There are less than six months until Modernist Bread goes on sale—it will be in bookstores by November 7th—and we’ve hit a lot of milestones since our last post. (We’re happy to report that pages are being printed as you read this post.)
Today we’re sharing a first look at new content from Modernist Bread, including the table of content and new spreads from the book. The most exciting thing we have to share, however, is an excerpt from The Story of this Book in which Nathan answers some of the most common questions we’ve received in the two years since revealing we were working on a bread book.
Read on if you’ve been wondering why we decided to write a 2,642 page book on bread, who this book is for, and what we hope to accomplish with this book.
When I tell people what we’ve been working on since our last book, the reaction often goes something like this: “Did you say 2,600 pages? On bread?”
I’ll concede that at first blush, 2,600 pages might seem a little over the top. But we’ve been here before. We got the same initial reaction when we were working on our first book, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, which ran an encyclopedic 2,438 pages. When it was released in 2011, people in the publishing industry told us that a nontraditional $625 cookbook would never sell.
Well, Modernist Cuisine broke a lot of rules. And to my great relief, that worked. More than 220,000 curious and passionate food lovers—from home cooks to renowned chefs to staff at educational institutions—decided that the book fit the right value equation. It won numerous major food writing awards and has been translated into nine languages. It’s fair to say it has had a big impact on the culinary world.
Now I am excited to introduce Modernist Bread. It’s just as disruptive, just as comprehensive, just as visually appealing, and just as thought-provoking as its older sibling. In the space of five volumes plus a kitchen manual, we tell the story of one of the world’s most important foods in new and different ways. Through this story, we hope to enlighten, delight, and inspire creativity in others who love not only bread but also the science, history, cultures, and personalities behind it.
Why focus on bread? Because it has so many of the things that we love in a topic. Bread may seem simple, but in fact it is highly technological and scientific—it’s actually a biotech product whose creation requires harnessing the power of microorganisms that ferment. Making bread is so technique-intensive that small variations in the method can make huge differences in the outcome. There is a tremendous amount of skill involved, to the point that bread making can be daunting to home bakers and professionals alike. During the baking process, bread’s simple ingredients go through such a mind-blowing transformation that the product that comes out of the oven bears almost no resemblance to the flour, water, salt, and yeast that went in. That’s just cool.
Focusing on bread has given us the opportunity to explore such wide-ranging scientific topics as the structure of gluten and the physics of ovens. It has given us a window into the minds of the inventors and innovators who have made, improved, and transformed this important staple over the course of thousands of years. Our focus on bread has also allowed us to look closely at the evolution of cultures through the lens of a single food that has spanned so much of human history: bread was the primary source of calories for the ancient Greeks and Romans and the Western civilizations that followed. We also became intrigued by the evolution of our agricultural system. There is currently a lot of nationwide and global concern about this system, after all, and wheat is at its center. As the grandson of a Minnesota wheat farmer, I was determined to tell the story of the role that the underappreciated and underpaid farmers play in our agricultural system.
Starting around the 1920s (but at an increasing pace throughout the 1960s), bread became an industrial product. Giant machines and factories were cranking out millions of loaves of bland, precisely uniform sandwich bread, and people welcomed these snow-white loaves. By the 1970s, though, both bread lovers and bread bakers were beginning to rebel, eventually building what is today called the artisanal bread movement. In the United States, the search for quality led to the breads of Europe—and in Europe, bakers turned to the past.
The idea behind the artisanal bread movement was a great one: bread lovers wanted to increase the variety, flavor, and quality of bread beyond the cheap industrial products that swamped supermarket shelves. Going back to preindustrial bread-baking practices and returning to small-scale methods historically used by village bakers seemed like just the thing to do.
But it can’t possibly be true that all the best ideas in bread baking have already been discovered—creative bakers around the world have made some amazing new loaves. Science and technology are not the enemies of great bread. The laws of nature govern baking just like they govern everything else in the world. Knowing which laws affect your bread helps; understanding technology helps, too.
When it began, the artisanal bread movement was so liberating: it freed consumers from insipid, machine-made white sandwich bread by giving them choices. But any belief system can become stagnant if it is closed to new ideas.
This stagnancy is all the more troubling today, in a world in which bread is under attack from the gluten-free trend and the low-carb movement. Now more than ever, it’s vital to start unleashing the creative possibilities of bread. With all the excitement around today’s innovative, modern cuisine, it’s time to make bread more than just an afterthought. Why not have fun and explore what the latest science can add to the bread we know and love? At the risk of sounding dramatic, bread must innovate to survive and thrive.
We took an approach that is fiercely analytic but also deeply appreciative of the artistry and aesthetics of bread. We studied exhaustively (or at least until we were exhausted!). We researched ingredients and history, milling technologies and dough rheology, grain botany, bubble mechanics, and more. We talked to grain farmers, millers, food historians, statisticians, and every great bread baker we could find. Over time, we became even more convinced that our book could offer something fresh and new.
We believe the idea of Modernist bread—bread that looks to the future, not the past—should be celebrated. In these pages, you’ll find our contributions to what we hope will become a movement. This movement isn’t just about new recipes, though—it’s about the way we think of bread from the ground up.
For each of our key recipes, we developed a traditional version and a Modernist version. You can follow only the traditional recipes and find much of value in this book—or you can branch out into our Modernist recipes to explore new ideas. All of the recipes have been tested in and developed for professional and home equipment—you can bake out of this book no matter what kind of oven or tools you have.
Better yet, use this book as a jumping-off point to make new kinds of breads that no one has tried before. Whether you are a strict traditionalist or an avid Modernist, a home baker or an artisan baker or a restaurant chef, we hope that this book will open your eyes to the possibilities of invention and encourage different ways of thinking about bread. We believe this kind of disruption will even help change the economics of bread. (We’d like to see bread go the way of chocolate and wine, which are sold in a wide range of quality levels and price points.)
In short, we believe the golden age of bread isn’t some mythical past that we all should try to return to—the best days of bread are yet to come.