Modernist bread book covers

By Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya

The Cooking Lab: 2017


For millennia, bread baking has been more craft than science. Even the current trend in artisan bread rejects much of what modern science has wrought: the advances of manufactured yeast, dough conditioners, added preservatives and the overall industrialization of wheat and bread production.

“The bread zeitgeist is about being ancient, primitive, natural, and pretty much anything but modern,” writes Nathan Myhrvold in his recent 2,642-page Modernist Bread, a landmark effort to dive as deeply as possible into the science behind one of the world’s oldest crafts.

A notable exception to this trend, writes Myhrvold, is the Washington State University Bread Lab and Steve Jones, wheat breeder, lab director, and recent recipient of a $1.5 million Clif Bar & King Arthur Flour Endowed Chair in Organic Grain Breeding & Innovation. Myhrvold, former chief technology officer at Microsoft, cites the lab’s work as an example of “a Modernist undercurrent hiding beneath the seemingly retro artisanal bread movement.”

Myhrvold and his team tapped more than 200 experts for their five-volume effort. They put almost 400 bread books in a database, baked thousands of loaves and other goods, and challenged some of the craft’s most dearly held assumptions.

When they turned their attention to how wheat is grown, they gave Jones a starring role.

Four companies control 90 percent of the global grain trade, from sales of seed and fertilizer to milling in large factories and distributing over thousands of miles. The system is a modern marvel, but the wheat is homogeneous and what Jones has called “anonymous.” Most public and private wheat breeders focus on increasing farm yields.

Since moving from Pullman to Mount Vernon in 2009, Jones has been working on grains that can be grown, milled, and baked locally. He created the Bread Lab, which Myhrvold calls, “a unique research facility that’s part test kitchen, part greenhouse, part science lab, and all about building a new kind of system.” Jones has been working on varieties that will yield well, yes, but also have good flavor and economics. In the process, writes Myhrvold, he has become a grain innovator, “using the power of science and technology to create new varieties of wheat that not only work for the farmer and the miller but also allow the baker to make great bread. It’s a simple idea, but it took a forward thinker to put the concept into practice.”