Tasting Bagels With Nathan Myhrvold

When you're learning to make bagels, you make a lot of hockey pucks at first

Nathan Myhrvold, author of Modernist Cuisine, a six-volume opus on the science and technology of food, is working on a bagel recipe for his new bread book. And it's going to be nothing like his "Bagel In a Glass," which had the modernist food cognoscenti gushing years ago: flecks of dill, lox, and chives floating inside a shot glass of clear broth made from everything bagels—a complete breakfast, sans schmear.

It’s just going to be…a bagel.

“My mother didn’t believe in teething rings, so she gave me bagels,” Myhrvold said a few weeks ago, during a visit to the SAVEUR offices for a blind bagel tasting. “That was the first solid food I ate.” In front of him lay an array of New York’s finest bagels and bialys. He plucked one up, brought it to his nose, and took a loud, exuberant sniff.

"I keep doing this at restaurants with my friends," he said, the bagel pressed firmly to his nostrils, "and they're like, 'What are you doing.' But that's the first thing you do with bread, smell it."

Nothing, it seems, can escape Myhrvold’s rabid curiosity, not even the breadcrumb.

“Bread takes experience. You make a lot of hockey pucks first.”

A former student of Stephen Hawking and Microsoft's first CTO, Myhrvold is currently the CEO of Intellectual Ventures, a patent company, but dabbles in paleontology and nuclear energy technologies, and has won awards for his wildlife photography and barbecue cookery. In his Seattle-based lab, a team headed up by Francisco Migoya, former French Laundry pastry chef and professor at the Culinary Institute of America, is now hard at work on Modernist Cuisine's bread sequel, slated to be released next year.

“We’re going through a pallet of flour every three weeks, which is about 1,000 pounds,” Myhrvold said. “That’s about the same as a bakery, but they have customers and revenue and things.”

Revenue is secondary, at this point at least, to the pursuit of knowledge. A self-proclaimed “true nerd,” Myhrvold says this project is motivated by the fact that breads are a highly technique-driven food—for the vast majority, the ingredient list includes only flour, water, salt, and yeast—and that the scientific transformation that occurs during baking is still shrouded in mystery.

“Viennese bakers discovered that if you inject steam at the beginning of the baking process, it results in a really great crust,” he said. “But no one knows why. It’s counterintuitive. So we are trying our goddamnedest to figure that out.”

At SAVEUR, Myhrvold patiently ate his way through bites of three bialys, five plain bagels, and five everything bagels, stopping every now and again to comment on each one’s make-up.

“I’ve gained like ten pounds already researching this book,” he said.

After chewing thoughtfully on an everything bagel from the last remaining outpost of a once-famous bagel company, he flipped the bread inside out and gestured: “See this crumb? It’s dry. There wasn’t enough water.” Then he inspected the bagel close-up, his eyelash almost brushing a poppy seed, before placing it back on the cutting board. “Also, the applications of seeds and things isn’t uniform.”

Kossar’s Bialy’s, self-billed as the oldest bialy bakery in the country, scored high marks, perhaps due to the fact that, of all the shops represented in the spread, it had been in the business by far the longest.

“Bread takes experience,” said Myhrvold. “You make a lot of hockey pucks first.”

He paused when confronted with a smaller, darker bagel that looked quite different from the others. It came from the youngest entrant of the bunch, a Montreal-style shop that took the city by storm when it opened last year.

“You know, this is not really Montreal-style,” said Myhrvold. “This is overbaked. And Montreal-style is way harder.” He paused. “But this would have been perfect for my mom to give me for teething! One would have lasted a long time.”