Q&A with Nathan Myhrvold, author of ‘Modernist Bread’
In the introduction to his five-volume tome on bread making called “Modernist Bread,” Nathan Myhrvold admits that 2,642 pages is “a little over the top.” But he adds: “only at first blush.” With three volumes on history, technique, and ingredients before the recipes even begin, Myhrvold and co-author Francisco Migoya clearly found plenty to write about.
As with his first multi-volume work “Modernist Cuisine,” Myhrvold led a team of chefs, scientists, writers, and researchers in a four-year research and development process that might seem better suited to launching a software product than a cookbook. Myhrvold is the former chief technology officer of Microsoft and holds a doctorate in theoretical and mathematical physics, among other degrees, so he is used to questioning everything, and creating innovations. “It’s not easy making these giant books. But we’ve developed a system for doing it. I’ll keep doing these as long as I draw a breath,” Myhrvold says.
Q. When you created “Modernist Cuisine,” there were a lot of chefs questioning the status quo and creating innovations in cooking. Was it the same with baking?
A. There were and are innovators in the world of bread — a guy named Charles Van Over had discovered a brand new way to knead bread that only takes 45 seconds. Jim Lahey developed a no-knead method of making bread. There were lots of fits of innovation out there in the bread world, but they certainly didn’t call themselves “modern.” If anything, they had to be somewhat sub-rosa because the whole ethos of the bread world was oriented around the [idea that the] past was the best time.
Q. Did that intersection of tradition and innovation attract you?
A. Yes, absolutely. Bread has been a very fundamental food forever, just about. Machine- and factory-made bread made it cheap in the 1950s and ’60s. The reaction to that was the artisanal bread movement that started in the 1970s in France and the United States where people said, “Hey, this machine-made sandwich bread is not as good as the old-fashioned bread.” They were totally right and the artisanal bread movement was in many ways a good thing, but unfortunately it sort of cemented this idea that the best bread was always in the past. It just isn’t true. It’s gotten to the stage where artisanal bakers almost compete on how much more primitive you can be.
Q. Where can you see that?
A. My favorite example is ciabatta bread, which actually dates from the 1980s. Most Americans would say, “Oh ciabatta bread is like one of those artisanal, ancient breads from small villages in Italy.” The answer is no. It was a big-city baker in Italy who invented this and actually trademarked it. There are some wonderful things about the bread of the past, but the golden age of bread making is now. There’s nothing wrong with bakers innovating and coming up with their own recipes and their own techniques.
Q. Did focusing on science put you in conflict with tradition?
A. I think it’s much better to know the truth than not. I don’t think that detracts one tiny bit from the rich cultural tradition of bread, the historical traditions of bread. The thing that we tried to do was to put things in context, explain why you do it and explain it in a way that in some cases is just about curiosity. But mostly we tried to explain it in terms that are not only scientific but also really practical.
Q. What are some of the fundamental discoveries you made?
A. The first one is to a large extent kneading is a fraud. Kneading does not do what most baking books say it does. In a sense, it should’ve been obvious when Jim Lahey did his no-knead bread. It turns out that people have discovered this no-knead thing even before that. I found a Pillsbury pamphlet from 1946 called “Bake the No-Knead Way.” The baking world was vaguely aware that you could skip kneading, but they sort of dismissed it like it was some weird, funny, special case. There’s also a lot of techniques that we invented along the way. The best way to make a Jewish challah that’s braided is to use pineapple juice. Kiwi juice also works. That sounds bizarre, but it’s very understandable once you go through some of the biochemistry of it.
Q. Early in your career, could you have imagined that so much of your life would be spent researching and writing books about cooking?
A. No, is the short answer. When I was in high school, I had friends who had their whole lives planned out. I didn’t and they all told me I was going to be a failure. But I always had been interested in food and cooking. While I was at Microsoft I took a leave of absence to attend chef’s school in France. After I retired from Microsoft, cooking was one of the things I wanted to do.