Modernist Pizza is on Sale Now

Pizza is one of the most beloved foods in the world—the whole month of October is even dedicated to it in the United States. This National Pizza Month, we couldn’t be more excited to release Modernist Pizza, which is now officially on sale. Some retailers are experiencing fulfillment delays, however orders placed through Modernist Cuisine Shop are shipping now.

Our story of pizza is told across three volumes plus a kitchen manual, comprising 1,708 pages. It is the culmination of exhaustive research, travel, and experiments to collect and advance the world’s knowledge of pizza. In Modernist Pizza, you’ll find 1,016 recipes for both traditional and innovative pizzas across the globe. The recipes, along with the techniques, were developed with both professional and home ovens and equipment in mind.

While conducting research for the book, our pizza travels took us all over the world. Given pizza’s global history, we wanted to communicate our story of pizza to as many people as possible. That’s why we’re thrilled to share that Modernist Pizza will be published in French, German, Italian, and Spanish in May 2022. We’ll announce a preorder date later this year.

We also have a lot of other exciting updates to share with you that coincide with the launch of Modernist Pizza. You can expect more to come from us in the following months, but for now we’re excited to share a new collaboration, photography series, and updates about Modernist Pizza Podcast.

A Pizza + Beer Collaboration with Stoup Brewing

Like us, we know a lot of people obsess over a fantastic pizza and beer pairing. Some foods and drink just go together. There’s pasta and wine, and there’s pizza and beer. We are incredibly excited to have partnered with local Seattle brewery Stoup Brewing to celebrate the launch of Modernist Pizza with a special beer release—the 00 Pilsner. Inspired by the 00 flour prized by pizzaioli, this beer is a dry-hopped Italian pilsner developed to pair well with pizza. The can design is a collaboration between our Modernist Cuisine team as well as the Stoup Brewing team and showcases a levitating photo of Neapolitan pizza from Modernist Pizza.

You can find the beer on tap at Stoup Brewing’s locations in Ballard and Kenmore. The limited-edition four-pack of 00 Pilsner 16-ounce cans sells for $13.99 and can be found at craft beer retailers around Seattle.

Modernist Pizza Podcast is Coming Soon

Shortly after our last book, Modernist Bread, was published in 2017, we launched Modernist BreadCrumbs podcast. We wanted another way for our readers and bread bakers to learn as much as they could about bread making and the science, history, and stories behind it. We’re thrilled to share that once again, we’ll be releasing a podcast to go along with our newest book, Modernist Pizza. We’re excited to be teaming up with Michael Harlan Turkell who produced Modernist BreadCrumbs and who will host Modernist Pizza Podcast. Each episode of Modernist Pizza Podcast will feature in-depth interviews with Nathan, head chef Francisco Migoya, and some of the many people who are working to shape pizza’s future. The first of eight episodes will debut at the end of October with new episodes airing each week.

Modernist Pizza Podcast has some amazing sponsors including Ooni, Miyokos Creamery, King Arthur Baking, Banza, Baking Steel, and Gustiamo. It will be available for listening online and on platforms including Stitcher, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts. We’re also excited to partner with artist Jenny Acosta for the show’s artwork.

A New Pizza Photography Series

To coincide with the launch of the book, a collection of 10 pizza-centric photos from Modernist Pizza is now available for purchase at Modernist Cuisine Gallery by Nathan Myhrvold. Each photograph showcases a different aspect related to pizza, whether it’s the location of a top pizza destination featured in our world travel guide, a specific ingredient, or pizza shown in an imaginative setting. The photographs are available from our galleries in Las Vegas, New Orleans, La Jolla, and Seattle, which ship worldwide.

We have more upcoming pizza content and virtual events in the works. If you haven’t already, join our mailing list or follow us on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram for more updates. And as always, we encourage you to share photos of your book and all of your pizza-making journeys by tagging your posts with #ModernistPizza.

Modernist Pizza is Coming to Bookstores This October; Preorder Now

Shortly after wrapping up Modernist Bread, we announced that the focus of our next single-subject book was going to be pizza—it was a secret that we didn’t want to sit on for long. Now we’re thrilled to share that Modernist Pizza will land on bookshelves October 5, 2021 and that you can preorder your copy now.

Beginning today, preorders for Modernist Pizza are available directly through the new Modernist Cuisine Shop, online retailers including Amazon.com, Phaidon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk, Bol.com, and Booktopia.com, and participating independent cookbook stores across the country. The set, which is housed in a red stainless-steel case, will retail for USD$425. It includes three hardcover volumes and a portable, spiral-bound recipe manual that contains all the recipes and reference tables in the book.

We’re excited to release this book at a time when pizza has never been more popular or more important. Modernist Pizza is the culmination of exhaustive research, travel, and experiments to collect and advance the world’s knowledge of pizza. Topping out at 35.5 pounds and over 1,700 pages, it’s safe to say that this is a pizza cookbook supreme. We’ve performed hundreds of experiments, traveled more than 100,000 miles to visit over 250 of the world’s top pizzerias, and consumed countless calories. There are deep dives into pizza’s history, evolution, and many global styles as well as its fundamentals: dough, sauce, cheese, and toppings. And it wouldn’t be a Modernist Cuisine book without plenty of scientific insights, gear guides, innovative techniques, surprising discoveries, and incredible recipes—1,016 to be exact. Here’s a preview of, what we hope will become, an indispensable resource for anyone who loves pizza.

A Taste of What You’ll Find in Modernist Pizza

We’ve loved making this book. First and foremost because pizza is undeniably delicious. Pizza was a compelling topic for us for a number of reasons. It’s multicultural, found in virtually every country around the world, and yet wherever pizza goes, it mutates and evolves into something local. Pizza is simultaneously the evolution of a 19th-century dish from Naples and a window into the culinary creativity of the people who modified the original pizzas into the many local styles we enjoy today.

Pizza may seem simple, but it’s highly technological and scientific. Making pizza is extremely technique-driven, where even the smallest variations in the method can affect the outcome. A tremendous amount of skill is involved, to the point that pizza making can be daunting to both beginners and professionals. On top of that, pizza has historically been a poorly documented cuisine, which is thanks, in part, to its humble origins on the streets of Naples.

As with our other books, we scoured the world to research the key aspects of pizza that we found relevant and interesting, studied until we understood all the techniques, and subjected everything to tests, including the flour brands that pizzaioli prized, the types of water they used (it turns out that this ingredient doesn’t make much of a difference), the brand of tomatoes that were prevalent and how they were grown, as well as the processes by which common pizza ingredients are made.

Our experiments also opened the door to many discoveries that affected how we made the components of pizza, from dough to the sauce and cheese. We were able to develop mixing and proofing techniques that dramatically reduce the time it typically takes to make Neapolitan and high-hydration al taglio pizza dough without compromising the quality. We list recommendations that will allow you to make multiple pizza styles from one dough. No matter how experienced a pizzaiolo is, there likely isn’t a single person who won’t be surprised by some of our findings.

We distilled our findings into three volumes. In the first volume, we share the history of pizza, the world of pizza at large, plus fundamentals to making pizza such as the ingredients that go into the dough and the role of heat in the pizza-making process. The chapters in volume 2 provide a comprehensive look at all the components of pizza—dough, sauce, cheese, and toppings—and present foundational recipes upon which the majority of our pizzas are built. The third and final volume is dedicated to both classic and innovative recipes for every pizza style we cover, including al taglio, Argentinean, bar/tavern, Brazilian thin-crust, deep-dish, Detroit, grandma/New York Square/Sicilian, Neapolitan, New York, New Haven, Old Forge, pizza fritta, and pizza gourmet. Volume 3 is also where you’ll find inventive flavor and topping combinations to help inspire your own pizza exploration.

Guides to Top Pizza Destinations

We’ve included something new in Modernist Pizza that we’ve never done before in any of our other books: we devoted an entire chapter to our pizza travels and created a global travel guide. We wanted to illustrate pizza’s wonderful diversity and show the many ways in which it’s enjoyed across the world. That is why pizza required us to travel even more than our other books did—our team visited over 250 pizzerias to learn local styles from some of the world’s best pizzaioli. The chapter was created to serve as a travelogue of sorts and to help give the full picture of pizza.

When we started visiting pizzerias, we wondered whether the pizzaioli would actually talk to us. It turned out they were incredibly helpful, especially in Italy. They were very candid about sharing their knowledge and techniques and even helped us review parts of the book. We spoke to visionaries such as Tony Gemignani, Enzo Coccia, Franco Pepe, Chris Bianco, Laura Meyer, Carlo Sammarco, Dan Richer, Sarah Minnick, and many more covered in this book, who are tossing pizza into the modern era.

We couldn’t go to every well-reviewed pizzeria everywhere, so think of our guide as a curated selection. It consists of the best pizzerias across Italy and the United States, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo. After Naples, which was a must-see since it’s where pizza was invented, we looked to important first-generation pizza cities like New York. Following that, we checked out travel spots known for a particular style like Chicago or Detroit. We also included other areas like Rome and Portland, to paint a picture of the pizza scenes there.

Countless times during our research, we were asked where the best pizza can be found. (We aren’t shy about suggesting there are several pizzerias in Naples that would immediately deserve one, two, and even three Michelin stars.) Ultimately, we hope that our travel chapter will be a good starting point for mapping out your own pizza journey to help answer that question for yourself.

More Pizza on the Horizon

One of our goals for this book was to make it accessible to many types of pizza makers, from professionals, including chefs and bakers, to beginners at home. That’s why we tested all our recipes in several different ovens and included recommendations in each recipe for which oven will work best. Our chefs developed loads of tips and tricks for making great pizza in a home oven. There really is something in Modernist Pizza for everyone—actually, there is a lot for everyone.

What makes pizza great isn’t any single ingredient. What makes it great is using good ingredients
consistently, plus lots of skill and attention. If you’re a pizza fan, even if you have no intention of making pizza, this book will describe your favorite food in an incredible way. If you hanker to make pizza at home or are even slightly intrigued, we encourage you to take the plunge.

As the on-sale date for the book nears, we’ll be sharing more blog posts and details about what you can expect to find in each of the volumes. If you haven’t already, join our mailing list, or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for more updates.

Black Lives Matter

As you may have realized, we have been offline for over 3 months. Posting tips about bread has not felt right during this time. There are more important things going on in this country. We’ve wrestled with what to do, but ultimately haven’t wanted to distract you from more crucial voices, information, and content.

While our work on Modernist Pizza has continued during this time, our team has also been figuring out how to move forward as our country wakes up to the realities of being Black in the United States. We are outraged by the continued and abhorrent murders of Black Americans by police. We stand in solidarity with the Black community and the fight to dismantle systemic racism.  Moreover, we stand with Black chefs, cooks, bakers, servers, writers, editors, marketers, photographers, and all those working to make the food industry equitable.

We believe in the power of food, science, art, education, and technology. These spaces are important to our team—it’s an understatement to say that we’re passionate about what we do. But it’s also an understatement to say that we lack equity in these spaces on a number of levels.

We are a small yet deeply analytical team, which is why we have taken time to research and think critically about our own privilege and complicity. We do not want to make knee-jerk promises that we can’t keep, especially when it comes to something as important as ending white supremacy. We know that there will be things we get wrong, but we take the responsibility we have to our BIPOC readers, colleagues, and community members seriously.

We value diversity at Modernist Cuisine; different experiences, perspectives, and ideas strengthen teams and foster innovation. Our team of about 25 is comprised of people from diverse backgrounds and has women in leadership positions. While our sister company, Intellectual Ventures, has a noted track record of having Black executives in senior roles, the current Modernist Cuisine team does not have any Black employees. We have work to do.

We are also committed to doing a better job of including the expertise, contributions, and stories of Black chefs and bakers in our future projects. In part, the shortcomings in our published books are an unsettling reflection of the lack of diversity in the worlds of fine dining, bread, and pizza. We, and the food industry, must do better and will work to make our books more inclusive moving forward.

Our goal has always been to share knowledge and democratize cooking techniques developed in the world’s best kitchens so that anyone can be a better cook. We need to honor that value in new and impactful ways. Access to education, technology, fresh food, and professional opportunities should not be a privilege. Fair wages, safe workplaces, and respect should not be a privilege. We believe that everyone should be free to follow their passions and do what they love.

We are working on next steps that will include changes within Modernist Cuisine, including the content that you see here, as well as initiatives we can take in our community and food industry to address systemic racism and accelerate the fight for equity. We are currently exploring how we can best partner with local schools and vital organizations that are removing barriers to food justice, equal access to education, and culinary training. In addition, we are expanding our book donation program, especially to libraries and community colleges in BIPOC and underserved communities. We recognize our position in the food world and want to do more with the platform we have. We are committed to holding ourselves accountable as we move forward and hope that you will too.

How to Rescue Overproofed Dough

It happens to the best of us. You wait many hours for your dough to proof so that you can bake it, and then, somehow, you forget about the dough (it’s easy to do, especially when you’re juggling meal prep during the holidays), and it overproofs. You may have even baked the overproofed dough, hoping it would magically return to life; instead, you end up with a pale, low-volume loaf that smells like stale alcohol. Overproofed dough, however, doesn’t have to meet its end in the bottom of a trash can. While working on Modernist Bread we developed a technique for saving overproofed bread.

The ultimate goal of proofing bread is to increase the volume of a shaped piece of dough through the production of carbon dioxide. Most of the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation happens in the final proofing stage. (The largest volume increase comes during baking when the dough nearly doubles in volume in the oven.) To expand, dough must be strong enough to retain the gas that it has produced. Gluten makes the dough elastic enough that it can expand around bubbles without tearing. Proofing, which begins once the dough is shaped and placed in a proofing vessel or on a flat surface, has some effect on flavor and texture, but it is key in determining the shape, volume, crust, and crumb of the bread.

When carbon dioxide exerts more pressure than a fully proofed dough can withstand, the cell membranes tear, releasing the gas and deflating the dough. An overproofed dough won’t expand much during baking, and neither will an underproofed one. Overproofed doughs collapse due to a weakened gluten structure and excessive gas production, while underproofed doughs do not yet have quite enough carbon dioxide production to expand the dough significantly.

Calling proof, knowing when the dough has reached its maximum expansion, is one of the more challenging things bakers have to learn to do. It takes practice and learning from a few mistakes. Conventional wisdom holds that overproofed doughs are irretrievably damaged and should be thrown away. Our experiments found just the opposite. In fact, we were able to resuscitate the same batch of dough up to 10 times before it suffered any serious loss in quality.

Our method for saving overproofed dough works for many kinds of dough, including French lean doughs, high-hydration doughs (you may see a slight decrease in volume as well as in crumb size for these), and country-style doughs. The method also works for farmers’ bread and most rye breads that contain a proportion of bread flour, such as landbrot; brioche and enriched doughs, including sandwich breads; and pizza doughs, though they may have a pale crust once the dough is baked.

Sourdoughs are more problematic; you should attempt to revive a sourdough only if it was made and proofed within a few hours. Sourdoughs that are cold-proofed overnight or longer acidify because of the presence of lactic acid bacteria. This acidification makes the dough very tough; as a result, if you degas and reshape it, the dough is overly tense, and still tough. You’ll end up with a loaf that doesn’t expand or bake well, and that is also misshapen and very sour. While some people (including us) like that biting flavor, others may find it too sour.

Mistakes are inevitable when it comes to proofing bread, but there’s no need to throw out dough if it proofs too long. Below is our step-by-step guide to saving overproofed dough (we call technique dough CPR).

Dough CPR

Step 1: Perform the fingertip test to make sure your dough is overproofed. The test involves gently pressing your finger into the surface of the dough for 2 seconds and then seeing how quickly it springs back. The dent you make will be permanent if the dough is overproofed.

Step 2: Remove the dough from the basket or other vessel in which you’re proofing it.

Step 3: Degas the dough by pressing down firmly on it. The pressure applied is the same as when you shape the dough.

Step 4: Shape the dough, and return it to the basket or other vessel for proofing.

Discover How You Can Contribute to Modernist Pizza

We’ve been hard at work for the last year learning everything we can about the art, science, and history of pizza. Now we want to hear from you. Today we launched an online research contributions portal that we hope will encourage you to join in on our research process. Whether you love diving deep into research as much as you love Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, have decades of pizzaiolo wisdom, or are a bibliophile with a love of old cookbooks, we hope to connect with you. By visiting this new page on our website, you will be able to see some of the current research topics we’re investigating and discover how you can contribute to Modernist Pizza. Your knowledge, research skills, obscure collections—even your old photos—could help us tell the story of pizza and even land you a copy of our upcoming book.

Nathan and the team are excited about connecting with new people who, like us, are passionate and curious about food. “At Modernist Cuisine, we’re known for doing in-depth work. We’ve been working on Modernist Pizza for a year. Now we want to tap the power of the internet to meet people who collectively know something that we don’t about pizza,” Nathan remarked when asked about the new knowledge-sharing portal. “Library research by members of our team has already turned up important information about pizza, but there are many people who speak languages that we don’t or who have incredible first-hand knowledge to share. I think connecting with these people is a cool way to write the history of pizza.”

Before submitting information through our portal, please carefully review the guidelines for each topic. Participants whose submissions are selected may receive copies of the 2019 Modernist Pizza wall calendar, The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, or Modernist Pizza, or even be listed as a contributor in Modernist Pizza to acknowledge your help. Submissions that meet the criteria will be evaluated by our team for quality, uniqueness, historical significance, and editorial interest. It’s possible that some selected submissions for research topics will be posted periodically so that you can see some of the most interesting submissions we’ve received so far. We also welcome questions about each topic in the comments sections.

Click here to visit our research contributions portal. We look forward to hearing from you!

Five Easy Tips For Freezing Your Sourdough Starter

One of the most important discoveries we made while developing and refining the recipes in Modernist Bread is that yeast is among the most resilient life-forms we’ve ever encountered (and we encounter many in our lab, which we share with a bunch of biologists). As it turns out, freezing temperatures do not kill all the yeast and lactic acid bacteria in a preferment. Some die, but most remain dormant while frozen. The key is to know how to “wake it up” properly and to feed it well so it comes back strong and ready to leaven.

There are a lot of great reasons to try freezing your sourdough starter. Using a frozen preferment affords an almost instant starter; even with the added thawing and feeding time required, it provides a significant time savings over starting one from scratch. Having a preferment ready to go is convenient—you can freeze it in portions and just thaw what you need—and frees you from a feeding schedule. There’s no need to worry about entrusting someone with your starter when you go on vacation.

Our experiments demonstrated that a frozen levain will perform well for up to 2 weeks after freezing it. Eventually the ice crystals in the frozen preferment grow big enough to damage the yeasts and bacteria, rendering them useless for leavening. If you have levain that has been frozen for more than 2 weeks, you can still use it in combination with commercial yeast. The less-active levain will still provide your bread with complex flavor, and the yeast makes the dough rise.

Tips for Freezing Levain

Working with frozen levain is simple, although freezing your starter involves more than throwing it in a jar and stashing it in the freezer. Here are a few recommendations to help you get you started.

Tip 1: Freeze your preferment immediately after you make it. Freezing a ripe preferment won’t give the yeast the nutrients it needs because there will be little food left.

Tip 2: Our experiments demonstrated that a frozen levain will perform well for up to 2 weeks after freezing it. If you have levain that has been frozen for more than 2 weeks, you can still use it in combination with commercial yeast for an instant sourdough flavor. We utilize this technique for the Second-Chance Sourdough recipe in Modernist Bread.

Tip 3: Divide the preferment into whatever weight you would typically use for a specific dough. Stiff levain can be portioned directly into zip-top bags. You may want to add 10 g to the amount that you are freezing because ultimately some will stubbornly remain in the bag. Lay the bags flat on a sheet pan to freeze them.

Tip 4: For liquid levain, portion the preferment into an ice cube tray and use an offset spatula to even out the tops of the cubes. We use a piping bag to inject it deeply into the tray as possible, eliminating air pockets. Once it has frozen into cubes, remove them from the tray, and put them in a zip-top plastic bag in the freezer.

Tip 5: When you’re planning to make fresh bread with your levain, just thaw what you need. Take the portion out of the freezer about a day before you need it and let it thaw at room temperature (21 °C / 70 °F). When it’s ready, the bag will inflate as carbon dioxide bubbles form in the preferment. If you froze your starter into cubes, pull out however many cubes you need for your recipe, put them in a bowl, and cover them with plastic wrap. After making our dough, we like cold-proofing our levain in refrigeration for 24-36 hours to help develop the flavor.

Sourdough Science

Baking is applied microbiology. That may seem like an odd way to look at it, but it’s only a modest exaggeration. All yeast-leavened breads owe their shapes and textures to the actions of microbes. The yeast used to create bread can be commercially derived (baker’s yeast), or it can be cultivated from the environment around us in the form of a levain (sourdough starter). There are many reasons to use this popular preferment. Levains produce breads that have a depth of flavor that commercial yeast-based breads don’t and are more forgiving thanks to the longer fermentation time. Starting a levain takes time, though, and when you create a preferment using microorganisms from the environment, you must maintain the culture.

A variety of myths and legends surround sourdough starters, and many of them date far back in the long history of yeast and bread. Before it was possible to observe fermentation through a microscope, no one could have imagined—much less explained—how dough could leaven itself, as if by divine intervention. We’ve come a long way since then, and useful information about the science of levain and sourdough breads abounds today. And that’s important, because having a basic understanding of how the microbes in levain behave can make working with this preferment more straightforward.

Getting Cultured: Yeast and Lactic Acid Bacteria

A levain is a preferment used to make sourdough bread, composed of a mix of water and flour that is fermented by lactic acid bacteria (LAB) and wild yeast. By themselves, the raw ingredients that go into a sourdough are essentially flavorless. The sweet-and-sour flavors we love in these breads are by-products of the microbes’ mutually beneficial fight to survive and grow in a complex microscopic ecosystem. And the makeup of that ecosystem evolves over hours or days of fermentation.

Unlike commercial baker’s yeast, which are strains of yeast within the species Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeasts in levain are varied, including not only S. cerevisiae but also a mix of other species, such as S. exiguus, Hanensula anomala, and Candida tropicalis. This particular mix of yeasts makes each levain unique flavor-wise—and most importantly, gives the dough rise.

While many people think that their sourdough starter is made up primarily of wild yeast, it is far outnumbered by the lactic acid bacteria in the culture— LAB outnumber yeast cells in a mature sourdough starter by roughly 100 to one. In fact, a levain isn’t stable without the lactic acid bacteria that symbiotically live with the wild yeast.

Like yeast, many kinds of bacteria also engage in fermentation. Smaller than yeasts, most of these bacteria are members of the genus Lactobacillus, so named because the 200-odd species in this group produce lactic acid as they digest sugars. The fermentative power of an individual bacterium is far less than that of a yeast cell, which contains about 20 times the volume of a lactic acid bacterium such as Lactobacillus brevis. San Francisco–style sourdough bread, as well as many other sourdoughs from around the world, derives its characteristic tangy flavor from L. sanfranciscensis. Bacterial species from the genera Leuconostoc, Pediococcus, Enterococcus, Streptococcus, Weissella, and Lactococcus are also common in levain.

Yeasts and LAB coexist so well because each can grow alongside the other and tolerate, to a certain extent, the other’s defense mechanisms. Lactic acid bacteria, like yeasts, are greedy when it comes to resources. The two work together to poison their surroundings—the toxic cocktail they create is full of alcohol and acids that are made during fermentation. It’s a less than warm welcome for other microbes.

Lactic acid bacteria aren’t much inhibited by the ethanol that the yeasts give off. In fact, some strains of lactobacilli are more tolerant of ethanol than yeasts are. The LAB, meanwhile, secrete acids—notably, lactic acid and acetic acid—that lower the pH of the levain. (Scientists who have compared the pH of commercial yeast-based breads and sourdough breads have found that the pH of sourdoughs is much lower: 3.8 to 4.6 versus 5.3 to 5.8 typical of commercial yeast-bread breads.)

But the wild yeast species in levain are able to survive in the increasingly acidic mixture. Without each other, pure cultures of yeasts and LAB can be invaded by other microbes, and if left unchecked, both yeasts and LAB will produce more alcohol and acid than even they can tolerate.

When it comes to peaceful coexistence, it helps that sourdough yeasts and LAB like different foods. Yeasts are better able to make use of a wide range of sugars and starches. C. milleri and other yeasts are happiest eating glucose and fructose (and sucrose, which enzymes quickly break down into these two simpler sugars). L. sanfranciscensis and other LAB, in contrast, prefer maltose. Another display of teamwork is that yeast cells also produce amylase, an enzyme that splits the complex starches and polysaccharides in flour into sugars that are more digestible to the yeasts and their bacterial neighbors.

The Evolution of a Levain

When bakers create levain, they exploit one of the principal forces of evolution— natural selection—as they shape a microbial ecosystem into a tightly controlled tool for bread making. The process illuminates the remarkable ability of yeasts and LAB to adapt to specific environmental conditions.

The growth of yeast and bacteria depend on three key factors: availability of nutrients, acidity, and temperature. Because growth can happen exceptionally fast, species and strains that aren’t adapted to a specific diet (like flour) can quickly be overwhelmed and die out. This is precisely why the inoculants, such as raisin water, that some bakers use to jump-start their levain don’t make a difference. (We think flour, which is chock-full of microbes, and water work just fine.)

Additional factors, including hydration, also influence how a sourdough starter matures. Levain can vary in hydration. If you mix together equal parts water and flour, you’ll produce a levain that is fluid—that is, highly hydrated. We refer to this as a liquid levain (pictured on the right in the image below). If you add more flour to the mixture, say 120% flour to 100% water, the result will be stiff (left). In our experiments, we noticed perceptible differences in pH: the more liquid the starter, the more acidic it will be. (So if you like your sourdoughs good and sour, use a liquid levain.) Your culture can also be affected by contamination or invasion by dust particles, spores, and the like, which can introduce new microbes

Many bakers swear by their particular starter too. But from a microbiology standpoint, the makeup of a starter will be very different if the feeding schedule or temperature is inconsistent. If you aren’t careful, your special starter may be very different on day 1 than it is on day 20 (or even day 2). And different starters can create surprises, which isn’t a good thing if you’re trying to make consistent loaves.

A long-lived levain is almost certainly going to change in composition over time. Think of it like a city; a great city may be just as grand two centuries from now as it is today, but it will have different inhabitants—including some who are descended from the current residents and some who moved in later. A starter’s composition will stay the same only in a perfectly maintained sterile environment, more like a laboratory setting than a bakery. The community of microorganisms will fluctuate and adjust to whatever foods they are given and whatever living conditions they experience. If one strain finds the environment more welcoming than the others, it will quickly grow and crowd its neighbors.

But locking in a specific population of bacteria is not important. What matters is creating a hearty colony of yeasts and lactic acid bacteria that behaves predictably; in other words, as long as the levain is fed on the same schedule and kept at about the same temperature and hydration, it will ripen and mature as expected.

Why Does Baking Bread Smell So Good?

Here’s a fun thing to try: stand outside a bakery on an early summer morning, and watch how people react to the smell of baking bread wafting out the door as they walk by. Their heads turn, their noses lift, their eyes close . . . It’s only a matter of time until someone says, “Oh my God—that smells good!”

What is it about the aroma of bread in the oven that is so irresistible? Yes, for many people, the odors evoke powerful, pleasant memories of childhood. But even people who grew up on plastic-wrapped, essentially aroma-free Wonder Bread break into contented smiles when they enter a bakery while the ovens are going. The reason has as much to do with chemistry as it does with psychology.

We can get some clues as to where the aromas originate by considering wheat products that don’t smell quite as good. Wheat pasta, for example, has essentially no odor when boiled, and not much even when baked—that heartwarming aroma from a baked lasagna comes mainly from the sauce, cheese, and meat, not the noodles. Most unleavened crackers don’t do much for the nose, either.

But chemically leavened baked goods such as biscuits and muffins (made with baking soda and baking powder rather than yeast) can smell very tempting once they start to brown. The color change is a sure tip-off that Maillard reactions are happening. These reactions—in which sugars combine with amino acids to form tasty golden and umber complexes— throw off lots of volatile aromatic compounds that float through the kitchen air and into your nostrils.

Recipes for biscuits and muffins almost always call for added sugar of some kind: the lactose in buttermilk, the fructose in fruit, the dextrose in corn, or even crystals of sucrose sprinkled into the mix. Added sugars help kick-start Maillard reactions.

Another, even better way to generate pleasant aromatic compounds such as ethyl esters (ethyl acetate, hexanoate, and octanoate) is to leaven the flour with yeast. As a by-product of the microbes’ metabolic processes, the yeast cells produce chemicals that break down during baking into delicious-smelling aromatics. The longer the fermentation, the more pronounced the yeast flavors become since the microbes have more time to produce these compounds.

We have tried baking the same bread recipe with and without yeast, and the yeast bread develops a far more complex flavor profile. A big part of the difference is how much better yeast bread smells. The unleavened bread also doesn’t brown nearly as well. Thanks to yeast, your dough is stocked with amino acids that are an integral component of Maillard and other browning reactions.

So the next time you have a loaf in the oven and your kitchen smells like heaven, you have the tiny yeasts to thank.

Is Fresh Yeast Best?

Yeast—living, single-celled fungi—is one of the main reasons bread is so complex and special. These microbes behave like miniscule factories that specialize in the production of bubbles and booze by way of a process called fermentation. In addition to leavening dough, fermentation makes important contributions to the aroma, flavor, and texture of bread.

The yeast used to create bread can be commercially derived, or it can be cultivated from the environment around us in the form of a levain. Using a levain is considered to be the very definition of fermentation by some bakers who dismiss commercial yeast (also known as baker’s yeast) as not producing “real” fermentation. We reject that view; fermentation is fermentation, whether it involves levains or commercial yeast. One method is not more legitimate than the other. The fermentation method you choose depends heavily on your schedule, ability to plan ahead, and yeast preference.

Commercial Yeast

When it comes to commercial yeast, there’s an ongoing debate as to which type of yeast is best for baking bread: active dry, instant, or fresh. The main issue doesn’t seem to be about the “power” of the yeast but rather an unspoken stigma that persists for each kind. You might have heard that “fresh is best,” but in truth, yeast is yeast is yeast—Saccharomyces cerevisiae to be specific.

S. cerevisiae is a fermentation superstar—the species is used by bakers, brewers, and vinters, although the strains that they work with differ. Strains are often isolated, grown, and stored in tightly controlled conditions so that they are best adapted for particular situations, such as making a sourdough, a French bread, an ale, or a champagne. That means that you probably won’t get great results if you try to make bread using a strain developed for brewing beer or winemaking.

At this point you might still be wondering what type of commercial baker’s yeast you should use. If a baker uses the right techniques, there is no reason to use fresh yeast over instant yeast—in a lineup of baked loaves, you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish one from the other in terms of the yeast used. We like working with instant yeast rather than fresh yeast or active dry yeast. After you read our explanations of the differences between the three forms, you will be better equipped to make your own choices.

Fresh Yeast

Developed in the mid-19th century, fresh yeast is the oldest commercial form of yeast. It was originally sold as a cream of yeast mixed with a mash, which served as a growth medium. Fresh yeast is more commonly sold today in blocks of cake or compressed yeast that resemble crumbly, cream-colored modeling clay. Fresh yeast must be dissolved into a liquid but easily does so, dispersing efficiently throughout the dough, which is a plus.

Each gram of compressed yeast contains roughly six billion active yeast cells. Fresh yeast has the highest moisture content of any form of baker’s yeast, but also the shortest shelf life. Blocks require refrigeration and last for only 2–3 weeks after opening. Fresh yeast is highly perishable, a considerable drawback that can cause issues in bakeries as well as home kitchens. At the bakeshop, fresh yeast is likely to sit on the bakers’ worktable for hours while they mix many doughs. The warmth of the bakery will activate the yeast, and it will eventually die because it has nothing to eat. The home baker who buys a pound of fresh yeast must bake frequently to use it all up before it dies. The challenges that come with fresh yeast eventually sparked the next wave of yeast innovation: dried yeast.

Active Dry Yeast

Dried yeast was developed during the Second World War by Fleischmann Laboratories so that United States field infantrymen could bake fresh bread in their camps. The new active dry yeast was not as perishable as fresh yeast and therefore did not require refrigeration and had a longer shelf-life.

Dried yeast is an inert substance when you purchase it, but it becomes a living, thriving colony of microorganisms with the addition of some water and food. During the production process, water is removed from the yeast cells, reducing the moisture content from around 82% to 8% in the case of active dry yeast. The desiccation sends the cells into a state of dormancy. Particles of dormant yeast are coated with a protective layer of dead yeast cells to form tiny granules, which are then packaged for sale. Unlike fresh yeast, unopened packages of dormant, active dry yeast can be frozen for months.

Active dry yeast is more convenient than fresh yeast, but it still requires some additional work and comes with its own set of drawbacks. The dormant cells must be reactivated before use, which can be done by stirring the granules in lukewarm (40–43 °C / 104–109 °F) water. Active dry yeast is temperature sensitive—water that is too hot or too cold can damage or kill the cells, reducing the fermentation power of the yeast.

Around 25% of the yeast cells are killed during the production process, which means that active yeast has, ironically, the lowest amount of active yeast (by weight) of either fresh or dry varieties. Thus, more of it must be added to a recipe than other types of yeast. Dead yeast cells also leach a self-produced chemical called glutathione that relaxes dough. Small quantities of glutathione can be beneficial, depending on the dough, but it can quickly make dough become so relaxed that it’s difficult to handle. Active dry yeast is slower to ferment than both instant and fresh yeast. It needs to proof longer to achieve the same results as the other forms of commercial yeast; the time required will depend on the environment and amount of yeast in the dough. Still, smaller quantities of active dry yeast are often the only option available at supermarkets, which is likely why it’s still commonly used in home baking.

Instant Yeast

Instant yeast, also called quick yeast, was developed in the 1970s by French manufacturer Lesaffre. Like active dry yeast, instant yeast is sold as desiccated granules; it is even drier than active yeast, having a moisture content of just 5% or so. The difference is that instant yeast ferments faster, does not require activation, and is less sensitive to water temperature.

So why do we prefer instant yeast over all other forms of commercial yeast? For starters, instant yeast is truly instant—it does not need to be activated; although we prefer to bloom it, you can add it directly to your dough—and, as soon as it comes into contact with moisture, it will begin the fermentation process.

Instant yeast is made with a fast-acting strain of S. cerevisiae, and the noodle-shaped granules are finer than those of active dry yeast. The surface layer of dead cells is more porous than that of active dry yeast, which allows the granules to rehydrate more rapidly. During production, instant yeast is quick-dried, a process that produces significantly more living yeast cells. As a result its leavening power more closely resembles that of fresh yeast. Manufacturers add salts of fatty acids to the yeast to control rehydration and boost the yeast’s gassing power. The moisture content is lower, which increases the shelf life to 2 years in its vacuum pouch, or even longer when refrigerated. Once the package is opened and exposed to oxygen, instant yeast remains active for 1 year if it’s refrigerated after being opened—it’s the trade-off of the more porous surface. Compared with the active dry form, the instant variety produces more gas during fermentation.

Instant yeast is also available in a number of forms; the one you choose will depend on the type of dough you make. For example, enriched doughs with larger proportions of sugar require osmotolerant yeast; osmotolerant instant yeast requires less water than the instant yeast used in lean doughs. So instant yeast offers options you don’t have with active dry yeast, along with added convenience.

You’re likely to encounter an occasional bump in the road in the road when your local grocery store or purveyor only has one type of yeast on hand. Accidents happen and it’s all too easy to get the wrong package of yeast in a rush. Fortunately, this is one bread-making problem that’s easy to fix. By giving the yeast proper care and employing some basic math, you can use any form of yeast successfully. You’ll find our own conversion table on page 10 (volume 3) of Modernist Bread.

Visit modernistbread.com to learn more about yeast and bread-making.

 

 

 

 

 

Bake Fresh Flatbread On Your Grill This Summer

It’s no secret that our team loves to fire up the grill—so much so that we even found ways to bake fresh bread with one while working on Modernist Bread. Gas and charcoal grills (and infrared grills, which aren’t common but can also be used for this purpose) aren’t the first option that comes to mind for baking bread. It turns out, however, that you can successfully bake breads and flatbreads on grills. Summer is the perfect time to expand your grilling repertoire by giving it a try. Read on to learn how to bake fresh naan on your grill in a few easy steps.

Naan is flatbread with a long history and a lot of fans. The soft flatbread is traditionally eaten in South Asia and often accompanies a meal. There are many varieties of naan—some are stuffed with meat or vegetables, others are filled with fruit or nuits, and some are topped with ingredients in much the way pizzas are. Naan is baked in a tandoor oven, which requires you to build up as much intense, concentrated heat as possible inside the oven’s cavity. The oven is well insulated and made of dense materials that absorb and retain heat for extended periods of time. This type of oven has been around for centuries and is meant to cook food quickly—slight charring is even expected because the oven is so hot.

Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to mimic a tandoor with a grill. All you need is a basic home grill, a baking stone or steel, and some really hot embers. You can cook more than one piece of dough at a time if you can fit it on the baking stone or baking steel. The dough cooks so quickly that you can cook it as needed and eat the bread warm.

How to Bake Flatbreads on your Grill

Step 1: Light the charcoal. Allow it to heat until it is burning as hot embers.

Step 2: Place a tava directly on the grill, and heat it, with the grill lid closed, to a least 290 °C / 550 °F, about 30 minutes. A tava baking dome is made expressly for baking flatbreads. Alternatively, you can use a baking stone, baking steel, or wok (make sure that it has a metal handle). The wok or tava can be placed on the grill facing up or down. Use an infrared surface thermometer directly on the baking surface to determine the temperature. If you don’t have this type of thermometer, make sure to preheat for the recommended time. While you can use the thermometer built into most grill lids, those only measure the temperature of the air directly in contact with the thermometer probe.

Step 3: Once the baking surface has reached the target temperature, carefully place the dough on the tava, wok, baking steel, or baking stone. You do not need to cover the grill again. Bake the naan until it has brown pockmarks and the dough itself has turned a creamy white.

Step 4: Flip the naan over. Once it has browned on the bottom side, remove it from the grill.

Step 5: Repeat the process with as many pieces of dough as you have.