Sorcerer’s Apprentice Hosts a Dinner
By MELISSA CLARK
Published: January 17, 2012
MY friends were perplexed when I invited them over for a dinner party based entirely on recipes from “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking,” the multivolume examination of avant-garde cooking and culinary technology.
“What, did you get a chemistry set for Christmas?” one friend asked.
“Foams and gelées? That’s great, chewing is overrated,” another quipped.
“Is the lab coat optional?” a third put in.
I got the idea after visiting the laboratory in Seattle where Nathan Myhrvold, who wrote the book with Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, poured some of the millions he made as Microsoft’s chief technology officer. There, Mr. Myhrvold and his team minutely analyzed the chemistry of cooking and developed the lavishly illustrated “Modernist Cuisine.”
As the lab’s immersion circulator hummed on the countertop, I nibbled on centrifuged pea-butter crostini and wondered whether any of this scientific research could be of use to home cooks.
Surely, somewhere within the 2,000-odd pages, there must be simple, accessible techniques to make real food taste better — or at least easier to cook.
So I issued Mr. Myhrvold a challenge. Which of his modernist dishes could I whip up for a dinner party without having to buy any new equipment or bizarre ingredients (like low-acyl gellan and sodium tripolyphosphate, which are sprinkled throughout the book’s recipes like so much salt and pepper). Mr. Myhrvold would teach me the dishes, then I would recreate them for my guinea pigs — I mean, party guests.
After establishing that I did not, in fact, own a vacuum sealer or dehydrator, and that liquid nitrogen counted as a bizarre ingredient, Mr. Myrhvold e-mailed a menu that could have been plucked straight out of “The Joy of Cooking”: salmon with spice butter, seared rib steak, winter squash purée, and panna cotta for dessert.
A few weeks later, Mr. Myhrvold, exuberant and ginger-haired with a teddy bear aspect, arrived at my door.
He showed me how to cook the salmon in a fake sous vide by putting it in resealable plastic bags and submerging them in warm tap water. This gave the fish a gorgeous plush texture. He briefly finished it in a pan with the spice butter. It was far superior to the standard sautéing, broiling or roasting, and no more difficult.
Next, we seared a couple of partly frozen rib steaks using a blowtorch — I happened to have one left over from my love affair with crème brûlée — and a cast-iron skillet. (We froze them on a baking sheet to get a flat surface for better browning.)
Once they were browned, we put the still-frozen steaks in a 200-degree oven for an hour. The charring gave them an alluring crust and tasty grilled flavor. The combination of low heat and an icy center left the insides cooked perfectly.
Instead of having the usual chewy gray ring around a bloody rare oval, the steaks were pink from top to bottom. It was a simple but brilliant tweak on the usual technique, one that I plan to pull out again during grilling season, freezing meat before subjecting it to the flames, then letting it gently cook on the cool side of the grill.
Both techniques depart from the fad for cranking a stove to its maximum.
Going low and slow, Mr. Myhrvold said, not only cooks things evenly, it also provides a wider margin of error. If you accidentally leave your salmon in the bag for an extra five minutes while you abide by your hosting duties, nothing will happen. Don’t try that with fish in a skillet.
Lower temperatures also played a role in the side dish, a caramelized delicata squash purée prepared in a pressure cooker.
Normally, a pressure cooker wouldn’t get hot enough to caramelize anything. But, Mr. Myhrvold explained, if you create an alkaline environment with a sprinkle of baking soda, you can caramelize at a lower temperature. And the pressurized environment helps ingredients caramelize through and through, not just around the outside. This gave the squash an intense, nutty flavor, but I thought I needed to enhance it with buckwheat honey and lemon grass.
For the panna cotta, the citric acid, combined with a little balsamic vinegar, set the cream without gelatin or eggs. It created a dreamy soft custard devoid of any bounce. And since you can easily find citric acid in health food stores, it didn’t count as a bizarre ingredient. As an experiment, I used the pressure cooker to caramelize some apples as I did with the squash to put on top of the custard for a juicy contrast.
My experiment showed that once you get beyond the idea that modernist cuisine is all El Bulli foams and spheres, what you’re ultimately working with are good techniques yielding great-tasting food. After all, the cooking techniques we already rely on are based on scientific tenets, whether we understand the science behind them or not.
This said, Mr. Myhrvold did have one El Bulli-worthy dish up his chef’s jacket sleeve: something called apple-infused celery. He squeezes apple juice into celery sticks with a pressurized whipped cream siphon. The pale green sticks look like celery, they crunch like celery, but they taste like apples.
That dish was the only one I wanted to change. It seemed to me that a touch of gin might transform an hors d’oeuvre into a solid aperitif.
The dish got a further makeover by my friend Dave Wondrich, a cocktail historian and the drinks master of the party, who used spicy tomato water and gin to turn the celery into crisp and juicy bloody Marys.
Other than infusing the celery sticks, and a tense moment when my husband upended a bottle of Barolo into the blender to hyper-aerate it (a trick from the book that worked nicely on the very closed, tight wine), all of the modernist techniques happened earlier, offstage. By the time my guests arrived, the kitchen was clean, cool and (despite having seared three steaks and cooked fish) completely odorless.
“Other than the absence of that warm and welcoming, you’ve-spent-all-day-cooking aroma that permeates most dinner parties,” my friend Adam said, “if you hadn’t told us it was a modernist dinner party, I don’t think anyone would have noticed.”
Not everyone at the party agreed. Some complained that the food was almost too perfect, too easily wrought. The drama of the unexpected mishap, usually pulsing tangibly through a dinner party, was lamentably absent.
As my friend Anya put it: “We demand that perfection from a restaurant. But at home? Imperfection can be part of the charm. The anxiety and fear of failure is the human part of the parcel. Do you always want a seamless, perfect first date? A soufflé 100 percent guaranteed to rise?”
I could see her point. But then I remembered when I overcooked the lamb on Christmas Eve, and the time my oven caught fire when I was trying to broil salmon on not-soaked-enough cedar planks. So did I want perfection?
“Actually,” I said, “yes.”
Cook From It? First, Try Lifting It
By MICHAEL RUHLMAN
Published: March 8, 2011
DESCENDING this week on the culinary scene like a meteor, “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking” is the self-published six-volume masterwork from a team led by Nathan Myhrvold, the multimillionaire tech visionary who, as a friend of mine said, “decided to play Renaissance doge with food.”
As scientific as it is gastronomic, it is virtually an encyclopedia of cooking, a visual roller coaster through the world of food and cooking tools, as well as a compendium of 1,500 recipes.
Ultimately, it is a manifesto declaring that the new form of laboratory-inspired cooking — led by Grant Achatz in the United States; Heston Blumenthal in England; and Ferran Adrià, the father of this cuisine, in Spain — is a cultural and artistic movement every bit as definitive as Impressionism in 19th-century France or Bauhaus in early 20th-century Germany. It proclaims a revolution “in techniques, aesthetics and intellectual underpinnings of gastronomy.”
At last we can dispense with ill-fitting terms like “molecular gastronomy” and just call it “modernist cuisine.” Thanks, Dr. Myhrvold.
His vision drove the project, and his involvement has been a cause for healthy skepticism and admiration. No chef could have created it and no publisher would be crazy enough to produce and distribute this 40-pound monster.
We now have a definitive work about this cuisine, how and why it works, and the tools and ingredients it could not do without. What it all means, well, I hope to know one day before I die.
For nearly two weeks I lived with this extensively hyped work — immersion circulators humming on my counters, a pressure cooker hissing, food sealer and grinder hot from use beside them — and I remain frustrated that I lack so many tools and ingredients required to actually use this behemoth.
I was left wondering how a book could be mind-crushingly boring, eye-bulgingly riveting, edifying, infuriating, frustrating, fascinating, all in the same moment. Every time I tore myself away from these stunning pages to emerge for air, I had to shake my head so hard my cheeks made Looney Tunes noises.
This work was composed over several years by a team of dozens of chefs and assistants — led by Chris Young and Maxime Bilet — in an 18,000-square-foot warehouse, the laboratory of Dr. Myhrvold’s company, Intellectual Ventures, including a large machinist area and about 4,000 square feet for the kitchen and photo studio. To do it critical justice would require numerous reviewers, versed in physics, chemistry, microbiology, nutrition, mechanical engineering; a chef who practices this rarefied spectrum of the craft; a traditional chef, and a food journalist.
I’m a member of the last group. I have a culinary education and have worked in and reported from many kitchens; I’ve written about chefs considered the best in modernist cuisine; I’ve written numerous books, many of them referenced in this volume. And still I am not qualified to review every aspect of this encyclopedia.
I will get this out of the way fast. The text, and there is a lot of it, is proficient and as compelling as my high school science textbooks. But artful prose is not the point. While the quantity of aspirin required to read this straight through can be measured in thousands of milligrams, the goal was clarity and thoroughness, and the information is indeed clear, sound and, if anything, too thorough. Buried in the verbiage is a treasure of insights, some truly original, some familiar but described from new and compelling angles. Sometimes overly proud of itself, at other times it is recklessly (and admirably) opinionated.
“Saturated fat isn’t associated with heart disease anywhere, in any large study,” the authors write, and go on to malign high-fiber and low-salt diets for people who are otherwise healthy.
Government suggestions for temperatures at which chicken and pork are safe to eat seem “to have been based not on science but on politics, tradition, and subjective judgment.” There is no single safe temperature that kills salmonella, for instance, but rather times that food must maintain specific temperatures to kill it. The authors provide the time-temperature tables.
Several pages are devoted to how to wash your hands and there is a brief foray into the Timurid dynasty of Central Asia; the book includes the equation required to calculate the radiant heat of a gas grill (which is not nearly as effective as a charcoal grill, it says, explaining why). Not sure how to balance your centrifuge? Look no further. On sous vide equipment, the Pacojet, ultrasonic baths, gelling agents, hydrocolloids and emulsifiers, the text is astonishingly thorough.
There are also some exciting reports from the testing kitchen on what is happening to a roast in the oven as the skin dries out and the water just below the surface hits boiling temperatures; why braised food tastes better the next day and dried beans sometimes never seem to get tender (try cooking them in distilled water); the crucial role of humidity in the oven and its impact on baking; and the real reason to rest meat (because dissolved and degraded proteins thicken the juices, not that the juices redistribute, chefs’ stock answer).
The authors occasionally overreach: shocking vegetables in ice water doesn’t halt the cooking, they announce — which may be true (the core temperature of hot food in an ice bath continues to rise, the book shows), but it’s not a distinction to trumpet, since the authors advise doing it anyway because it “pulls heat away from the surface evenly and with remarkable speed.”
Much of the cooking requires ingredients most people haven’t heard of and equipment few can even afford. A rotary evaporator costs thousands of dollars. A not atypical recipe step reads “Cavitate in an ultrasonic cleaning bath for 30 minutes.”
“Modernist Cuisine” is not for most home cooks. For the professional chef, modernist or not, it will be an invaluable reference. For the cooking geek with $625 to spare ($467.62 online), it will be endless fun. As a physical object it is remarkable; sometimes I found myself simply staring at the block of books.
Dr. Myhrvold, the chief technology officer for Microsoft until 1999, spent millions of dollars (more than one, less than 10, he says) to create this. Nothing seems to have been spared on the quality of the photo reproduction, on heavy stock with solid binding.
The food photography is excellent, but even more compelling are the 36 illustrated photographs using kitchen tools and appliances (a pressure cooker, a wok, a barbecue grill) that have been cut in half using an “abrasive water-jet cutter, an electrical discharge machining system, and other machine-shop tools,” the authors write, to help readers visualize what is happening inside a cooking vessel.
And I hope that much of what they’ve compiled filters down through cookbook publishing and into everyone’s cooking.
All the recipes are in metric weights, the easiest and most exact way of measuring. These recipes are laboratory precise, often measuring ingredients to the 100th of a gram. And — unprecedented outside technical baking books — all ingredients are listed as percentages, to scale them up or down as you need. Recipe formats are likewise innovative and, once you get the hang of them, are efficient and effective. As techniques are described, recipes exemplifying those methods are given, some original, many inspired by chefs as varied as Alice Waters, Tetsuya Wakuda and David Kinch, even some from books I’ve been involved with.
Among those worth the price alone for cooking professionals are the scores of parametric recipes, tables giving recommended times and temperatures for a variety of techniques, everything from how long to sous vide different cuts and thicknesses of meat to how long to microwave various vegetables. The table for custard lets you pick your desired consistency based on what percentage of egg you use and the temperature you cook it to, to create a thick Anglaise-style sauce or a stand-alone custard. I tested it, it’s brilliant, I’ll use it forever.
Cooking sous vide, shorthand for vacuum-sealing food and heating it to precise temperatures well below the boiling point, is a foundation technique of modernist cuisine. I saw not a single recipe involving meat where the meat is not cooked sous vide (other than beer-can chicken, roasted at 175 degrees, which gets a whole page treatment).
The book builds from an overview of food history, microbiology and nutrition in Volume 1; to traditional and modern techniques in Volume 2, the science of cooking meat and plants in Volume 3, and the use of thickeners, gels and foams in Volume 4 (which also has a detailed chapter each on wine and coffee). Volume 5 is devoted to recipes for finished dishes, wherein all these chemicals and tools come together to create elaborate modernist meals.
Since these dishes often require returning to tables in earlier volumes, the authors have included a sixth, spiral-bound kitchen manual on paper that could probably go through a dishwasher cycle no worse for wear, though I found its lack of indexing frustrating. (The index for Volumes 1 through 5, crucial for using this book, is superb.)
What few recipes I could actually cook were mainly solid: sous vide time and temperatures were on the money, the recipes clear. Volume 5 includes fabulous barbecue sauces and dry rubs with no unfamiliar ingredients.
The book’s pressure cooker stocks are a miracle: clear, clean and flavorful in a fraction of the time required for traditional stocks. I’ll never make small batches of stock any other way.
The only cooking discipline they do not cover is pastry (perhaps because you can’t cook a pie crust sous vide).
The progenitors of the cuisine have hailed this work as the most important cookbook since Escoffier’s. “The cookbook to end all cookbooks,” the culinary phenomenon David Chang is quoted as saying in its promotional material.
But can this truly be the food of the future, or simply an interesting style practiced by a splinter group of passionate chefs who care about this difficult and expensive form of high-end cooking? Much of this revolutionary cooking is based on ingredients and techniques long fundamental to the processed food industry. Are we to embrace the ingredients and techniques of modernist cuisine at the very moment industrially processed food is being blamed for many of our national health problems?
I have no desire to make Pringles in my spare time, but I wouldn’t stop anyone who did. Dr. Myhrvold and company tell you how. When I finish work, I relax by cutting and chopping and cooking a simple dinner for the family. Dr. Myhrvold has been relaxing by repairing to a cooking laboratory.
In the end, I can only smile, shake my head and bow to him and his crew for their work of unprecedented scope and ambition.