Modernist Bread recipe notes

Written on December 19, 2017

Initial baking results

Results from the recipes I’ve tried thus far have been decidedly mixed. In any particular case, error on my part could easily explain dissatisfying results. But repeat mediocrity makes me suspicious: I’m not an expert or professional baker, but I am an experienced amateur baker who has taken pains to follow these recipes faithfully (e.g. measuring yeast and salt with a scale that has a .01g resolution). The several partial-failures have moved my priors in the directions of “I am not that smart or good at reading,” “I am not as good a baker as I thought,” and “these recipes are not well communicated.” I’m confident the recipes are fantastic when perfectly executed, but the results I’ve had thus far make me suspect Modernist Bread would be a better book if effort and ink had been reallocated from beautiful full-page photos to more detailed recipes.

  • Basic French lean bread was tasty but…basic. I was pretty satisfied with the final loaf and ate it up, but I don’t think it was an upgrade on other lean breads I’ve been making for years. The technique of mixing the salt with a little bit of the water and adding that solution post-autolyze seemed like more trouble than it was worth. The salt didn’t dissolve easily in that little water. Next time I can heat the water, so lesson learned I guess. (Edit 2019-08-01: solubility of salt in water isn’t much affected by temperature, turns out. I now just think this technique doesn’t make sense at home baking scales.) The loaf also came out a bit darker than I prefer; this was particularly surprising because my combo cooker is enameled, which apparently reduces heat transfer. Fermentation and proofing times were spot on, which was nice.

  • Pretzels should have been way more pretzely. In place of lye I used baked baking soda following the book’s instructions - this is a technique I’ve had good luck with before. Strangely, Modernist Bread calls for rinsing the pretzels after dipping in the baking soda solution. I found this lead to the dough getting more deformed and, more importantly, losing most of its pretzel essence. Update 2019-08-01: I tried this technique again, but this time I made sure to bake the baking soda long enough to reduce its weight by a third. I also gave the pretzels a full 4 minutes of soaking, flipping after 2 minutes, and then rinsing in a bowl of tap water (not running water). The results were much improved with a decent amount of classic pretzel flavor. That said, I think I prefer a sourdough pretzel and recommend this recipe.

  • Babka was delicious but decidedly squat. The recipe makes enough dough for 3 loaf pans. I have one of the size listed, so I multiplied the recipe by 1/3. Scaling by 1/2 would have been much better. Maybe I had a rough hand with the dough and degassed too much, but the end result wasn’t unpleasantly dense. I also had poor results with the extra egg washing technique. I believe it works when done properly - just check out this picture - but I wasn’t able to reproduce that. My bread was indeed shiny but also had patches of visible baked-on egg wash.

  • Levain bagels were tasty and chewy, so great. The much-trumpeted starch slurry for affixing toppings didn’t work. As with the egg wash, I believe it’s possible: here’s proof. I made the starch slurry and waited two hours, as instructed. When the bagels were dipped the slurry adhered, so presumably I waited long enough for the slurry to thicken? (Guidance is slim). The trouble came when dipping the bagels in the toppings: most of the toppings adhered, but some fell back off with starch slurry attached, especially when grabbing the bagel to flip it over or remove it from the bowl. Then the bowl of toppings was moist and the toppings were sticking to each other. After two bagels, the bowl of toppings had clumped into granola-like clusters of seeds which were then so heavy they didn’t adhere to further bagels. To make matters worse, the starch glaze didn’t really dry all the way with the extra baking and then some. So instead of everything bagel with crispy onion bits - the best part - I had slightly soggy onion flakes. I will try this technique again because the eventual payoff looks so good, but I am definitely frustrated with the results and instruction given.

  • Chocolate and cherry sourdough was an unmitigated success. I will be making this again.

  • My girlfriend made the compleat wheat and that bread blew my mind in half. Absolutely astounding - basically all the good parts of whole wheat and none of the bad. Open texture, nutty toasty flavor, a real delight. Go forth and make this.