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You were chief technology officer at Microsoft; you have degrees in math, physics and economics; you hold hundreds of patents; you’re a prolific author in both scientific and popular publications; what made you turn to food? "I was interested in food before I was interested in any of those other things: Everybody is! I just never moved on. After I retired from Microsoft, I was cooking more, and I kinda thought there should be a big book I could get that would really tell me all about the latest techniques. Ultimately, I discovered there was no such book, and so I had to write it."
The book you had to write became Modernist Cuisine, an incredibly in-depth, scientific guide to basically all of cooking published in 2011. Why did you decide to focus on baking with your new book, Modernist Bread? "Bread is one of the oldest foods of mankind. It's also a complicated food. You can eat a peach right off the tree, but bread is nothing like the grain it's made from. Long before they knew how it worked, our ancestors figured out what to do. I wanted to go back using all the scientific techniques we have today and figure out if that’s the best way to do things."
So what did you find out? "One thing is that kneading is a fraud, at least as it's normally described. It does not do what everybody says it does; it's optional. There are all these no-knead bread recipes, but most books just sort of ignore that. What develops the gluten in bread is the flour just sitting with water. You can make the process happen faster if you knead, and it can affect the final texture of the bread, but it's not necessary to the process."
Another thing we learned is that whole-wheat bread and whole-wheat flour is not any healthier for you than white bread and white flour. It's so different than what everybody 'knows' that people think I'm joking when I say it, but it's definitely true. We also found that it's difficult to get decent rye flour in the U.S. and as a result we don’t get very good rye bread here. In Europe, they have better rye bread because they grind the flour in a special way, more finely.
Did you discover any techniques home bakers can easily use? "The best way to make a crusty bread is to bake it in a cast-iron pot—but use black cast-iron: The fancy enameled ones don't work as well. And the best way to cut your bread at home is with an electric carving knife, like people use on the turkey at Thanksgiving. The biggest thing is we try to explain how simple baking bread can be and how people shouldn't be afraid to make it at home. The fact is, bread is really quite forgiving, and with a good beginner's recipe, you can get started."
The press release for Modernist Bread says that you and your more than 200 recipe testers used more than 19 tons of flour baking more than 36,000 loaves in more than 1,600 experiments over more than four years. Who ate all that bread? "Mostly the people at our lab. There are about 100 people who work at our lab (not all on this project, of course), and they all got a lot of bread."
You come from a science background but also studied at Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in France, which is very much dedicated to cooking as an art. How can the two approaches work together? "There's a wealth of knowledge that chefs and bakers have developed over the years that's still very valuable. They empirically discovered lots and lots of things without really knowing how it works. All the dishes and flavors that come from that, that's really important stuff. Other things, though, they say 'you do this for this reason,' and sometimes that's not true, or you actually do it for a different reason. That's also why we totally respect the methods of science and believe you should be able to test all your ideas and make sure they're true, but at the same time, we also love the history and tradition of cooking and the debt we owe to all the chefs that have developed all this over all these years.”
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