Food Science in Baking

Nathan and Michael have a fascinating discussion all about food science, baking, cooking, sustainability, and new techniques rooted in science versus misunderstandings of how things work that have been passed down to this day.

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Nathan: That’s the Maillard reaction — !

It turns out Maillard reaction is not only about being delicious!

Michael: My guest today is Nathan Myhrvold, the founder and lead author of the Modernist Cuisine series of books. Nathan was the first CTO of Microsoft and is currently the founder and CEO of Intellectual Ventures. He began college at the age of 14 and went on to earn his PhD in Applied Mathematics from Princeton. And Nathan also did a post-doctoral fellowship at Cambridge working under Dr Stephen Hawking. So, thank you for taking the time to talk with me, Nathan.

You have an extremely accomplished background in math, science, and technology — and in food as well. So how did you get into food science, and why is important to you?

Nathan: So, of course I experienced food long before I experienced math and science, just as a child. And as a child I developed a big interest in cooking. When I was 9 years old, I decided to cook Thanksgiving dinner for my family all by myself. My mom stood aside and let me, and maybe if it had been a total disaster, that would have the end of my career as a cook. But it actually worked out okay. And that got me very interested in it; and then later on I decided that taking a scientific approach to food would help us cook better, so that’s what led to the Modernist Cuisine series of books.

Michael: So, why do you think studying food science is important: both for the professional cook and also for the home cook?

Nathan: So, a recipe is a list of steps that tells you how to do something. And you do this, you do this, and you do this, and you get a result. And if that’s all you care about, you don’t need to learn anything else. But if you want to develop your own recipes — if you want to understand why something works and understanding the why may not be important for making exactly that thing — but if I say, “Gee, I’d like that recipe, but a little different.” Or, “Could I use this technique on a totally different ingredient?”

Well, that’s the area where knowing how something works actually matters. Most parts of life have gone through a period of people learning scientifically about things. You know, we certainly built buildings for thousands of years before we understood engineering. Now we understand engineering. We can make better buildings in a whole variety of ways. They’re less likely to fall down. They’re able to be higher performance and all sorts of things. Cooking is full of lots of explanations of how and why things work, but many of them aren’t true. They were more… stories that cooks would tell each other about what went on than something that you could actually verify by, say, doing an experiment.

Michael: You and I both went through culinary school, I know, and I I know my experience — I’m sure with you as well — there was a lot, and still is a lot, taught in culinary school that is not based in science. And it’s, again, this passing down, as you say, of things that people maybe thought. And that’s, partly, I think, because of the culture in the Chef world. So, I mean, for me that’s why I think what you’re doing — and what I’m trying to do as well — is so important to inform how we make decisions about cooking and take that real science and experimentation and figure out what’s going on.

Nathan: Oh, I couldn’t agree more. And when we say “experiments,” sometimes we use exotic equipment, but mostly it’s just the basic idea of the scientific method of saying, “Hey, let’s test that idea. You say that we need to have our eggs be at room temperature before we make a meringue. Okay. How bad is it really if we use eggs from the fridge? Is that really going to screw everything up?”

And that’s something where you need to have a good way of measuring what success is: measuring what the volume of the eggs is for the meringue, for example. But other than having that basic thing, it’s really about saying, “Let’s try and see if it works. And if it does, great; and if it doesn’t, well, then, let’s either figure out why or let’s mark this down as a myth that has been busted.”

Michael: I’m curious on that — have you done experimentation with folding (tempering two different densities)?

Nathan: Yes, this is ex — this is one I love! Because, of course, the books and classical training is all, “You must carefully fold it with a spatula!” And that freaks people out enough that they usually under-mix it. And so, whether it’s in a context of a restaurant or it’s in a home chef, you get served soufflés that have big chunks of pure white egg white in it that wasn’t mixed and so forth.

And, of course, moments before you did this delicate folding operation, you’re beating the crap out of it with a whip. Okay? So, really, how hard – and why do you need to have that single spatula? We use a whisk because the whisk has got lots of different wires in it, and each wire helps mix it and mix mixes it more uniformly. So in all of the cases we’ve tried so far, use the same balloon whisk you use to whip the eggs. And maybe if you dumped a ton of stuff in all at once it would be a problem, but mostly the “add a little bit of a time” thing is something that is a legacy of an era when we were beating with our arms and we didn’t have planetary mixers.

So, in fact, the machine will do a more even job of it. So, yeah, that’s one where everybody says, “You have to fold it in ever-so-carefully.” It leads to people under-mixing. And then really test it. Did you kill your soufflé? No. It turns out you didn’t — or your cake batter. Or, there’s a whole variety of things that have that issue. And it’s possible there’s one example out there that we haven’t tested yet where that’s really important, but then I have to ask how reliable a recipe is it if it’s going to collapse on you too easily.

Michael: Right, yeah. And there are a lot of things… One of the things that I’m trying to do with this website and what I teach to my classes is: take some of those things that are traditional things that are taught and, like you say, do experimentation. Look at the science of “Why are we actually doing this?” and then see: is this really the best way to do it? I just did a video on cooking sugar, and the wiping with the pastry brush with water is just completely unnecessary, but everyone teaches that. And people spend a lot of time doing stuff like that. So, if you kind-of understand why sugar crystallizes….

Nathan: That’s a great example! It’s a great example because you can…. Lots of people burn caramel no matter what they do, okay? And then I always — in a professional context, when you get served an ice cream or some other dessert that has burnt caramel it, I would say, “Come on! If you can’t make it as well as the commercial stuff, you can buy a tub of it.

Yeah, but so, it’s important to be careful in that process. But, yeah, the brushing with the brush and the water around the outside really isn’t necessary if you do the right thing. It’s also not really necessary to put water in to begin with. It can help dissolve it a little bit at the beginning, and I guess if you were super heavy-handed with the heat it — maybe that would help you, but mostly caramel is about heat and just: not too much heat and not enough to actually burn it ‘cause then it tastes bad, which is the other — the most important thing is if you make a big batch of caramel, taste it before you put it in something else.

Because if you burned it you should know. That’s why it’s particularly annoying to me if you see it in something where it’s cooked into something like an ice cream, you had an ample opportunity to taste the caramel and say, “Wait a minute… this stuff’s burned. Let me make another batch, right?

Michael: And I think we can say that about most foods and cooking. I was actually just doing — evaluating people who are going for a Chef certification. And not enough tasting of stuff, things being under seasoned or not prepared correctly, or … so, yeah. For something like caramel, which is easy to — if you’ve overcooked it, it’s easy to redo. But, yeah, that’s great advice.

Nathan: the most sensitive instruments you have are your tongue and your nose. So, you should always be smelling stuff, and you should always be tasting things. Now, that said, there are some things you can’t add to taste. If you’re making muffins or biscuits, you cannot add baking soda to taste. It tastes terrible, and we’re not good at judging what the right concentration is.

That’s why you should also have a scale. But for tons of other things, particularly when you have a complicated assembly of something, if you didn’t taste the parts, there’s really no excuse for then assembling it into something where it’s betrayed by one of the components.

Michael: Yeah, absolutely. So what has surprised you the most as you researched — even before the book, but _especially_ when you were writing the Modernist Cuisine series of books?

Nathan: Well, I mean, partly is what we’ve said here: that there’s lots of things that are either wrong or they’re only approximately correct. A lot of things are not wrong wrong, but a good example is again for meringue. We’ve been making meringue recently. I was taught — and every book says — even a drop of that yolk is going to kill your meringue. In fact, you better not even use a plastic bowl, because maybe there’s a little bit of oil that that didn’t get scrubbed out of the plastic.

So, we tried it, and if you put some yolk or you put some cooking oil or something else into your egg yolks or egg whites, it takes longer to beat, so it makes the beating time up to double, but up to about 1%, which is a lot more than a drop, it kills your volume by 10 – 20%. It’s survivable. Now, good practice should still be: you keep it out, because there’s no reason to give up that 10 or 20% — or that doubling of the time. So it’s not totally wrong, but it’s also not the insane paranoia level of, “Oh, my God, I can’t possibly use a bowl that might have ever had oil in it.”

Michael: That’s a great example, yeah. I know pastry chefs who are just so, so meticulous. And, like you said, wiping out the bowl with alcohol and taking all these extra steps. And the foaming science is a little different with pâte à bombe versus a whole egg versus egg white. But yeah you’re right it’s there’s I think a lot of things like that where I think part of it this is just my own personal… but I think the nature of a lot of people who go into cooking is that very precise — and I’m that way, so I get it.

Nathan: Well, … and it’s a good way to be because there’s lots of things where precision helps, and measuring precisely. There’s a a meme that goes through society that: “Oh, really great chefs don’t need to measure anything or have a recipe,” and I think that’s also false. If you want a predictable result that… in fact, it really does help to be precise, but false precision doesn’t help you either, so when you see a recipe that says your eggs have to be at 70° before you go and do it because someone wanted to quantify what “room temperature” means

Well, that’s just silliness. I’m sorry — 68 would be perfectly fine. And actually, from the fridge is is okay, but — and yet there’s some poor person out there who says, “Oh my God! I didn’t get my eggs to 70°, and so you want to encourage cleanliness for sure, and hygiene — you want to encourage precision in so far as it leads to a better result, but at the same time, you have to be reasonable about it because there’s no point in throwing something out if there was a drop of egg yolk that got into the bowl… or take some of these other precautions that are a little bit unnecessary. Better to spend your focus on something where the focus really has a big payoff than on things where the focus doesn’t have as big a payoff.

Michael: Yeah; that’s a great point, and you’re right: there are a lot of things like that especially for students coming in because they don’t know, and they want to be… they want to do it right, and they’re really careful. So, if there’s something that it’s like, yeah: it’s 73.2, and right…. And I’ve seen recipes, too, where the precision is obviously someone scaled up or down a recipe and left the decimal points.

Nathan: Yep, right.

Michael: Rather than just saying… and I try to be very exact, except for when it comes to eggs. That’s the one place where I’ll use a whole egg, or well…

Nathan: Eggs are so natural to count; yet, of course, they are different sizes. But one of the surprising things we found…. We’re working on a pastry book right now — that’s why we’re making meringue and stuff.

One of the things that’s surprising to us is — I had thought of pastry recipes as requiring more precision, and that if you deviated too far you would find that the recipes just fails, and they only work — and that’s true of a few things — but most of the recipes in fact are quite resilient, and if they weren’t resilient, we wouldn’t have figured them out — particularly the ones that are very old right. So, in most cases, whether you have a large or an extra-large egg — although that changes the weight slightly — it’s not going to make a critical difference to the end result, and it’s really easy to count eggs — particularly in a home kitchen because then if you have… if you’re a few grams over under what do you do? Well, you can take some out, and so forth, but it — that level of precision is usually not necessary. But there are some things where it is.

Michael: People will break the yolks and measure them out, and then… and now they’re broken, and they’re sticking to the bowl, and then you don’t get out as much anyway.

Nathan: Correct.

Michael: That’s great advice, and I’m I’m really excited to hear that you’re working on a pastry book. That’s awesome. There’s so much stuff — I mean, in baking and pastry, but I think pastry tends to be a little more exact approach for most people than cooking which is a little more ad lib.

Nathan: And it largely — that’s because pastry involves a radical transformation of ingredients. Okay ice cream is not that much like its piece-parts. A cake is even less like its piece-parts. Bread has a relationship to cakes, but you’re making such a big transition, it’s unlike cooking a roast or making a pasta sauce where you’ve got lots of variation in the input ingredients are — most of the things don’t matter that much; you can do it by taste and by eye; and most of things in pastry, in general, because you’re affecting this gigantic transformation — it does make a difference.

And as I say, you can’t add the baking soda to taste anyway. You can’t add xanthan gum to taste. If you’re particular… if you’re making one of the — and there, the amounts are so small — in our bread book we made an interesting discovery that adding an enzyme made it easier to make challah or other braided breads. And that’s because the enzyme will make the bread a little bit less — the dough less springy, so it it’s very hard to roll out even cylinders of bread dough because you push on it and it bounces back. You push then you push too hard and then it doesn’t bounce back, but it’s —

Michael: What enzyme is that?

Nathan: Well, quite a few work, but there’s a class of enzymes that are in fruits that attack protein. So, bromelian, papain, ficain….

Michael: All the ones we use for meat.

Nathan: Yes! Meat tenderizers So, Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer works great, but you can also do it with pineapple juice. But for pineapple juice what we found is for a loaf of challah, you need one or two drops. More than that and it’s so powerful just in the juice — so, our recommendation was you buy a little thing of fruit salad at Whole Foods, take out one of those little wedges of pineapple that’s in there, and squeeze just one or two drops into a thing and then put it in. That is, if you’re not using — you could also use the purified ingredient bromelain, which is in there.

Michael: And make sure your pineapple is not cooked.

Nathan: Yes, it’s got to be a raw pineapple. At my company here we had a catered event where a local restaurant made up it was a bunch of Asian food, and one of the things was basically stir-fried steak — sort of like you’d have for fajitas. It was not Mexican, it was more Asian themed. Well, they had garnished it with fresh pineapple on top. They had — it was this event for like, a hundred people, they’ so it was all in these hotel pans, and it had been cooked and then cooled down and then it was reheated… the meat was like like dog food.

There was enough — from the fresh pineapple on top. And, of course, the people in the restaurant would use fresh pineapple as a garnish on a plate, but it isn’t in contact with the meat. But here, it was in contact with the meat for a couple of hours. Yeah, and it totally destroyed it and we we fortunate we had enough of other things that it worked out, but it was really striking to me how something that –it’s a good example of your thing of, “How does knowing food science help?” Well, in this case, some of the people who who were with us when we opened it up — we take a look we’re like, “My God, what’s wrong with this? Why did they — this is not like the dish is supposed to be.” But, of course, then I see these fresh pineapple wedges covering the whole top of the pan, and that was the problem.

Michael: Yeah, it’s crazy. It’s like people who put marinade on with those same things or acids for too long, and the surface gets really mushy ’cause it’s…

Nathan: Yeah, well, marinades are funny because marinades have — there are two sets of ingredients people put into marinades. One are things that are actually active ingredients, so salt is one those. Enzymes would be another one. And then people also put in lots of things in the marinade that can’t possibly penetrate the meat, right? So, you see them put spices in, and I’m sorry, but those that — chili powder or whatever — you’re putting in…. It’ll be on the outside of the meat; that’s fine. But don’t go thinking that’s going to go deep inside your meat.

The other one that’s funny that way is confit. So, we had generated some controversy in Modernist Cuisine, my first book, because we said that confit is a technique for cooking proteins — meats, like “duck confit” as an example. There’s no magic in cooking it in the fat. Historically it was cooked in fat because it was sort of a weird way of doing vacuum sealing. If you cook something in a vat of fat until all of the microbes were dead and then you let it solidify into a hard mass, the fat would tend to seal the meat, but the fat molecules are too big to penetrate the meat.

And if fat could freely flow through meat, well first of all I’d flow all over the floor, and I wouldn’t be — I’d buy smaller jeans! So, of course, it can’t go through. So we did a bunch of experiments where we cooked things. Like, we made duck confit, and we cooked it for the same amount of time at the same temperature, but we steamed it or cooked it sous vide and then at the end we would dress all of them with a little bit of oil because you can see the oil and taste the oil on the outside. And we couldn’t tell any difference.

Michael: Yeah, that’s interesting. I did those exact same experiments with duck confit and sous vide and steaming and doing it in a very temperature-controlled dry heat as well. (I mean, obviously then you’re going to have loss of moisture.) But, yeah… I fully agree. I don’t know why that would have been so controversial.

Nathan: Oh, there was a French chef who was really upset with me for this. He says, “I do not agree with this!” And I said, “Well look. This isn’t a question of agreeing. Why don’t you do the test, and maybe you can tell the difference. I can’t tell the difference, and there’s kind-of a lot of science that shows it couldn’t possibly be true, so…”

And I think, ultimately, he did the test and he realized that it couldn’t possibly be the case. The traditional story was just wrong.

Michael: Yeah, it goes back to the searing of the meat. There’s a guy you probably know — this guy on the Internet who does lots of — I think his background was originally videography — but he’s done a lot of really great videos, and he likes to look into the science of stuff; and the same thing that that you’re doing. So he did some research on the Mother Sauces, and whether Hollandaise and or mayonnaise were really a Mother Sauce. And I mentioned this to a — someone who’s — I’m not going to say who it is, but it’s a famous Chef, and it was just, “Blasphemy!” And that person got so upset by this idea which… I don’t know why. ‘Cause, why does it matter if it’s a mother sauce or not?”

Nathan: I think that goes to the way that we learn about food and the way that those traditions help define who we are. There’s a cultural component. For a long time — a unique thing about Japanese cuisine versus most other cuisines is they eat their food raw — or their fish raw if they possibly could. That’s, now, in every strip mall in America. And so we’ve gotten that one a little bit more equalized. But if you strike at something that is sort-of viewed to be the Fundamental Thing, it is almost literally blasphemous, because it’s almost literally viewed like a religion. It’s like someone saying, “I belong to this religion! Don’t insult my God!”

And insulting the Mother Sauces, which of course… historically the mother sauces were a concept that Escoffier championed largely as a way of making a standardization and modularization of a kitchen into a brigade, because he was the first guy who was really running big restaurants and big hotels and cruise ships and things like this where they needed to have a system. They couldn’t just have a couple talented people cooking like crazy; they had to have — “We need stations. You’re garde manger, you’re this, you’re this, you’re this, okay…. Modularize — make a set of Mother Sauces, everything else we tweak off Mother Sauces. Today in cookbooks you tend to call those Master Recipes, and today you view the Master Recipes — because there’s a bunch of them — as being somewhat arbitrary. But the whole idea — that you make all of your sauces with stocks ahead of time — was about a mass production.

You can always deglaze a pan and make a sauce à la minute, and it can be delicious, right? It can arguably be more delicious, which is why a lot of three-star restaurants that can afford the labor of doing it all à la minute do that. So it it’s a weird — it’s interesting, because not only is it viewed as a nearly religious principle, but it also was really a volume thing. It wasn’t a quality thing originally.

Michael: Yeah, I was just talking — funny — just two days ago with some other Chefs about that very thing, and they kind-of turned away from — it’s the first thing you’re taught in culinary school (or, at least, in a lot of culinary schools) but so many people don’t do it anymore because like a jus lié is it’s easy. Like you said, it can be as good or better, and it’s not eight hours of — it’s not roasting the bones and do — and going through the whole thing right?

So… and then you’re using — whether you’re doing a singer or whatever, using rather than… I mean you always want to keep that fond right? And you… so, yeah, super interesting. But you’re right. So many people cling to that, and I think it’s important to understand the history and to honor it, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t….

Nathan: Oh there is, and in a modern kitchen at a certain volume, roast your bones and everything else, but it’s not the only way, right? And the place where that gets particularly stretched — beyond, perhaps, its usefulness — is when you get into things like vegetable dishes where the classic technique is you’re still using a chicken stock to sauce them, and that upsets vegans and vegetarians, but there’s something to be said about the fact that, no, you can actually make a very good sauce that entirely uses vegetable flavors, so the idea that chicken stock or a meat stock has to be in everything is really an artifact rather than it’s something fundamental.

Michael: Yeah, beurre blanc and those related sauces are — don’t go back to Escoffier

Nathan: Beurre blanc was from the 1930s — late 20s, early 30s, and it was a mistake. And it was one of the few sauces that is actually credited to a woman. It was La Mer or something or other — I forget her her name — but her restaurant was called [La Buvette de la Marine]. This… and they were making a more classic sauce. There was supposed to be and the saucier (or the the guy at the sauce station) forgot to put something in, and they still got a sauce out of it.

Michael: Yeah, I read that story too, and there were two mistakes that they made. And I remember thinking, “Is this really true? How could they made these two big mistakes in making this sauce?”

Nathan: People can make huge mistakes. It’s weird, but it’s true. We were working on chocolate chip cookies here, and one of the things that we like to do for brown butter sauce is for any brown butter is… we like to make it in a pressure cooker and we add non-fat dry milk to the butter and a little teeny bit of baking soda and then you get this fantastic brown butter and there’s no chance of burning it. Well, then there… you can also add the non-fat dry milk to the directly to the dough, and that will help with it it browning, and it’ll give you more of a brown butter thing.

Well, we accidentally made — I don’t know how this could happen — but we made a batch of cookies that had no flour. It was all non-fat dry milk, which which you might think would be — okay, a total disaster. Or maybe we’ll never scrape it off the pan, so we have to throw the cookie sheet away. No — ! Actually, they were kind-of cool. They were not — interesting, they were not recognizably a chocolate chip cookie. It was something a little more akin to a Florentine or something else that’s almost like Florentine is — almost like peanut brittle or a confection because it’s the sugar that’s holding everything together. But it’s not. It’s edible. They’re actually kind-of good.

Michael: Well, I got to try that. I want to ask you… so the putting extra milk solids in obviously makes a lot of sense to get that…. What is the baking soda doing for that?

Nathan: So, the Maillard reactions occur at a lower temperature in an alkaline environment.

Michael: Yes, in a higher, right.

Nathan: Higher pH — you get more browning.

Michael: Right.

Nathan: So, we do — in Modernist Cuisine we did a whole bunch of experiments and figured out that you could get what people normally think of as caramelized flavors which are really, “Maillardized.” “Maillardized” doesn’t roll off the tongue like “caramelized” does, and so it’s like a half a percent by weight of the butter in that case. And it makes a big difference in how brown it gets.

Michael: Yeah, that makes total sense.

Nathan: it also makes a difference in cookie recipes. So, we found a bunch of cookie recipes that had what seem to be anomalously high levels of baking soda. Way higher than the thing needs, in fact. Most cookies don’t really need any baking soda because you’ve put the air in by creaming the butter, and you’re not really going to get a high puffy thing no matter what you do.

Michael: Yeah. Unless you’re doing, like, a brown butter where you can’t cream.

Nathan: No, that would be an exception. But it turns out you get a browner cookie for this reason right. And it also there’s a bunch of other contexts where that works so in the case of brown butter — or we make a what we call a caramelized carrot soup, but it’s really a Maillardized carrot soup, all in a pressure cooker. And the advantage is normally to get the carrots or to get the the brown butter to brown you’d have to be up at around 300°F or more, which outside of a pressure cooker, you only get after the thing is desiccated because if there’s water present that keeps the the temperature below that.

So, of course, you can make it. It works for great for browning onions also. So all of those things you can brown and caramelize… but it’s a chore and it requires lots of effort, and if you get — if you’re not vigilant and you wind up getting a few little pieces that burn black then it can ruin the taste of the whole thing. No, if you want it to have a Maillard reaction at pressure cooker temperatures so now we’re down more like like 240° F you wouldn’t normally get that for most things unless you tweak it with the baking soda and then you can.

Michael: There’s another book that came out a few years ago in food science that I think had that [recipe] in there. Is this something that you guys developed in your lab?

Nathan: Yes, we developed it in — the whole pressure cooker thing…. There was a guy who publishes under the Ideas in Food, and they did have a cookbook and they had figured out a recipe that was inspirational to us, but not determinative. They were — they made a roux in a pressure cooker for kind-of the same reason, but then they couldn’t make it brown, but you could make a very good blond roux because, again, you have to — the problem with the roux is you have to cook the starch or you get this raw-flour taste. Of course, alternatively, you use a different starch for this — isn’t a problem — it all comes from using flour.

But fine… if you do it, you could actually pressure cook it. And so, then we started doing the things with baking soda, and it was established by food scientists some time ago that in fact that it it’s a temperature-dependent effect for Maillard reaction, and people in the context of doughnuts and in the context of some pastry have noticed it. But it’s a great example of why it’s important to popularize the things, because a food scientist doing an experiment knowing something is true is not the same as every working Chef knowing that it’s true.

Michael: Right. And thank you, by the way, for not saying caramelizing the onions.

Nathan: Well, it’s… I understand why it’s an appealing thing to say in a menu, right? And sugars are involved in the Maillard reaction, right? But it’s a different reaction. And, by the way, that’s why they don’t taste like caramel, right? If it was, just if it was literally caramelizing… what the hell! Let’s just add caramel sauce right, right? But, no; that doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work because it’s a different set of flavor profiles you get when you react the various proteins with sugars. But as a kid I always wondered why is sh#% brown, okay? …From people — from dogs — from whatever — that’s the Maillard reaction also!

Michael: Oh, that’s super interesting!

Nathan: So it turns out Maillard reaction is is not only about being delicious!

Michael: That’s, yeah, that’s fascinating. And I think you mentioned earlier, Maillard reaction happens at all different temperatures, right? So, it’s just — very slowly [at lower temperatures], but baking soda is such a powerful ingredient for so many things. And, yeah, cookies is a great example of: if you want it to be a little browner you can increase that, but you have to be careful ’cause it doesn’t taste great if you have too much of it.

Nathan: Oh, no. If you put too much it tastes terrible. And we certainly found published recipes that that cross that line, maybe. We’re being a little overly sensitive, but you don’t want it to taste like baking soda at all. But it can be useful. Another interesting thing that came up in the same cookie experiments is you do get some leavening lift from the baking soda, but baking soda only works when you mix it with an acid right. What’s the acid? The other mystery is lots of recipes say you can mix your chocolate chip cookie dough or some similar drop cookie and then put it in the fridge overnight. Now, if I mixed up a cornbread batter and put it in the fridge overnight, in the morning it would be dead flat. I would get no rise out of it. It would be terrible. The cookies work, so where’s the acid how come you can leave it overnight?

Michael: Well, brown sugar is acidic.

Nathan: That is what we eventually figured out. It’s the brown sugar is the only acidic thing that is part of the mix. And then when — if you cream it, which all — essentially all recipes have you creaming it — you coat the brown sugar with butter so most of that brown sugar in the fridge is going to sit there and it won’t react with anything. It’s hermetically sealed. You put it in little fat packages, right? For industrial baking, they make a delayed release baking powder and weirdly that’s what this is! It’s delayed release. So, keep it overnight in the fridge. As soon as the butter melts, of course, the sugar will also dissolve right away ’cause sugar loves to dissolve in water if it’s hot. Then that reacts with the baking soda, and that’s where you get the residual bubbles forming, right?

Michael: And you can use double-acting baking powder as well.

Nathan: Yeah, so there are single- and double- acting things — we’re trying to explain all of that in the the pastry book, but that has brought up another interesting question which we’ve been wondering about. We have some preliminary ideas. How come there’s so many recipes that use both? They have both soda and powder, and a little bit, you say. Well, is that belt and suspenders? Is that because you don’t trust one or the other? Or, is it because you very carefully figured out… “I want a certain amount of bubbles at the very beginning and then I want a second wind of bubbles later.” What do you think?

Michael: Well, maybe you want more browning.

Nathan: And that’s the other reason would be for more browning. And I don’t think there is actually a good answer to this. I think there probably are some recipes where it’s deliberate for more browning and it was a conscious choice. Probably very few, because almost no one says that in their books. There’s probably some where we don’t know why, but it works best this way, right? That’s — there’s a lot of things in cooking like that, and then there’s a lot of people that probably don’t care about the browning, but they are working off of an earlier recipe that had it, so they’re going to have it.

Michael: So, let me ask you a question that that just brought up, so crème pâtissière originally used flour because that’s what they had. And now we mostly use corn starch but you still see recipes are, like, half flour and half cornstarch. So, why?

Nathan: I don’t get that. I mean, it — the problem — corn starch is easier to cook the starch, and if you don’t cook it completely it’s less objectionable than wheat flour. Wheat flour isn’t a good source of it. And then, these days you have to worry a little bit about gluten-free — at least in many contexts you do. Well, not if you use corn starch. So, corn starch is a perfectly good ingredient. Why on Earth would you mix it 50/50? I have no idea.

Michael: Okay; yeah. I don’t know why either. But people —

Nathan: Now I also am not sure why pastry cream is used as much as it is. In particular, it’s hard to make a pastry cream that is freeze/thaw stable. And yet, lots of modern professional pastry practice is frozen. Small artisanal bakeries — they love freezing their stuff. I was Italy and I went to this very top baker — he had been introduced by some mutual friends — they said I was working on a pastry book — and one of the things I asked this guy is what was his favorite piece of equipment, and he proudly brings me over to his new blast chiller he says, “This! This blast chiller!” I said, “A blast chiller?” He says, “Well, without this I couldn’t have my shop.” He says, “If I couldn’t make a big batch and freeze things and I had to make everything every day I’d have to have too much staff. It would never work.”

So, anyway, that that’s one where there’s a lot of things in pastry creams and fillings — we’re currently working on this — where there’s so many different variations often things that have almost the same name.

Michael: Yeah, it’s like a mother sauce.

Nathan: It’s exactly like that!”

Michael: There’s crème légère, there’s crème mousseline…. I mean there’s — so many things that that you make with it.

Nathan: Chiboust.

Michael: Right.

Nathan: And they’re all some mixture of different stuff. And, okay, you can make a recipe for that. The interesting thing is if you care about making it vegan or then all of a sudden, this whole bunch of things all collapse to almost the same thing — because you can’t use the eggs, and the eggs, it turns out, … that’s the one thing that you can’t…. If you really wanted to get the custard flavor you get in crème Anglaise — or any of the other things that are built on crème Anglaise — or a French buttercream, for example, you can’t get that egg custard flavor hardly any way that we can figure out. You can get stuff that has good texture and is delicious. Is that the same thing or is it not the same thing?

Michael: Yeah

Nathan: There’s a claim that we’re investigating because we do a lot of historical investigation that — the earliest recipes for chocolate mousse called it “mayonnaise de chocolat” — chocolate mayonnaise!

Michael: So, you are starting with a pâte à bombe?

Nathan: Right. Yeah. And then it today a chocolate mousse could be this wide range of things. There’s recipes that only use cream. Well, is that a whipped ganache?

Michael: Yes!

Nathan: I mean, yeah right, and then there’s this stuff that Valrhona likes to push called namelaka, which is a ganache that has gelatin in it. And I was talking to one kind-of old school guy who says, “well if your ganach needs gelatin you didn’t add enough chocolate.” I said, “Okay, how do you make your chocolate mousse?” And he says, “Oh, well….” Because of course for chocolate mousse you don’t just increase the amount of chocolate typically you you’re going to add something to make it stiffer. You either add an egg-white based meringue or you add gelatin.

Michael: So, it seems like “ganache monté,” what you’re talking about, … it seems pretty stable.

Nathan: Oh it is, So there also is not that much re –the other interesting question is: is there a reason to do some of the things that you do? So, in meringues, we’ve been working on them, and, of course, there’s the classic Swiss, French, and Italian meringues, which are, of course, all incorrectly named. The Italian meringue was invented by a Frenchman in France, but there’s all of this mythology about which is the best one and a lot of people swear by an Italian meringue. And I think they swear by an Italian mering because it’s the hardest one to make. It’s, I mean, there’s not a single test in which it’s better.

Michael: So, I have to admit it’s kind-of my go-to as well, and it’s definitely a lot harder than a Swiss meringue to kind of get the timing, but I also assumed that it was more stable than a Swiss meringue. But if that’s not true, okay… well, I have learned something; so thank you!

Nathan: It’s not more stable, it doesn’t have more overrun in it. There’s nothing about it that’s better. The highest overrun that we’ve gotten is with a French meringue, but it isn’t very stable, and all high overrun meringues are not very stable. It also turns out there’s a difference between making a high-overrun meringue versus having a high overrun buttercream or some other thing for which the meringue is a piece-part. You can have a very-high-overrun meringue that if you then mix in other things with it you collapse it. And so, you actually get a better result if you have a medium-overrun meringue, but one that’s more resilient. But anyway, we couldn’t get a single Italian meringue to beat either a French or a Swiss.

Michael: Do you cook your Swiss to 160°F?

Nathan: [Laughs]. That’s another thing is what temperature should you cook your Swiss meringue to? So, we did a whole bunch of studies, and where we’ve netted out at the moment is 70°C (158°F) Okay. So, 70°C is hot enough that it cooks the egg and is much better than lower — the lower temperatures only have the advantage that they make sure that you’re not gritty because you really dissolved your sugar.

Michael: Right.

Nathan: 84°C is more stable, but 84°C — particularly when when you’re whipping it when it’s fresh — you can smell cooked egg. So, I I call that a flaw, so it’s probably better net-net to go to a a lower temperature. It’s slightly less stable, but then there’s other things you can add to it to make it more stable. And so, that’s the direction that we think is the better approach. But, oh my God, there is such a large variety of different recommendations of temperature for Swiss meringue, and essentially every source is unequivocal. “This way is the right way!” That’s the part I love about it. If they said, “Chefs have a big difference of opinion — you could do a variety of things….” Nope. They’re all certain and they’re all different, so they can’t all be right.

Michael: Yeah, I mean, I could see if it was this temperature for this amount of time for food safety. you have to have at least this many minutes.

Nathan: Oh, but there’s lots of people that bring it up to 50… 45 or 50°C (113°F-122°F). Okay, they’re bringing up to something less hot than their tap water.

Michael: I’ve seen that as well. And I mean — I’ve seen really low temperatures in respected books where–

Nathan: Yes, absolutely! So, I don’t think there’s… the low temperatures… I think, I mean… operatively, the only thing that they’re doing with the low temperature is they’re making sure the sugar melted. Okay? Which, like… in our book we’re going to not recommend American buttercream.

Michael: Thank you!

Nathan: Just straight up it it’s just it’s a terrible idea it’s always [bleep] gritty. I don’t care — even powdered sugar is gritty.

Michael: And super sweet.

Nathan: And way too sweet, because you’re using — the one that’s even worse than American buttercream is cream cheese frosting, because there the only way you get the texture is by beating in more sugar. And it becomes overwhelmingly sweet, which then makes the cake taste less sweet, which, anyway, …. And some of this is, of course, personal taste.

But, so, we have some syrup-based things that are sort-of American buttercreams. There’s no eggs in them, anyway. And those can work fine. You just have to make sure that you dissolved all your sugar and once you’ve dissolved all your sugar, well, great: that works well. We won’t recommend that. We’re not going to recommend Italian. We say, look: you can make it. We might even tell you how to make it. But there’s so many ways that it can go wrong, particularly for a inexperienced chef. So, if someone is very experienced, fine. If you want to keep making it, I’m not going to tell you shouldn’t make it. But you don’t get any bang for your buck. It’s better to take that extra five or ten minutes and do something else with it.

Michael: So let me ask you a question, and the only reason I would ever recommend American buttercream is if you’re piping roses or something where you want it really stiff, and I think the corn starch in there is also helping with that. So, do you have a recommendation for: if you’re doing that kind of décor of a buttercream.

Nathan: So, the extreme version of that is something called Korean buttercream. Have you encountered this?

Michael: No.

Nathan: So, there’s a Korean woman who runs a cake shop called “G.G. Cakraft,” and, oh my God, does she make the most beautiful buttercream flowers on Earth. And she has a recipe for a what she calls Korean buttercream which — it’s a very involved recipe that is way more complicated than it needs to be. Because what she does is she makes an Italian meringue then she beats it with the butter then she keeps beating it until the the thing totally breaks.

And what she winds up with is basically a buttercream that has no bubbles in it at all. And as a result, it’s translucent, and it actually looks really good. So, she’s got a a recipe that produces her desired result, and oh my God — you should look it up. Now, our book is not going to go into how to make flowers like that, but if you’re making flowers, then, yes: you want a stiff one. And, yeah, we’ll have a bunch of recommendations including, I think, there’s a way to achieve her level of of both stiffness and translucency in a much easier recipe.

Michael: Yeah, that would be great because that’s, like I said, one area where — I mean, no one wants to eat those, right? But if you’re doing that kind of décor, it’d be nice to have something that tastes good. And–

Nathan: In my personal view, buttercream flowers are okay. If you go to gumpaste, I’m out of — okay that’s not even edible. It’s, “No.” I… we’re… that that’s going a little bit too far. But it’s also possible to make buttercream flowers, particularly with these Russian tips that have the super pattern tips. You can do them very fast, and I think that’s a perfectly reasonable thing for people to do, so we’re into — I think it’s very important to try to tell people how to make a very professional-looking dessert.

It’s an important part of how people perceive the dessert, so I think it’s important up to a point, but at a point where it becomes sculpture, not something to eat, that’s — and there’s better books on that than I can do, so that’s not that’s not what would make sense for me to do anyway.

Michael: Yeah, and things have changed a lot. I was talking with Ewald Notter a while back — who is one of the most talented pastry chefs I know of in the world — just about how his philosophy has changed over the years and what he’s doing now in terms of décor and simplification and all this stuff that is — I mean, cooking — there’s been a lot of transformation as well, just in terms of presentation. But, yeah, I agree. I think that there’s good tasting food — hopefully with pastry…. It’s a little hard to make things that are super nutritious, right?

Nathan: [Laughs] But, well “overly nutritious, actually….” But look, appearance is absolutely part of it, and so, we’re definitely going to try to have a very high standard in what we promote in the book — what we tell people how to do: a modern French technique. Cedric Grolet, for example, … that’s also very beautiful. And that’s very beautiful typically in a sense of: it will have piping, right? And it won’t be as complicated as these flowers that this woman [makes] — and there’s lots of other talented buttercream artists around the world… I don’t mean it’s only this woman (that happens to be one of the really most extreme ones) — but it still requires great precision, and you can learn to do it, but — and once you learn to do it you can crank it out relatively quickly.

So, it’s not a terribly impractical thing, but it’s an example of something where the simpler it is, actually, the harder it is. Doing something that is very minimalist and looks perfect is actually harder than doing something that’s kind of busy. And so, that’s another factor that you have to put in. So, we’re going to cover sprayed chocolate and…

Michael: cocoa butter?

Nathan: Yeah, cocoa butter. And basically, the pourover glazes — mirror glazes — because, okay you have to make this stuff… but once you’ve made it, it’s pretty easy to do, and it really looks great when you do it, so you can get a really nice — you pour a ganache over or you have a gel that’s poured over, and if you do it right it’s great, and it’s not super picky where you have to learn. The main thing about these butter cream flowers is, I think, almost anyone could do a moderately good job of it after 100 pounds of butter that you went and piped — obviously made into the frosting and everything else.

You will learn a lot, but it requires that enormous amount of practice. And I think that’s also something that I we try to preach a lot in our books — particularly for home chefs. Home chefs often put themselves at a big disadvantage by trying a big complicated recipe for the first time in a high-stress situation: their mother-in-law is coming over, their boss is coming over — when people that I know ask me for recipes for the holidays like for Thanksgiving, I always say, “I will only give you a recipe if you promise to make it once first before Thanksgiving.” And they’ll say, “Well, why do I need to do that?” It’s like — but then the same people will tend, if it doesn’t turn out well, they’ll say, “Oh, well, mine wasn’t as good as in the restaurant.” And every time someone says that to me I say, “Do you think it was their first time in the restaurant?”

Michael: Right!

Nathan: Do you really think it was the first time they made that dish?

Michael: So, I wanted to ask you… you talk about mirror glazes so, to me, mirror glazes fall in the category of gumpaste in terms of being kind of terrible [to eat]. I mean, a chocolate glaze is a different story.

Nathan: A chocolate one is, well if it’s a gel… it depends. I would agree with you on some that are too — it comes down two things. If it doesn’t eat well, I’m not that interested. Okay, so I don’t have any interest in blown sugar work. I respect the people that do it. I know people — I know Dale Chihuly, who’s a glass artist, and this is — it’s highly related. But, blown sugar isn’t something that our books are going to focus on because it’s not about something you actually eat.

Michael: Are you talking about sugar or isolmalt?

Nathan: Well, okay. Usually blown sugar means isolmast.

Michael: I mean, I know people who actually work with sugar. It’s a lot harder, but you can eat it.

Nathan: Well, it — you can eat the isolmalt also.

Michael: Well, I mean, you can eat it. And it doesn’t cause tooth decay, so there’s a benefit.

Nathan: There is, and it’s not as as overwhelmingly sweet. But blown sugar pieces are meant to be a sculpture. It’s like an ice sculpture. No one makes it sculpture to actually cool something down.
They’re beautiful, and it’s a craft that I would respect, but that’s not what my books are about. There’s a woman named Amber Spiegel. I don’t know her, but I’ve got her books. She paints cookies, so they’re they’re generally large, shortbread-style cookies, and she makes the most amazing decorations on them.

But for me, that’s a form of art. That isn’t about the cookie. She’s using fondant or royal icing or something like that to do the the stuff. It’s not particularly delicious — the cookies: not particularly delicious, and there’s also something about the ratio of the amount of time you put into it to how long the person enjoys it. If you decorate a cake and the cake is going to wind up serving a dozen people, well. okay… you can afford to put some time into something that is going to serve a dozen people.

You can afford to put something time a single person. If you’re making a cookie that you have this insane amount of decoration on, that’s great as part of the decor for a lunch at a fancy wedding that’s what I think the people who wind up using it, but that isn’t something that’s made primarily for how great it tastes.

Michael: Right, yeah, and fondant… I mean, if it’s a wedding cake I especially if you make your own fondant — which tastes so much better than the commercial fondant — but, yeah: I agree that also falls in the category…. I mean, royal icing — if it’s a thin layer on a cookie and it’s for holidays or something. I don’t mind that so much.

Nathan: I’m not objecting — we we’re going to cover that in the book because, yeah, for Christmas cookies and for a whole bunch of other stuff it makes sense. But if you’re doing an incredible amount of work with it, that’s okay, but that’s an arts and crafts project that’s quite separate from how to make the most delicious cookie, which is more what I’m focused on right now.

And also, maybe, it’s because in a book format it’s also much easier to teach how to make a delicious cookie because it will… well, it goes down to things — there’s a hand-eye coordination thing that comes with drawing and calligraphy and piping and so forth, which is largely about doing a bunch of exercises to develop your hand-eye coordination, and that’s something that I think is much more effectively taught if you can either watch someone in a video or even better, have an instructor and then be willing to put in the practice of making it a lot.

My bread book weighs 50 pounds, and there’s an interesting question: what’s more important for someone… my bread book or 50 pound sack of flour? Because if you took a 50 pound sack of flour and you bake the whole thing into bread, you would gain a lot of experience in the bread that you made.

Michael: Although I mean that that reminds me of the “A picture’s worth a thousand words,” right? And back in the day, I worked at Apple, and one of the things that we used to say is, “Sometimes a word is worth a thousand pictures.”

Nathan: Yes, right.

Michael: So, a little bit of instruction can sometimes go a really long way. You can go through 50 pounds of flour making the same mistake and someone going, “Oh, if you just do this, that will save you a lot of headache.

Nathan: You’re totally right, and that’s why the real thing is if I really thought my book was less valuable than a 50 pound sack of flour, I wouldn’t have bought it — or, wouldn’t have, excuse me, wouldn’t have written it because I wouldn’t expect anyone to buy it. So, you need both. But things that involve hand-eye coordination like drawing, sketching, painting, and making high-end pastry decoration, I think, falls into that category.

It’s all about learning how you squeeze the bag about how you lift the tip up, about a whole lot of things that you need someone to tell you. I’m not saying you should just learn it only through experience. But someone telling you repeatedly and your doing it repeatedly — somewhere in there it’s going to click. It’s — you couldn’t teach someone how to ride a bicycle from a book. You might give some good tips, but they need — you need to get on there and you need to experience your balance organs and everything else, figuring out how it’s done.

Michael: Yeah. Another thing you brought up earlier, which I think is super important, is that people making a recipe for the first time — especially if it’s a complicated one under this high-pressure situation (and even if it’s not high-pressure) — and I think part of the problem, especially today with the Internet and the millions of recipes and all this stuff — is that people aren’t taking the time to do one thing over and over and really get it down.

Nathan: That’s right.

Michael: So, our grandparents would make 40 or 50 recipes over and over and over, and it was second-nature. And people now are like, “Oh, I want to try this, and I want to try this, and they don’t do one thing enough times to really understand it and figure out how to be successful with it.

Nathan: Oh, I think that’s right it — after we wrote the Bread book, we had a lot of people telling us both in writing in or people that… when I would give a talk, would come and they would say, “Oh, this…” — “I’m scared of bread.” or, “I’m intimidated of bread.” And so, I say, “Well, what are you afraid of?” “Well there’s proof… there’s all these things could go wrong…” Yeah is it — flour’s about the cheapest ingredient you could possibly have.

And, by the way, even when it goes wrong, your family will probably still eat it and enjoy it. You have to get over that threshold. I can understand if someone was using caviar for the first time they might be nervous. But for a lot of these things you need to both have the correct set of instructions and you need to gain your experience and confidence through experience. And it’s that combination that makes someone a really good cook.

Michael: Yeah I’m not going to put this in the podcast, but — [deleted clip]

Nathan, laughing: Yes! Exactly. No, that… pizza is another thing. Pizza is a great example of a food that everyone eats, and very few people make. And yet there’s no particular reason why they should be intimidated by it. And as you say, even when it’s bad it might be better than your local pizza place or frozen, if that’s the alternative and so forth. So, yeah, of course you should go do it.

Michael: And if you do it and do it several times, you’ll figure it out.

Nathan: You will.

Michael: And it won’t be intimidating anymore. And even if you mess up a little bit, it’s still probably just fine. People tend to be a lot more critical of their own stuff than the people eating it.

Nathan: That’s right.

Michael: Especially if you’ve taken the time to make something for someone. That’s that’s a giving act, right?

So I wanted to talk a little bit about sustainability. I know that’s important to to both of us, and so, I I wonder if you would just take a minute and talk kind of about how food science and what we’re learning and and the stuff that you’re doing is important in terms of food deserts and sustainability and agriculture and some of these other important areas — particularly when it’s access to food or access to to good food for people.

Nathan: Well, it’s a very important issue. It’s really more than one issue… it’s a variety of things that are all linked together. On one hand, the way that we — our food system is one of the biggest impacts we have in the world’s environment. Millions more acres are devoted to agriculture than any other single thing we have. Oh, a city certainly impacts the environment, but there’s a lot more Farms than our cities because you got to feed the people that that live in the cities.

And a lot of our agricultural practices have environmental consequences. And over the time, we’ve learned and we’ve improved them, but there’s a lot more improvement that can be made. That’s sort of one thrust — some forms of agriculture are way more impactful in the environment than others. Beef is particularly delicious, but it’s also particularly impactful in terms of the total amount of CO2 that’s emitted and things of that sort.

Michael: Methane.

Nathan: Yeah, methane is bad. There’s almost –any other meat is better. It’s interesting that China is the largest group of people in the world that aren’t obligate beef feeders. Not that everyone else is obligated to be a beef-eater, but beef is more popular than pork in most parts of the world — not in China. And that’s probably good for the world. It’s an overall statement — if they needed as many cows as they have pigs that would be even more difficult, and fortunately chicken is one of the better things environmentally, and it’s that classic, “Everyone likes chicken” thing.

But another aspect of sustainability is, “Is it sustainable for the for the customers? Is it good for them in the long run?” That’s a little bit of a different issue, which is often — masquerades as sustainability. I like to say that writing pastry books for me would not be sustainable because I can’t taste buttercreams and cakes and everything else all day every day forever, for the rest of my life. Or maybe I could, but the rest of my life might come shorter than I would like.

But at the same time, I don’t want to “dis” pastry for saying, “Oh, pastry is bad, and it’s bad for you, and we shouldn’t eat it, because it is a joy in life for lots of people. And in moderation, I think you can make the argument that it’s still good to have the thing. Then, if you’re going to eat it — if you’re going to spend the calories or spend the refined sugars or whatever the thing that you’re worried about is — well, then, it should be really high quality. It really should be delicious. You should get that enjoyment out. The worst of all worlds is bad-quality food you don’t get much enjoyment out of.

Michael: Yeah, and there’s so many things in — I mean, when we’re talking about health and nutrition and epidemiology, where people are so focused on: “This is good, and this is bad.” And there’s so much stress involved in that, and in the trying to stick to — compliance with a particular diet — that I I believe that it’s actually healthier to have some of those things once in a while and, yeah, the the impact of that [lack of] stress — it probably lengthens your life more than any adverse effect effects of the food would shorten it.

Nathan: Well, you’ve hit on something that’s a big principle for me, which is a diet you can’t stick to does you no good. Okay, there’s lots of diets where people say, “This diet is magic, and it’s great for whatever ails you.” Or for a specific thing, but if you can’t stick to it, it doesn’t matter — just straight up, it doesn’t matter. So, you have to find something that will work for you and a diet that you can’t stick to that is not sustainable by — that’s a different definition of sustainability, but I — it is almost certainly better to have something where you can occasionally cheat if that’s — if those foods are important to you — then trying to be a purist, right? Nutrition is another aspect of it. We’ve gone from a society where nutrition meant: Do you have enough calories? Are you going to starve to death?

And there are, sadly, there’s still parts of the world where people do starve to death. Meanwhile, the developed world… we, not only do we fix that problem, we fixed it so thoroughly that now we eat ourselves to death instead. And that means we’ve actually strangely — we’ve redefined nutrition as — I sort of made a joke about this earlier… people will make an argument that a pastry made with white flour and lots of sugar and butter fat has no nutrition, because they’re thinking of nutrition in terms of a different word than the word traditionally means…. that, in fact, fattening foods are full of calories.

That is what the scientific definition of nutrition is. Or, it includes that anyway. Yes, you need vitamins and minerals, but you have lots of people who are worried about choices they make on the basis of their vitamins and minerals when in fact, it’s not relevant for them or their lifestyle because they’re not in any danger of getting scurvy or beriberi or a whole set of other things. They’re eating a diverse diet, and that diverse diet almost ensures that’s the case they’re — and if they did worry, take a multivitamin.

The place where you have to worry about minerals and vitamins, in general — there’s always extreme cases, of course. But in general, is places where you have an impoverished society that only has access to a very small number of food sources — or some times of times of year of only a small amount and those resources are deficient. So, if you live in an area where you don’t get enough iodine, which is typical of places are far from the sea, and you’re impoverished, it’s very likely that your kids will not get enough iodine when they’re growing to get normal brain development.

That’s terrible! And it’s easy to deal with with iodized salt. But iodized salt hasn’t made it everywhere, and there’s programs…. My friend Bill Gates has, of course, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and they do lots of important nutrition work around the world where for those people nutritions is either getting enough calories, getting it reliably, or correcting a huge deficiency that they have because they have a very restricted diet.

Michael: have you read this —

Nathan: That’s a very it’s a different nutrition problem than you find in the U.S. It’s a completely different problem, even though the same word is used. Sorry, I talked over you.

Michael: No… I I think I talked over you. Have you read this book, Eat Like the Animals?

Nathan: I have not. I will look it up.

Michael: It’s a super interesting book. It’s written by a couple of entomologist, and they started by studying locusts and how locusts eat. And their — if I remember right, it’s a 2:1 ratio of protein to carbohydrates. And they will eat foods instinctively to get that ratio, and so they started doing more and more studies with other insects and then with mice as well and they found that everything that they’ve studied has — with humans, it’s — the things that that drive how we eat are carbohydrates, proteins, fats, salt, and calcium.

And so, we naturally eat foods we have an appetite so that we get this…. I remember Christopher Gardner talking about the — it’s like 15 – 18% that, whatever diet people have, they always end up with this amount of protein in their diet, just kind of naturally. And it goes back to to this idea that that in this book about how we’re kind-of driven because we have taste receptors in our stomachs and nutrition — and there’s so much going on now with the microbiome and the links to how that affects obesity and all these other things…. Yeah, I mean, it’s fascinating.

And so people who are in these communities that don’t have access to these things will tend to — because your appetite is driven primarily by protein — you’re going to eat things to get enough of that protein first, and if that means you’re overeating carbohydrates in order to get that, then you’re going to have a lot more of that that you need. It’s super interesting. I’ll send you a link.

Nathan: Yeah, send me a link. I will definitely take a look. The problem with — there’s a whole class of ideas like this that I am familiar with, and the problem is — there’s two arguments. One is the argument is, “Hey — our taste — the things we find delicious, we find delicious for a reason.” And that’s because the things we need to eat.

And that’s the flip side is: There are things that used to be very rare for us that we’ve managed to make common. So, getting something that was really sweet — as sweet as a typical dessert would be — it traditionally in a normal ecosystem, you only get that every now and then when fruit is ripe. And so, it’s highly seasonal. You might gorge on it then. But the rest of the year you’re not getting it. And we said, “Oh, well, hey… we can fix that.

And then, “Oh, well, you don’t like fruit flavors? No problem! We’ll grow sugar cane or beets, and we’ll extract the sugar from it, and we won’t have any of the other flavor. We’ll just get the pure sucrose, and we did a brilliant job of doing it. So then, the question is: Was that a good example of us following our instincts or do we over-follow our instincts, and now create something that — for our desire to eat sweet things — that was very adaptive in a traditional environment, isn’t adaptive now. So they’re telling me that my my next thing is coming, so we’re going to have to wrap up.

Michael: All right. Well, this has been amazing conversation. I super appreciate your time. I I love this, and I I learned some stuff today, so that’s always great for me.

Nathan: Oh, I enjoyed this also. It’s great talking to someone who actually understands the issues so it’s been fun for me too.

Michael: All right; well, thank you, Nathan. Have a great rest of your day!

Nathan: Okay, great! All right….

Michael: Bye, bye…!


Nathan Myhrvold

Modernist Cuisine

Dr. Nathan Myhrvold is the founder of Modernist Cuisine and lead author of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, Modernist Cuisine at Home, The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, Modernist Bread, Modernist Pizza, Food & Drink: Modernist Cuisine Photography, and his newest release, Modernist Bread at Home. Nathan routinely pushes the boundaries of culinary science as a chef, scientist, and photographer. The former chief technology officer of Microsoft holds several degrees, including a doctorate in theoretical and mathematical physics, two master’s degrees, and a culinary diploma from École de Cuisine La Varenne. After retiring from Microsoft in 1999, Myhrvold founded Intellectual Ventures, where he is currently CEO, and focused more time on the pursuit of several lifelong interests, such as cooking and photography. Inspired by the void in literature about the cutting-edge techniques used in the world’s best restaurants, he assembled the Modernist Cuisine team to share the beauty and science of cooking with others. The team’s self-published books have captivated readers and garnered awards around the world. In 2017 he opened Modernist Cuisine Gallery, which has locations in New Orleans and La Jolla.