Thoughts on Modernist Bread

Modernist Bread is the latest book (or series of 5 or 6 books, depending how you count) from the Modernist Cuisine team. It’s two and a half thousand pages of bread history, science, techniques, recipes, and so forth. I am most fortunate to have received it as a gift, and since both bread and modern cooking are topics near and dear to my heart, I’m super excited to read it. I’m just a few pages in, but this post lists some thoughts thus far and presumably will be updated as I continue to read.

Likes

  • Aesthetics. These books are giant, beautiful, heavy. They smell great - a bit like the classic book smell, but without the dusty oldness and with some almost metallic ink notes. The first Modernist cuisine books smelled the same, so no surprise here. The aroma recalls pleasant evenings curled up reading Modernist Cuisine at Pomona College. The photographs are beautiful and, owing to the large books, physically large.

  • New ideas. Most contemporary bread books are repetitive if beautiful variations on common themes: ferment slowly, ample hydration, gentle touch, overnight retards, etc. Certainly I’ve yet to master these important techniques, but they no longer feel fresh to me. In contrast, idly flipping through volume IV (recipes I) has already introduced me to a bunch of new techniques I’d not heard of before. I can’t wait to find out what other gems are hiding in the these pages.

  • Unabashed precision. Does anything boil the blood like a recipe that says “add 2-6 cups extra flour, as needed?” How much flour is in a cup? How am I supposed to know what’s needed? And most importantly, how am I supposed to believe that sometimes the recipe needs another two cups, and sometimes it needs another six? It’s not true that flour’s moisture content changes meaningfully. Modernist Bread gives precise measurements and directions. I’d much rather see that the dough temp should be 77 degrees but mine is only 75 and eh close enough than read that the dough should be slightly warmer than room temp - that doesn’t even tell me if my 75 degrees is too hot or too low.

  • Recipes are not all variations. In both Modernist Bread and other cookbooks, it’s common to see lines like “variation: substitute 100g whole wheat flour for 100g of the white flour in step 2.” Fine, makes sense, no need to rewrite the whole recipe with that single change. But when too many of these variations stack up, a full recipe is nice. MB gives both one-line variations and full versions of recipes, generally pretty sanely.

Dislikes

  • Pretentiousness. I don’t deny that the Modernist Bread team has worked hard, accomplished a lot, is all kinds of smart and creative, has the best equipment possible, etc. - but that doesn’t mean I enjoy having these facts rubbed in my face. Nathan Myhrvold’s self-introduction is particularly egregious; do I really need to know that this guy had a PhD and two master’s degrees by age 23 and worked with Stephen Hawking to enjoy his cookbook? The tone and side remarks in the writing seem to suggest that the readers ought to view the Modernist Bread creators as some sort of celebrities. I admire their work, but no thanks.

    Update: this also extends to liberal use of words like “discovered,” “invented,” etc. I don’t think I begrudge pride and verbiage over legitimate new inventions. But sometimes learning != invention. For example, the autolyse section (p3-95) describes how the Modernist Bread team “came up with a nontraditional technique.” Then the very next page lists books and authors who advocate for the same technique!

  • Wordiness. The introduction (34 pages) boasts that the book has over a million words, but judging by that introduction, maybe half of them are unnecessary. There’s repetition. “The best way to learn to make good loaves of bread is to make many loaves of bread. If you’re new to baking, your first loaves may not come out perfect, but the good news is that even a flawed loaf of homemade bread is better than most of the bread you’ll find at the grocery store.” (page xxv) “Practice is often the only path to making great bread; it can take time for beginners to master steps like shaping a loaf or determining when it is properly proofed. Fortunately, it’s also rare to bake a complete failure. Even imperfect loaves are usually still a pleasure to eat–and often better than what you would buy at the grocery store.” (page xxxii) Repetitions aside, there’s cruft as well; in the middle of 150 pages of bread history, I don’t need a paragraph intro sentence about how humans have eaten bread for millennia.

    Update: after reading a few hundred more pages I still find there’s some general wordiness, but my point estimate of the cruft percentage has moved down to ~20% from ~50%.

  • Physical size. The books are not really portable and hard to read in many positions. E.g. sitting at a table with the book flat in front of me, the top lines of text on each page are uncomfortably far away.

  • Copy errors. This post probably has a dozen typos; I’m aware of the hypocrisy of blaming them for errors in a million-word work. Nonetheless, if you’re gonna brag about the number of person-hours and tons of flour and pounds of ink that went into this book, maybe get the page references right?

  • Little comparison between recipes. Under the French lean bread umbrella, for example, there’s the French lean bread master recipe, the A-plus baguette, the direct dough (no preferment) method, the food processor method, hand mixing and machine mixing variations, the “keep a big chunk of dough in your fridge and section out 500g per day for a fresh loaf” method, etc. Which one should I make? What are the pros and cons? They don’t really say.

  • Inconsistent information and recommendations. For example, how does water content of a levain affect acidity? Page 3-45 says increasing hydration increases acidity, but page 3-52 says the opposite. When should you use an autolyse? Book 3’s section on autolyse says not to use it when cold proofing or when the dough includes significant prefermented flour. But the recipe for “modernist sourdough” in book 4 has both a cold proof and ~40% levain, yet calls for an autolyse. In both these cases, other variables may explain the apparent contradiction. But the user experience of trying to learn about bread is not great.

Conclusion

Complaints notwithstanding, I don’t think I’ll need to run my heat all winter because my oven is never getting turned off. This is an exciting time to be alive. (Also it was 60F in Cambridge yesterday…)

Last updated 2018-08-21.

Written on November 22, 2017