We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of our friend Chef Thierry Rautureau. Here are a few words from our founder Nathan Myhrvold:
Thierry was a friend and a mentor. He taught me many important things about being a chef. I loved going to Rover’s. I went there frequently as a customer and also worked there as a stagier in the kitchen prior to going to culinary school in France. I worked there one night a week when I could get there from Microsoft. The school that I wanted to go to required real work experience in a French kitchen for their advanced professional course, and Thierry taught me very well.
At one point in the course, we had to bone a duck to make a very classic French dish, which was something I did a lot a Rover’s so I started working away. The chef instructor, who was very intimidating, came up behind me to observe my work and finally said: “You there. Where did you learn to do this? You know a duck like a Frenchman.” And I only know a duck like a Frenchman because of Thierry.
Thierry was a fantastic mentor. Traditional French chefs are famous for being loud and angry if you screw up. Thierry didn’t run that kind of kitchen. His kitchen was calm and generally quiet, even when he was disappointed if something didn’t work out right. There was no screaming. He had great stories of a famous three-star French chef whom he’d worked for earlier in his career. This chef would jump up on top of the stove, while it was on, and kick the pots and pans off when he was upset. There was none of that from Thierry. He’d experienced it in his apprenticeship, and he wasn’t going to pass that along.
Thierry liked to say that Rover’s was Northwest cuisine with a French accent—I always teased him that it was more like modern French cuisine, with Northwest ingredients. He did a tremendous job and he really broadened what fine dining in Seattle meant. Prior to Thierry coming, fine dining here probably meant eating at a steakhouse with a menu that hadn’t changed in 30 years. He brought a command of techniques that was worthy of any kitchen in France which he married with the incredible ingredients and the general sensibility people have about food in the Northwest. It was a tremendous combination.
We once got into a discussion about a conversation he had with a chef from France who was making fun of American food. Thierry got upset and he said, “Look, all of my ingredients here are better than the ingredients that I had in France for the dishes I actually cook.” He hugely defended this area. At one point I joked, “Well there are two things you’d have if you were in France—we don’t have Michelin stars here and the clientele to support it.”
This was early in his career at Rover’s. The local restaurant landscape is different now, but initially, Seattle was the sort of city where people would only go to a fine dining restaurant once or twice a year to celebrate a special occasion. It wasn’t something that you would do repeatedly. Thierry would tell me early on that he had more regulars from New York than from Seattle. The New Yorkers would be people who are attorneys or investment bankers or consultants working for Microsoft or Amazon or some other local company. And every time they would come to town they’d eat a meal at Rover’s as opposed to people he would only see twice a year.
Over time that changed. I think that’s really important because without having a clientele there’s a limit to what you can do as a chef. Thierry was the guy who really loved the quality of what he did. He was financially successful, but if he had been after the maximum profit margin, he wouldn’t have used as much fog gras, caviar, spot prawns, and other expensive ingredients that he used. He wanted to have the best and be generous with what he actually served.
Apprenticing at Rover’s started a long culinary journey that culminated in me writing the Modernist Cuisine cookbooks. After the first book came out, my team and I started doing dinners with long tasting menus for chefs and food writers who would come to our lab from around the country and the world. It was a tremendous honor when we got to cook for Thierry. He liked our food, which probably meant much more to me than many of the other food critics or folks who passed through; it was one of the proudest moments of my culinary career.
Thierry played a very important role in my life. I didn’t become a line cook and I didn’t open my own restaurant either. I was so into food and cooking that people would say, “Well, why don’t you have your own restaurant?” Partly, I’d seen how hard Thierry worked. I knew that wasn’t how I wanted to make a culinary contribution, but it was material in me then to start Modernist Cuisine. It really changed my life and the impact that I would have in the world.
Iceland is a land of astonishing natural wonders that captivate the hearts and minds of visitors from around the world. These wonders of nature provide an ethereal, otherworldly canvas for adventurous photographers, which was why Nathan was so eager to capture Iceland’s diverse and breathtaking landscapes. Though the aurora borealis was what originally inspired his northward trip, he ended up just as enamored by the icy Diamond Beach, the vibrant waterfall canyons, glacier ice caves, and even the Icelandic horses.
Photography is an art form with a technological aspect—the optics, the sensors, and so forth. Nathan finds that understanding the technology of photography and then designing his own homemade equipment can help him capture high-resolution and high-quality images. He was especially eager to capture wide panoramic images of the landscapes. But using a single very wide angle lens would introduce distortion and limit resolution, which limits optical quality. So he decided to get creative and innovate a fix for this problem.
Behind Nathan’s Panorama Technology
Before leaving for Iceland, Nathan designed and built several different camera array rigs with either two, three, or four cameras mounted to an aluminum frame. The frames, which were built in our lab machine shop, hold the cameras at very precise angles so that their images can be perfectly stitched together to make a larger picture.
For horizontal landscape panoramas involving still subject matter (such as mountains and other static landscapes), Nathan uses a robotic camera setup consisting of one camera with a normal or slight telephoto lens and a programmable motor. This motor then moves the camera to different positions and takes a picture, or in this case, multiple pictures from different positions. After this, the photos are stitched together to create a panorama. The overall process can take 10 seconds or longer. Each individual picture from the camera has 45 megapixels. When 10 images are put together, the final result will include around 400 megapixels, creating a photo about 10×45 because of some image overlap.
While the robotic setup is great when it comes to photographing a static landscape, like a mountain, it doesn’t work if the subject, like the aurora or ocean, is moving. This is where Nathan’s multi-camera rig comes in handy. Instead of a singular moving camera, this rig is set up with three to four identical cameras and lenses that are correctly angled with the use of metal brackets. Nathan also developed electronics to make sure that all the camera frames are taken at precisely the same moment, allowing a fast shutter speed from multiple positions. Afterward, the photos are stitched together to create a spectacular panoramic. On top of all that, Nathan and his team created carrying cases to transport their specialized equipment.
Capturing the essence of Iceland’s rugged landscape required a distinct approach to innovation and creativity. Browse through our Iceland collection below to see the results for yourself.
After extensive research on where to find the best views of the northern lights, Nathan stumbled upon the perfect vantage of the neon waves of the aurora while driving between locations. Vantage point wasn’t the only factor he had to contend with. Photographing the aurora is difficult. Weather, light pollution, and luck are major contributors.
One night, Nathan had gone to sleep after a long day photographing on location, knowing that the forecast was supposed to be cloudy. When he got up in the middle of the night, he looked outside to see that it was miraculously clear. Nathan sprung into action and managed to get several photos that night.
These shoots include a mixture of automation and human control. In order to get the best photos, he sets up the computers and keeps taking pictures late into the night—which can get very cold. This process involves taking several photos for several minutes with long exposure times. Once the aurora shifts, he recomposes the pictures and starts again.
When photographing the aurora borealis, there are things you can control and things you can’t, like the light from the moon and how bright it is. Usually, moonlight makes it difficult to capture the northern lights, but in this rare instance, the aurora was brighter than the moon. Taken in southeastern Iceland, near Kálfafellsstaður, it created a beautiful blend of illuminated white landscapes below and lime-green ribbons above.
Rayed Bands over Kálfafellsstaður
Diamond Beach is named for the gemlike pieces of ice that wash ashore from the icebergs that fill the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. Diamond Beach is not the white sandy beach you may be accustomed to. It has dark black sand, made up of finely chipped and eroded pieces of volcanic material such as lava, basalt, and other dark rocks.
The North Atlantic Ocean is not generally a calm ocean; you must contend with waves that are constantly moving, churning, and crashing. To create a panoramic photo with this moving landscape, Nathan used the super panorama robot mentioned at the beginning of this article. He strategically chose to visit Iceland in the late winter when there are extended “golden” and “blue” hours that create the perfect lighting conditions for capturing the rugged landscape at dusk.
While Iceland may not have the largest population of humans, it does have a staggering number of horses. When Nathan saw these horses on the horizon, he originally planned to take a distant silhouette photo. His plans were thwarted when these friendly Icelandic horses approached on their own, demanding attention, and hoping for snacks. The Icelandic horse is known for its spirited and friendly temperament, ideal for both beginners and more advanced riders.
These horses trace their roots to ponies that came to Iceland alongside Norse Viking settlers over a thousand years ago. Both natural selection and selective breeding have made them what they are today: strong, hearty, and able to survive the elements. About the size of a large pony, the Icelandic horse was bred specifically to traverse the many climates and conditions of this vastly rural country. While traditional horses have only four gaits in which they can walk or run, the Icelandic horse has six. It’s considered one of the purest breeds of horses in the world. Iceland has strict laws governing horse importation and exportation: horses cannot be imported into the country, even Icelandic horses that were exported abroad.
When you think of an ice cave, the word “frigid” probably comes to mind, but this cave was anything but. Nathan was pleasantly surprised at how warm it was, which is due to how light and heat are reflected in the small space. The rippled, polished appearance of the ice comes from the gentle erosion it undergoes as water from the glacier melts and washes over it in the spring and summer.
Although Nathan used a simple single camera on a tripod to capture this image, he still applied an unconventional approach to making the picture. Here, he used a technique called HDR (high dynamic range) photography, which is useful for photos with a very large range from light to dark in the scene. You can see the results in Skylight, which has an opening up to the sky. The difference between the darkest and brightest parts of the photo is enormous—so enormous that if he exposed the camera to the sky, the details of the cave would be black. If he exposed to the cave, the sky would be pure white instead of blue. Our eyes and brain have an amazing ability to cope for a wide dynamic range, so it’s not something you’d naturally notice if you were simply standing in the ice cave.
Cameras also have a fixed-focus distance, with a range of distances around that focal point called depth of field. Everything within the depth of field appears sharp while everything outside is fuzzy. Nathan uses a technique called focus-stacking to combat this problem. It involves taking multiple pictures that are then combined in software to make a single image in focus. Interestingly enough, your brain naturally focus-stacks what you’re seeing for most scenes.
Skylight (featured below) is composed of 100 photos stacked into a single image. These photos were taken at different exposure values to cope with this high dynamic range and at different focal spots in order to focus-stack. The combination creates an image similar to what Nathan actually saw while standing within the ice cave.
THE BLACK CHURCH OF BUDIR
If you travel to the southern coast of Iceland’s Snæfellsnes peninsula, you’ll find a hotel, a church, and endless stunning views. The church, originally built in 1703, sits inside the Búðahraun lava field, and was closed in 1819 by orders of the Danish king Christian VIII. Nathan stayed at the Hótel Búðir, which is across the street, and was dazzled by the stunning scenery. After a particularly beautiful sunset, he was moved to capture the Church at Búðir in its solitary splendor.
In the early spring, the glaciers in Iceland start to melt, creating streams and waterfalls like this one in Kolugljúfur canyon. The intensely teal color of the water is caused by very fine particles of rock ground by the glacier, which are suspended in the water from melting glacial ice. The dreamy color is a beautiful contrast to the arctic landscape it cuts through. The best part of this waterfall? Nathan thought he would have to stand in freezing cold water to get the perfect shot, but this one very conveniently had a bridge he could photograph from, keeping him nice and dry.
The Stokksnes peninsula in Iceland is home to the beautiful, craggy Vestrahorn, but it also has a more subtle rounded landscape of black sand dunes on the shore, as can be seen in this first image called Arctic Sand Dunes.
Vestrahorn is one of the tallest mountains in Iceland, standing roughly at 1,490 feet. While the country’s other mountains are basalt and lava rock, Vestrahorn is made of gabbro and granophyre rock, which create very jagged and uneven surfaces, making this mountain exceptionally beautiful yet difficult to climb. Black sandy beaches line the base, which create mirrorlike reflections when the tide comes in.
You can see these amazing photographs in person at Modernist Cuisine Gallery by Nathan Myhrvold in New Orleans, La Jola, and Seattle.
Preorders for Food & Drink are available now through the Modernist Cuisine Shop as well as other online retailers including Amazon.com. The book features a fresh collection of more than 200 mouthwatering photographs from Modernist Breadand Modernist Pizzaas well as Nathan’s gallery. The photos in this new book capture the stunning details of the foods and drinks we all love from a surprising, playful perspective—it’s a visual feast served up in a gorgeous coffee-table book. Here’s a sneak peek of what you’ll find inside.
The Story Behind the Book
When Nathan, a lifelong photographer, decided to create a cookbook over a decade ago, he saw an exciting opportunity to do something new in food photography—to portray food in new and unexpected ways that simultaneously draw readers in and illustrate the science at work in cooking.
Modernist Cuisine broke many of the rules for cookbooks, including how they should be illustrated. When Nathan and the team began working on the book, we wanted to explain the scientific principles that govern how cooking actually works and comprehensively cover all the modern culinary techniques practiced by the best and most advanced chefs in the world. We realized, however, that a conventional, text-heavy book on these topics might be a bit intimidating to all but a limited audience. The book had to be visually captivating. To do that, we developed an approach to food photography that leveraged technology to capture something new.
All art involves some amount of technology. The invention of oil painting, for example, radically changed what paintings looked like. While this has always been true for the creation of art, it is profoundly so for photography because the medium requires both advanced optics and chemistry to capture images on film. Digital photography and the software editing tools it has spawned are merely the latest in a long line of inventions that enable us to make images in new ways. The technology of photography is now changing almost daily, and we’ve embraced that. Many of these new technologies and discoveries (plus those we don’t even know yet) are tools that can be used creatively to do something extraordinary.
At the same time, we’ve also bucked the conventions for food photography. Nathan wanted to cut kitchen equipment in half to give people a look inside food as it cooks, capture alluring perspectives of food with high-speed video and research microscopes, and turn simple ingredients like strawberries and grains of wheat into stunning monoliths with macro lenses. We’ve custom-built cameras and lenses, developed special software for editing, built robots to perfectly sync motion with the camera’s shutter, and experimented with new photography techniques. The results are blueberries shot to appear like boulders, condiments exploding out of cannons, aerials of freshly harvested wheat fields, and wine catapulted to create the perfect splash.
Almost immediately after we released Modernist Cuisine, people started asking where they could buy prints of the images. The photos in our books have spoken to people who see food as we do—as something that inspires passion and curiosity. Art is a reflection of ourselves and the values we want to project. Food is an important aspect of many people’s lives; there have never been more people who self-identify as foodies.
It’s safe to say that Nathan and the team have taken a lot of photos—thousands and thousands of them—since we published The Photography of Modernist Cuisine. With so many new photos in our archives, we decided it was high time to create another coffee-table book for everyone who connects with food.
A Look Inside
The 216-page Food & Drink examines its subject matters through six different lenses—photography speed, photography scale, cutaway photography, portraiture, still-life photography, and playing with food—to illustrate how Nathan and the team play with different technology, equipment, styles, and perspectives to capture foods and drinks in a new light.
Some of the most recent photos capture subject matter that is moving too quickly to be easily seen by the human eye, such as a champagne cork flying out of a bottle, so we dedicated a chapter called “The Speed of the Photography” to highlight the speed at which they were taken. Another chapter, “The Scale of the Photography,” is devoted to the scope of the images and features photos that run the gamut from large landscapes to things that can only be seen under a microscope. The third chapter, “A Change in Perspective,” collects some of our photos that reveal a look inside food and what happens inside pots and ovens as you cook. Nathan likes to have fun when taking photos, so we also created a chapter called “Playing with Your Food.” The final two chapters divide a group of food photographs into two categories commonly found in the art world: “Still-Life Photography” and “Food Portraits.”
Food & Drink features imagery not found in The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, and the vast majority are also prominently displayed in our gallery spaces. The images in the book were shot both in studio at the Modernist Cuisine Lab as well as on location at Lake Geneva, the Italian village of Caiazzo, California’s Central Valley, New Orleans, the Olympic National Park, and the Palouse region of Washington and Oregon. With over 20 full-spread panoramic images, the book comes packaged in a new shelf-friendly trim size with a slipcase.
More to Come
While working on Food & Drink, we embarked on our next project, which will begin to tackle the world of pastry. It’s a subject matter we’ve always wanted and planned to cover. After narrowing down the scope of the project (a truly difficult task), we are now in the early stages of research and experimentation for the untitled, multivolume book that will cover baked pastries.
In the meantime, we hope that others will experience the wonder and joy we feel when we look at the photographs in Food & Drink. Gastronome Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously said, “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.” Food is a significant part of our identity. What we eat has never been more important to us than it is today. It’s one of the ways that we define cultures, different groups of people, and ourselves as individuals. Our relationship with food is deeply personal but also something that helps us build relationships with others. Food as art is an expression of those values.
Food & Drink is a reflection of our unending passion for and fascination with the world of food. It’s a bold guess that others will share our desire for an art book of quality that immerses readers in vistas of food that are familiar yet profoundly new. We hope that these photographs allow people to indulge in who they are and express how food makes them feel.
The best way to eat pizza is with others, which is one of the reasons pizza parties are universally beloved. Making pizza for a crowd, however, can present some logistical challenges, especially if you are only able to make one pizza at a time. These tips and tricks (the results of our team’s extensive experiments), along with a bit of planning, will help you to keep the pizzas coming and ultimately keep the crowd happy.
Choosing the Right Pizza Style
Serving at a party comes with some risks, depending on the type of pizza that you choose to serve. It can be a very fun occasion, but the key is to plan it correctly and choose the right pizzas. Your guests want to see you (presumably!), so it’s not ideal to be stuck in the kitchen the whole time. If you have an outdoor wood-fired or propane-fueled oven, you can bake pizzas while your guests hang out around you or even help. Indoors, the spaces are tighter, the ovens are generally smaller, and you can bake only so many pizzas at a time.
If you go with a Neapolitan or artisan pizza, you’ll be able to serve only one guest at a time, you’ll need a special oven to do the job right, and it’ll require someone with a high level of expertise to make the pizza. And this assumes that you are making the pizzas a la minute in front of the guests because these styles of pizzas won’t hold for longer than a few minutes. You could opt to make larger New York pizzas that will feed multiple people and reheat well (this is, after all, the business model for countless slice shops across the United States). But we don’t think that it’s the absolute best solution.
Our recommended solution is to choose to make pizzas that reheat very well and can be made well in advance: Detroit-Style Pizza, New York Square Pizza, or Al Taglio Pizza. You can make the pizza crusts ahead of time, cool them down, wrap them in plastic wrap, and freeze them for up to 6 months. In the case of catering, you can bake them offsite, freeze them (if you’d like), and transport them to the event. You don’t even need to defrost them. You can reheat whole pans or slices. You can slice ahead of time too.
Consider having a toppings station as well. Your guests can either tell the event staff what they want on their pizzas or, if you are entertaining at home, they can build their own pizzas using the naked prebaked pizzas. This will let you spend less time alone in the kitchen and more time with your guests.
The term “parbaking” is used a lot in the baking industry. It’s a process that involves baking bread until it’s about 90% done, allowing it to cool, then finishing the baking later. The initial baking period is enough to deactivate the yeasts and enzymes and set the structure of the crust and crumb (so the loaf can maintain its shape as it cools), but not enough to fully brown the crust.
But what about parbaking pizza? Does it deliver the same glorious results that you get when you bake your pizza normally? In some cases, it does work well. For example, if you are selling frozen pizza or if you are a caterer and you have an off-site event, you can parbake your pizzas two-thirds to three-quarters of the way, freeze them, and then finish baking them later. We also found that parbaking works well for thin-crust pizzas and medium-crust pizzas (especially if you’re freezing them).
We decided to test another technique that lets you do part of the work in advance: prebaking. In prebaking, the pizza is cooked all the way through and can be reheated later. If you’re in the pizza business—or if you’re throwing a pizza party at home—the ability to prebake can help organize the workflow because you do most of the baking ahead of time.
Prebaking is part of the standard process when you’re making a New York square pizza. This pizza is baked and cooled, then sauced and topped later if you are using it as the foundation of a pizza. Prebaking is how we make the pizza gourmet style. Al taglio pizzas are also prebaked, sometimes with sauce and sometimes just the dough alone. Then they’re cooled, and additional toppings can be added later and the pizza can be heated again in the oven. The same can be done for Detroit-style pizzas.
We wondered if prebaking could streamline the process for other kinds of pizza, too. The answer is yes—for some styles of pizza. You may, however, prebake thin-crust and medium-crust pizzas for the purpose of freezing. In those cases, the pizzas are prebaked with sauce and cooled. We recommend adding cheese just before baking. (Adding the cheese before baking on a prebaked pizza will influence the cheese’s complex melt rheology and textural attributes.) When you’re ready to eat, you don’t even need to defrost; you can bake it straight from its frozen form.
For a few pizza styles, we found another big benefit of prebaking: it helps eliminate the gel layer, a pale, gooey layer of underbaked dough. We found that by prebaking the dough alone, the gel layer can be eliminated. Sauce, cheese, and toppings are added later, then the pizza is reheated.
All styles of pizza go through a short, intense, high-temperature bake (some higher than others). As such, the pizza changes dramatically both during and after baking. When it comes to reheating pizza, the main objective in general is to reheat the base, sauce, cheese, and toppings without letting anything burn or dry out like a crouton. Some staling may have occurred, as often happens when baked dough is refrigerated, but fortunately, reheating the pizza to the correct temperature (between 79.5°C and 85°C /175°F and 185°F) will make the staling less noticeable.
One of the most common ways to reheat pizza is in the microwave, but we don’t recommend it because your pizza will reheat unevenly and become gummy and unpalatable. For the thicker-crust pizzas that we recommend for a crowd, reheat them in an oven but be careful because the exposed crust may dry out and become too crunchy. To avoid this, don’t reheat the pizzas longer than recommended, reheat slices side by side so the exposed crust is protected, and cradle the pizza in aluminum foil to protect the exposed crust while keeping the surface exposed to the hot air. The cradle should cover up only the exposed crust areas and not the surface or the rim crust that is not exposed. Doing so prevents the crust from drying out; the only caveat is that reheating will take a few minutes longer (about 1–3 minutes).
Make sure to preheat your oven fully. A baking steel and stone can be used interchangeably for reheating. A baking steel will take slightly longer to preheat, which gives the stone a small advantage for reheating. In order to heat a baking steel or stone in a home oven, it is best to use the broiler to heat it up fast. Once the broiler has heated the baking steel or stone, switch the oven to regular heat (205–260°C / 400–500°F) to reheat the pizza. While a baking steel is better for baking pizzas than a baking stone, for reheating purposes they work very much the same.
How to Make Pizza for a Crowd
Once the pizzas have been baked and cooled, cut them into portions using a serrated knife.
2. Place the sliced pizzas back in their baking pans, cover, and set aside until you’re ready to reheat.
3. About 1 h before you’re ready to serve the pizzas, place one or ideally two baking stones or baking steels stacked in the oven. Preheat the oven to 230°C / 450°F.
4. To reheat the pizzas, uncover them and simply slide the pans onto the hot baking steels or baking stones. They’ll take 5–7 min to reheat and recrisp the bottom.
5. For Detroit-style pizza, apply the hot tomato sauce over each hot slice, plus any other post-bake toppings. For al taglio pizza, apply any heat-sensitive toppings, like arugula, blue cheese, or tapenade, after baking.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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