life’s oldest and most fundamental sustenance – the Babylonians used wheat as a gold standard - but Myhrvold believes we have a long way to rise. “This is the future of bread, thinking about it in a truer and more fundamental yet more specialist way. Innovating and elevating the staple on the side plate!”
When we meet in London before Mhyrvold talks to a rapt audience at Bread Ahead bakery, he is in characteristic bombastic mood, “yes, I consider myself a bread activist!” His passion for his subject is contagious. It is easy to forget the maverick scientist/IT entrepreneur, is former CTO of Microsoft, and did post doctoral mathematical physics research with the late Stephen Hawking in Cambridge.
What Myhvold enjoys most, it seems, is disrupting long held culinary beliefs by questioning in a way few chefs think - or have the luxury of time not to mention technical lab to do so. Many of his findings turn upside down conventions of baking, especially the current cult of the artisan baker.
MODERNIST BREAD: THE MAKING OF THE BOOK
© The Cooking Lab, LLC.
Myhrvold, takes his research very rigorously, his book Modernist Bread: the art and science is 2642 pages and involved making 36,654 loaves. He assembles the finest teams of chefs, scientists, and historians: visionary baker Francisco Migoya, former executive pastry chef of Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry is now his chief collaborator. Myhrvold even photographed bread in paintings at the Louvre: noting some 15th century German paintings appeared to have Christ and the Apostles eating pretzels!
Over the last two years, all 1200 recipes were tested in every type of mixer imaginable using more than 40 tons of flour. His team tested proofing (fermenting and rising) the dough in different environments: using a proofer or retarder (to keep the bread dough at a relatively consistent temperature and humidity level) as a pro-baker would; at room temperature; and cold proofing down to 39C°, temperature of a fridge. Then baked in five different ovens: convection, combi, deck, wood-fried and home events: three times for each dough. They tried 120 recipes for baguettes alone!
THE BEST IS YET TO COME
Chief among Myhrvold’s concerns is that the whole ethos of the bread world seems orientated around the idea is that the past was the best time, rather than the future. “There are some wonderful things about the bread of the past, but the golden age of bread making is now” asserts Myhrvold. “There’s too much uniformity among artisanal bakers, we need to encourage them to innovate with new recipes and techniques.”
“We haven’t moved on since the 70s artisanal movement reaction to supermarket industrial loaves”. It’s this ethos, he believes, that has led bakers to idealize wood-fired ovens, “an absurd fetish, as it is so difficult to control temperature” and to push aside radical discoveries, like no-knead bread as a kind of novelty.
A MATTER OF HYDRATATION
© Nathan Myhrvold / The Cooking Lab, LLC
As Myhrvold explains, there's never been a need to knead. “The goal of mixing is simply to hydrate flour, unleashing a cascade of chemical reactions. It's hydration rather than mixing or kneading that allows dough to form a gluten network.” The book quotes Jim Lahey's no-knead method, reported by the New York Times in 2006: mix till ingredients form a homogenous mass and leave for 12-18 hours. Though folding dough during fermentation is a good idea.
Mhyrvold tackles all manner of baking conundrums. To combat the density and dryness of whole wheat bread, add bran and germ separately later, after the dough has developed significant gluten, to bake a more lightweight airy loaf. Pure water does not make better bread. Tests using tap, filtered, distilled and even chlorinated water produced almost no difference in the final loaves' taste and size, though fermentation is a little faster using filtered and distilled water.
A little gelatin – 7% of the weight of the water melted in - makes the high-hydration dough artisan bakers are fixated with more manageable. It is much easier to handle and has the bonus of a browner crust. In the lab, they use a D scanner to measure the ratio of fat to hydration. As Myhrvold breezily explains: “All you’re doing is manipulating the state of the water and taking advantage of its physical properties. Once it bakes, the gelatin melts out.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF FLOUR
© The Cooking Lab, LLC.
The Lab tasted aged flour, best according to traditional baking wisdom, versus just milled flour that Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery - one of the bakers Myhrvold clearly prefers. They made dough with wheat the day it was milled, the second day, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh day. Then, waited another week and then a total of three weeks. They used a texture analyzer to determined the results of the baked bread. It turns out that both are right. Freshly milled flour makes excellent bread for the first two or three days after milling. After than it starts to decline in quality, meaning the absorption is not so good nor the volume. They have a special robot to measure volume! After it’s aged about three weeks it oxidizes and makes better bread again.
Myhrvold believes bakers should demand better of millers, and millers demand better of their flour and he wants to see more exploration of heritage and local wheat varieties. He singles out Steve Jones in Washington State who’s producing new varieties.
Neolithic einkorn especially fascinates Myhrvold. Emmer and kamut too (used by Franck Debieu of L’Etoile du Bergers one of the French bakers he most respects.) All have better gluten structures. He’s interested in sprouting flours too as lots of enzymes occur in the germination process that add interesting flavour.
THE SMELL OF JUST-BAKED BREAD
Myhrvold admits, one mystery has eluded him: 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’s studied academic papers, and his team did their own chemical analyses, trying to distill the essence of the aroma in a rotary evaporator. It wasn’t possible.’
“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.”