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Using Science and History to Unlock the Secrets of Bread

Above all, the book is a call for cooks to rethink one of the world’s oldest foods — to understand how bread is made, using more than their instinct and intuition, so they can push the craft forward.

“Modernist Bread,” a huge five-volume cookbook about the art and science of bread-making, includes a lighter-weight binder of recipes to take into the kitchen. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

“You do things one way, until you learn there’s a completely different way that’s even better,” Mr. Migoya said. “And there’s always a better way.”

The Cooking Lab’s headquarters are in Bellevue, across Lake Washington from Seattle. Mr. Migoya runs a spotless kitchen on the second floor, equipped with many types of ovens, a freeze dryer, a three-dimensional scanner and an ultrasonic bath.

The kitchen has become a base for low-tech investigations, too, like the authors’ re-enactment of a first-century fresco that shows a man handing out bread in Pompeii.

To reproduce the squat loaves, they procured a bronze Roman bread stamp from an antiquities dealer in New York (yes, he was horrified when he found out it would be put to use in a working oven) and called in a costume designer to dress a few of their bearded colleagues.

What might sound like cute cosplay for bread nerds also sums up the spirit of “Modernist Bread,” a book that demands bakers look into the past without romanticizing it.

The history of bread has been ugly at times, and the wedge loaves of Pompeii, according to Mr. Migoya and Mr. Myhrvold, weren’t exactly delicious. The book insists that the most exciting time to be a baker (or bread lover) isn’t a golden age that has passed us all by. It wasn’t Pompeii, or medieval Florence or 18th-century France, with its wheat riots. And it wasn’t Northern California in the 1970s, where the American artisanal bread movement started in response to the industrialization of bread.

Nathan Myhrvold, a founder of Intellectual Ventures and an author of “Modernist Cuisine,” at his office in Bellevue, Wash. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

It is right now.

So Mr. Myhrvold is puzzled by the uniformity of bakeries and bread aisles, and the persistence of what he calls “an ethos of primitivism,” or a resistance to innovation, among so many contemporary bakers.

It’s this ethos, he believes, that has led American bakers to idealize wood-fired ovens (“an absurd fetish”) and to push aside radical discoveries, like no-knead bread, as a kind of novelty.

“It’s led to ever more primitive techniques,” Mr. Myhrvold said, noting the current preference for sourdough over yeast, for wood over gas and for grinding flours in-house. “My rhetorical question is, ‘What’s next, stone tools?’”

Before no-knead bread was popularized, by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York, many cooks assumed that kneading was a necessary step in developing bread dough (though Pillsbury Mills had published a recipe pamphlet about no-knead bread in the 1940s, and Suzanne Dunaway had dedicated a book to the technique in the late 1990s). Somehow, a revelation that should have rocked the bread world, several times, never did.

“Modernist Bread” finds inspiration in a variety of sources, industrial as well as artisanal, offering a defense of high fructose corn syrup alongside a guide to caring for wild sourdough starters, and debunking the idea that water purity affects the rise and flavor of bread.

It offers fresh techniques for solving all sorts of infuriating baking puzzles. To combat the density and dryness of whole wheat bread, Mr. Migoya adds in the bran and germ later, only after the dough has developed significant gluten, to bake a more lightweight, airy loaf.

In his lab-like test kitchen, the chef Francisco Migoya lightly dusts a sticky dough, making it easier to handle. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

To prevent the inexorable balding process in which bagels shed their toppings, a fine slurry of modified tapioca starch works like a powerful, edible glue, firmly affixing a dense, even layer of toppings to baked bagels. A little gelatin makes high-hydration doughs — those gloopy, fussy darlings of the bread world — much easier to handle, with the bonus of a browner crust.

Some of the tips are dead simple: To rescue an over-proofed dough, punch it down and reshape it.

As Mr. Migoya zipped through the kitchen, past his sketches for a bread sculpture inspired by the paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a timer beeped. He reached for a plastic tub of rising dough, a gassy network of bubbles visible under its dark-gray surface.

He had folded in a purée of huitlacoche, the rich, earthy fungus that grows in corn, as well as some fresh yellow kernels. Though he had access to more equipment than most fine-dining restaurants on the planet, Mr. Migoya followed a hands-on method that relied on plenty of visual and tactile cues.

“There’s tech for determining flour strength, hydration, staling, all of these things,” he said, “but when it comes to how to determine proper proofing, you need a finger. It’s the best instrument there is.”

Mr. Migoya had mixed the whole wheat dough with Sir Yeast a Lot, one of two four-year-old sourdough starters that are fed daily, so they’re up and ready to work by 10 each morning. Every half-hour, he gave it a quick fold, until he could stretch the dough into a membrane as sheer and ephemeral as a chewing gum bubble.

When Mr. Migoya lifted the lid on the wobbly sourdough, to add bran and germ, an ancient smell wafted out: fermented grain, rich with perfume, high and sweet and alcoholic.


Mr. Migoya slices open a whole wheat sourdough, flavored with huitlacoche purée and fresh corn. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Mr. Migoya, 43, was born and raised in Mexico City, where piles of huitlacoche filled the markets during the rainy season. He worked as a pastry chef at the French Laundry, and later as a teacher at the Culinary Institute of America, and wrote several cookbooks as well as the Quenelle, an early food blog with a cult following in the restaurant industry. He once spent seven years, off and on, improving on his recipe for pâte à choux.

He was running his own chocolate shop in the Hudson Valley when Mr. Myhrvold, now 58, tapped him to head up the Cooking Lab’s kitchen in 2014.

One mystery eluded Mr. Migoya as he worked on the book: 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 studied academic papers, and his team did some of their own chemical analyses, trying to distill the essence of the aroma in a rotary evaporator. It wasn’t possible.

Neither, Mr. Myhrvold says, is predicting the future of bread. He notes that while culinary movements like nouvelle cuisine have continually shifted restaurant culture, the world of bread has been slower to change.

“I’m not quite pompous and narcissistic enough to say, ‘Here is where bread is going,’” Mr. Myhrvold said. But he hopes the book explodes some misconceptions for bakers.

To evaluate a loaf of bread, Mr. Migoya smells it, bringing a slice up to his nose and squeezing the bread like a sponge to force air through its crumb. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Mr. Migoya thinks that flour may come to be valued, like chocolate and coffee, as a product worth a premium price. “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.”

The authors credit innovators like Mr. Lahey and Chad Robertson with recent breakthroughs. Mr. Robertson popularized high-hydration breads at Tartine in San Francisco. (He also wrote an introduction to the book, and the recipe for Surfer Sourdough is a homage to his flexible proofing method).

Some professional bakers have wondered how Mr. Myhrvold, who hasn’t been handling fermentations or mixing large amounts of bread daily, for decades, might teach the industry something new. “I was skeptical at first,” said Melissa Weller, formerly the head baker at Per Se in New York, and later Roberta’s in Brooklyn. “But now I’m curious.”

Ms. Weller, who worked with a wood-fired oven for years (and found it inefficient for bread), also has a degree in chemical engineering. Like many bakers, she has pieced together a deep knowledge from independent reading — Nancy Silverton, Jeffrey Hamelman, Michel Suas — and many years of bread production in different kinds of kitchens.

“Bread-baking is a hard-earned knowledge,” she said. “So far, I’ve never seen a book that’s able to express it all.”

Early in the book’s genesis, Mr. Migoya worked for months on a bread family tree — lean, enriched, flat, bricklike — tracing relationships in ratios and practices across the world, narrowing categories and setting down definitions for words that have often resisted them. “The history of bread is full of human folly, which is great,” he said. “It’s part of what is beautiful about bread.” NYT > Food

When Jack Daniel’s Failed to Honor a Slave, an Author Rewrote History

The company had intended to recognize Green’s role as master distiller last year as part of its 150th anniversary celebration, Mr. McCallum said, but decided to put off any changes amid the racially charged run-up to the 2016 election. “I thought we would be accused of making a big deal about it for commercial gain,” he said.

It didn’t help that many people misunderstood the history, assuming that Daniel had owned Green and stolen his recipe. In fact, Daniel never owned slaves and spoke openly about Green’s role as his mentor.

And so the company’s plans went back on the shelf, and might have stayed there had Fawn Weaver not come along.

The daughter of Frank Wilson, the Motown Records songwriter who co-wrote “Love Child” and “Castles in the Sand” before becoming a minister in Los Angeles, Ms. Weaver began her career as a restaurant and real estate entrepreneur. She wrote the 2014 best seller “Happy Wives Club: One Woman’s Worldwide Search for the Secrets of a Great Marriage.”

As she tells it, she was looking for a new project when she picked up that newspaper in Singapore.

“My wife often thinks and acts as a single activity,” said her husband, Keith Weaver, an executive vice president at Sony Pictures. “As her husband, I knew, ‘Here we go again.’”

In a photo in Jack Daniel’s old office, Jack Daniel, with mustache and white hat, is shown at his distillery in Tennessee in the late 1800s. The man to his right could be Nearest Green, a slave who helped teach Jack Daniel how to make whiskey, or one of Green’s sons.

What was meant to be a quick trip to Lynchburg turned into a monthslong residency, as Ms. Weaver discovered an unwritten history, hidden in forgotten archives, vacant land and the collective memory of the town’s black residents.

Through dozens of conversations, local people, many of whom worked or still work for Jack Daniel’s, told her about learning Green’s story from their parents and grandparents, holding it as fact even as the company kept silent.

“It’s something my grandmother always told us,” said Debbie Ann Eady-Staples, a descendant of Green who lives in Lynchburg and has worked for the distillery for nearly 40 years. “We knew it in our family, even if it didn’t come from the company.”

Nothing stays quiet in Lynchburg (population 6,319) for long, especially when it involves the biggest employer in town, and by late March Ms. Weaver was meeting with Mr. McCallum, the brand president, in the makeshift office she had set up in a run-down house on her newly acquired farm.

With a sampling of her estimated 10,000 documents and artifacts spread across a table between them, it quickly became obvious that Ms. Weaver, who had no previous background in whiskey history, knew more about the origins of Jack Daniel’s than the company itself. What was supposed to be a preliminary meeting turned into a six-hour conversation.

Debbie Ann Eady-Staples, a great-great-granddaughter of Nearest Green, works on the bottling crew at the Jack Daniel’s distillery. Credit Nathan Morgan for The New York Times

Mr. McCallum says he left reinvigorated, and within a few weeks he had plans in place to put Green at the center of the Jack Daniel’s story line. In a May meeting with 100 distillery employees, including several of Green’s descendants, he outlined how the company would incorporate Green into the official history, and that month the company began training its two dozen tour guides.

At one point Jack Daniel’s proposed adding a Nearest Green bottle to its “Master Distiller” series, a limited-edition run of bottles that celebrate its former master distillers, but dropped the idea over concerns from inside and outside the company about appearing to cash in on Green’s name.

Instead, Ms. Weaver has released her own whiskey, Uncle Nearest 1856, which she bought in bulk from another distillery. She is planning to produce a second, unaged spirit, made according to her specifications, which she says will mimic the style of whiskey that Green and Daniel probably made.

Jack Daniel’s seems unfazed, for now, by the use of Green’s name on someone else’s liquor. “We applaud Ms. Weaver for her efforts to achieve a similar goal with the launch of this new product,” a Brown-Forman spokesman said.

Ms. Eady-Staples, who met privately with Mr. McCallum before the big meeting, said she was proud that her employer was finally doing the right thing. “I don’t blame Brown-Forman for not acting earlier, because they didn’t know,” she said. “Once they did, they jumped on it.”

An original jug stencil from about 1879. Credit Nathan Morgan for The New York Times

And although there is no known photograph of Green, the company placed a photo of Daniel seated next to an unidentified black man — he may be Green or one of his sons who also worked for the distillery — on its wall of master distillers, a sort of corporate hall of fame.

“We want to get across that Nearest Green was a mentor to Jack,” said Steve May, who runs the distillery’s visitors center and tours. “We have five different tour scripts, and each one incorporates Nearest. I worked some long days to get those ready.”

Mr. May said that so far, visitor response to the new tours spotlighting Green’s contribution has been positive. It’s not hard to see why: At a rough time for race relations in America, the relationship between Daniel and Green allows Brown-Forman to tell a positive story, while also pioneering an overdue conversation about the unacknowledged role that black people, as slaves and later as free men, played in the evolution of American whiskey.

For her part, Ms. Weaver isn’t finished with her search for Green — and may never be.

“I’ve lost track of him after 1884,” the year when Jack Daniel moved his distillery to its current location, and Green disappeared from the fledgling company’s records, she said. She is still hoping to find Green’s gravesite, and has recently been traveling to St. Louis to meet with a branch of the family there.

“I could be doing this the rest of my life,” she said. NYT > Food