Modernist Bread and the Future of an Ancient Art

Modernist Bread, released on November 7, runs about a million words, spread out over five volumes, or 2462-pages. Inside is the future of bread making.

The book, a follow up to the highly successful book Modernist Cuisine, was no small undertaking. It took ex-Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold, chef Francisco Migoya, and a team of 22 full-time staff to create this $625 blueprint for the history, the science, and future techniques of bread making. Research took four years and 36,650 loaves of bread.

Mexico City-born Migoya is the head chef at Modernist Cuisine, where he has been working since 2013 after serving as a pastry chef at restaurants such as The French Laundry and Veritas, as well as an author and a professor at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park. Over the last few years, he and Myhrvold have conducted more than 1,600 experiments that are taking bread making to places it has never gone. They have discovered ways of making high-hydration doughs easier to handle and pressure canning bread in jars.

Additionally, they debunk long held theories about baking including water purity, that kneading is unnecessary, and the truth about whole grains. In 1200 rigorously tested recipes they sort out the bullshit of an art that is constantly under attack in an era of gluten free and low-carb trends. There’s even a recipe for, possibly, the world’s best pan de muerto.

Migoya was kind enough to agree to an interview:

New Worlder: You were born in Mexico City, a place with such an incredible history and culture of baking breads. What are your earliest memories of bread from there? 

Francisco Migoya: My earliest memory is of my parents getting bread from three different places. They were Elizondo (it’s still around), El Globo (still around), and La Baguette (which I don’t think exists anymore). In Mexico, you are going to get breads that are very influenced by French breads. There was a time in Mexican history when there was a heavy French influence; it was when Porfirio Díaz was the president. It influenced both our culture and our food, so a lot of the breads that you see there today come from classic French dough. Although they do look very different, as they are made with different flours. Mexican flour is not very strong, so you get a tighter crumb. It’s very similar to Banh Mi, where you have the crispy outside that yields a very soft crumb. It’s unique in that particular style.

Very importantly, the breads that you get in Mexico, or at least in the most variety, are sweet breads and enriched breads. If we look at the Day of the Dead bread (pan de muertos), Kings’ Day bread (rosca de reyes), or Mexican sweet bread (conchas), they all come from brioche, which is a French dough. We have seen references to it as early as the 1600s in France. Brioche recipes use fat in the form of eggs and butter, and some sugar; some people add aromatics like cinnamon, orange blossom, or vanilla. These have more popularity as special Mexican breads; however, we can look at the breads used in sandwiches called tortas or bolillo. Bolillo is ubiquitous, used all over the country for these sandwiches, which are some of my favorites. It’s not as well known as the tortilla, which is the bread and butter so to speak of starch availability and consumption in Mexico.

I also still vividly remember the smell of bread baking when I would walk into La Baguette, and that smell is something I will never forget because it was so amazing.

NW: As supermarkets are selling low-quality industrial breads, their reach is expanding further and further, and the typical Mexico City panadería averages 100 or so variations of bread throughout the year. The story is similar elsewhere in Latin America. Why is it important to preserve these traditional forms of bread beyond just their cultural value? 

FM: Let’s take a moment to discuss tradition and what its value is. For me, tradition has value when it serves a positive purpose, when it serves to better or improve conditions. You can argue that tradition matters for sentimental and emotional purposes, but looking at it from the perspective of a baker or chef, tradition is sometimes based on old technology and ingredients that were perhaps imperfect or hard to work with. So all of these extra steps had to be taken to make a decent final product, and then they were kept because “Oh, this is the way it’s supposed to be made.” So, it’s hard for me to argue for tradition when it’s not for the betterment of the thing in question, whatever it may be.

For example, if we are talking about cooking with fire, it’s fine for certain things, but is it the best or most efficient way to cook something? It depends, but likely it’s not the most efficient way to cook. Fire is hard to harness, and you don’t have the degree of control that you want in order to obtain something that will be uniformly baked or cooked. But some people like the aroma of the fire burning and the charcoal, and that’s part of the experience. However, looking at it purely from a technique perspective and as an improvement of the final product, I have a hard time supporting it.

However, there are certain traditions like Day of the Dead . . . I remember as a kid how Halloween was more important than the Day of the Dead celebrations (not to me personally, but it seemed that everywhere was Halloween this and that), and Halloween is on October 31; is it coincidental that the Day of the Dead is November 1? Obviously, the Day of the Dead came way before Halloween. But little by little you start to see in these old towns where they have traditional altars for the dead, where you put a photo of the deceased and all these different foods and drinks they used to like, and then we suddenly started to see these Halloween mementos start creeping into these altars, like the plastic orange pumpkins or ghosts, and it started to dilute the message of what the Day of the Dead was all about. I mention the Day of the Dead specifically because of the pan de muertos. Kids trick-or-treat on October 31 in Mexico, and then the next day they celebrate the Day of the Dead. I think a lot of the traditions are being diluted by globalization to the point where I wonder if kids in Mexico today even know that the Day of the Dead existed in history before Halloween. I know I’m spending a lot of time talking about this, but it’s connected to globalization and the fading of cultural traditions. In this case it is a tradition that is awesome and specific to Mexico.

But speaking of the Day of the Dead bread specifically, I have had terrible pan de muertos because it’s either dry or it doesn’t really taste like much, and if that’s a “traditional” recipe, then it can definitely be made better by adding more fat, sugar, and milk to help bring it up to date. And if we are also talking about Kings’ Day bread, the dried citrus fruit that is typically put on this bread is not very good. The fruit is so sweet, and I know it’s traditional, but a far superior product can be made that doesn’t cost anything extra. I have had good rosca de reyes, but the fruit part of the bread has always stumped me. It’s kind of like how Americans have this admiration for fruitcake because of the fruit that’s in it, which is almost like the same fruit that goes on the top of rosca de reyes. For the version we have in Modernist Bread, at least the fruit part is completely different from the traditional rosca de reyes. We actually use various citrus and we slice it really thin, and then we candy the slices, and they add a nice textural and aromatic element to the bread. The dough is classic rosca de reyes dough; it has that cookie layer on top that makes it crunchy, but we thought about how we could make it better. When we look at tradition, we need to weigh the value and whether it holds any water.

NW: What is the most misunderstood aspect of flour? 

FM: That all flours are the same. This might not be misunderstood; it might just be unknown. If you are going to make any type of bread, you need to understand what type of flour you are using in order to obtain the most successful product. For breads, you need strong flour with a high protein content. And for more tender, cakey sweet bread, you need a weaker flour. So there is big variety in flours from one spectrum to the other; you just need to know which ones to pick. In Modernist Bread we share with you which flours are best for different kinds of bread.

NW: In the section on sourdough, you explore the idea of baking with vegetable purees made from various Latin American ingredients that we don’t typically see breads being made from. Ingredients like huitlacoche, mole, ají amarillo, purple potatoes, and toasted coconuts. Why are these ingredients so great to work with and how much potential do these types of ingredients have in breads in the region? 

FM: For me personally, they contribute to the all-around flavor and texture of the bread by providing wonderful aromas not otherwise explored in the realm of bread baking. We see European influences on sourdough breads, but you don’t really see any Hispanic or Latin influences. Writing this bread book offered an opportunity to explore this. For example, we used huitlacoche, but we also baked it wrapped in corn husks (*see header image). The corn husk adds a certain aroma, and you can smell the surface of the sourdough, but this technique was inspired by how tamales are cooked. You can then use that to make an achiote or adobo sourdough. These ingredients are very flavorful and aromatic, so you don’t need a ton.

NW: For much of my adult life I’ve believed that water purity is integral for bread flavor. In the bread book, you suggest that’s not necessarily the case. Why? 

FM: The most important question to ask when baking with any type of water is would you drink it? And if you would drink it, then you can make bread with it. Now, I grew up in Mexico City and I wouldn’t dare drink water from the tap there and never did. We always used filtered water. But when I lived in NYC, I drank the tap water because it’s known to be healthy water and it tastes good. Whether it’s better for bagels or not, that’s a different story. So when you are baking, is the water you are using safe to drink? Not just potable water like what you use to water your lawn, but water that you would actually drink. There are three questions that you can ask to see if your water is drinkable and therefore OK for baking bread:

  1. The sight test: Is it murky? If it is, then it fails.
  2. The smell test: Does it smell like anything? If it smells like sulfur, then it fails.
  3. The taste test: If it tastes weird or off, then don’t make bread with it.

Ultimately, you don’t need to live in NYC to make a good bagel. You can live in the Yucatán, Vancouver, or Greenland and still make fantastic bagels if the water is drinkable.