Book Review: Modernist Bread, the Ultimate Bread Cookbook

Modernist books

I’ve been baking bread off and on for several decades; it’s a great pleasure to take flour, water, yeast, and salt and make something so wonderful. It’s a tactile experience when preparing, an almost sensual experience when it’s cooking, and a delight to eat fresh bread right out of the oven.

I’ve got a few bread cookbooks, but this year, with the lockdown, I’ve gotten back into making bread seriously, and I wanted to learn more. I’m the guy who wants to know not just how to make something, but why it works the way it does, because understanding how cooking works allows me to diverge from recipes.

Modernist slipcaseModernist Bread (Amazon) is the most extensive book available about bread and the science of bread and baking. In five volumes, at 2,600 pages, weighing a ridiculous 50 pounds (and with a very heavy stainless steel slipcase), this set is the culmination of years of research by the Modernist Cuisine group, founded by former Microsoft TCO Nathan Myhrvold. It follows a first set called Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (Amazon), which covers other types of food, and a one-volume version of this set called Modernist Cuisine at Home (Amazon). Co-authored by Fransisco Migoya, a baker with many years of experience, Modernist Bread sets out to examine everything about bread, from ingredients to techniques, to the way dough rises, how bread bakes, and more.

I bought this set about a month ago, as an early Christmas present, and have been reading through it learning about the history of bread, and the many ingredients and techniques used when making bread, and this weekend I tried my first recipe. It is very different from the way I used to make bread, using techniques I wasn’t aware of (such as autolyse, four-edge folds of dough, etc.), and there’s a lot to learn, but I’m impressed by how much better this is than the bread I’ve made over the years. This book has highlighted how little information about techniques there is in other bread cookbooks; here, every detail is explained, though you have to jump around a lot through the various volumes to piece it all together. Recipes explain what tasks you perform with links to explanations in other volumes, so it can take a while to get a grasp on recipes in the beginning.

First bread

The books themselves are a bit unwieldy; at about 27x34cm, they are large and heavy. They could have been smaller; the fonts are quite large, but the huge pages show off the magnificent photography by Myhrvold and his team. (Myhrvold is an avid photographer, and there is another book available called The Photography of Modernist Cuisine (Amazon), which presents the photography used in these first books.) There is also a sixth volume, which is a spiral bound book on plastic paper, designed for use in the kitchen, which presents summaries of the recipes and more.

This is clearly not a set of books for everyone, in part because of its price. It lists at $625, and the current Amazon price is around $534, but when I bought it, there was a promotion with a “coupon” saving of $176. So if you are interested, keep your eyes open.

This is an investment for any serious baker who wants to learn why bread works the way it does, and who wants to discover the widest range of bread recipes. I’ll be learning from this for the rest of my life.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Modernist Bread, the Ultimate Bread Cookbook

  1. Thanks for posting this, Kirk. I have been fascinated by this set for many years and tempted to take the plunge. Just do not know whether I would have the time to read it all. I have been baking bread for over 25 years. Three years ago I did a weekend course at the Sourdough School run by Vanessa Kimbell in Northampton. Working with an experienced baker was much better than trying to follow a book. I learned lots of techniques and many small and important aspects, by watching and practising. It’s a great hobby and much appreciated by friends and family.

    • If I had not fortuitously stumbled on such a big discount, I probably would not have bought it. As to reading it all, it’s a slow process. I started with the first volume about the history of bread, and read about one third of it before looking at techniques, then finding one basic recipe to try. I’ll go back to the history volume soon, but the techniques are really important and I’ll bounce back and forth between them and the recipes. I’m looking forward to trying no-knead bread next – which is quite a surprising concept – then moving on to others. It is fascinating, and having this resource to try new things is great.

  2. If only they did a digital version. Sure I get: physical coffee table = high-price sales.

    But really in this day and age, with many cooks relying on their decent sized iPads Pro screens or similar, it still seems rather anachronistic to ONLY offer physical paper – especially as £350 is out of bounds for most people anyway. But maybe exclusivity is the point.

    • Agreed, as I said, it’s a bit unwieldy. However, the tables they use to present recipes would work in ebooks. And the kitchen volume, with just the recipes, is quite practical.

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