Insights from Modernist Bread

By Niko Triantafillou

By

Niko Triantafillou
Sourdough spelt bread baked using the caramelized grain technique from Modernist Bread
Sourdough spelt bread baked using the caramelized grain technique from Modernist Bread

Looking to boost your bagel game? How about baking a deeply flavorful sourdough with a beautiful wide-open crumb? Francisco Migoya has got you covered.

It’s not easy—even for seasoned bakers—to identify breakthroughs or innovations in a 6,000 year old product consumed every day all over the world. But that’s exactly what Francisco Migoya and Nathan Myhrvold did when they undertook Modernist Bread, their mammoth, 2,642-page book that takes a deep dive into everything bread. To produce the book’s more than 1,200 recipes the authors and their team completed literally thousands of experiments to determine the most useful techniques to save time, improve the bread making process, and enhance the final product. 

Migoya took us through a few of the most practical and taste-enhancing techniques during his main stage demo at the 2017 StarChefs International Chefs Congress.

No Lye: Use caramelized grains to enhance flavor and texture in your breads

Lye is a dangerous (and scary) compound that is sometimes used in recipes because its alkalinity can significantly enhance the crumb and browning in baked goods. But you can replicate the highly desirable effects of lye on food without using those caustic chemicals.

“Pressure-caramelizing grains along with baking soda will replicate the effects of lye, enhancing the flavor and texture in your breads, but it’s safe to eat” said Migoya, while showing off the stunning open crumb on a sourdough spelt bread his team baked using the caramelized grain technique.

You’ll need to cook the grains (Migoya used spelt) twice, once on their own and once in a lightly sealed mason jar with butter, sugar, baking soda, and water in a pressure cooker. Use a tray to prevent the jar from contacting the water in the cooker. When the water reaches a simmer, seal the pressure cooker and decrease heat to between 208ºF and 210ºF. Cook for an hour and a half. Allow the jar to cool before opening and draining the grains, if necessary. The caramelized grain is now ready to add to bread dough.

Top this: Boost your bagel game with toppings that won’t fall off

A fresh baked bagel with toppings is wonderful but as Migoya points out, it has some annoying shortcomings. The toppings fall off, leaving you with a paper bag full of sesame or poppy seeds, etc. And when it comes to “everything bagels” much of the mix—especially the onions and garlic bits—is often burnt from going through the baking process. 

To solve for this, bakers can dip their bagels in a slurry, made with Ultra-Tex 3 modified tapioca starch. Even though it sounds like something you would clean the floor with, the coating has a bland, nearly flavorless taste. 

Combine the starch and water, and quickly stir. Allow the mixture to hydrate for 24 hours before using. The shiny coating will allow you to dip your already baked bagels and then roll them in whatever topping you to desire. After adding the toppings, you’ll just need to evaporate the moisture for 5 minutes in the oven at 350ºF. Amazingly, a bagel that was glossy and drippy is now crisp and completely covered with your favorite topping on all sides. This method also allows toasted onion or garlic to avoid the second baking “kiss of death” that often leads to burning.

Bread science is serious stuff, but Migoya has a sense of humor about it. He pointed out that this method begs a philosophical question: “If bagel toppings can now be applied everywhere, should we still call them toppings?”

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