Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking
Update: Modernist Cuisine now has a sequel, Modernist Cuisine at Home. You can find a sample chapter here. For the original review of Modernist Cuisine, please scroll below.
by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxine Bilet
The Cooking Lab, 2007
Review by Sarah Einstein
I’m a fan of books that deepen my understanding of how food comes together, rather than simply providing recipes and leaving me to trust in the mysteries of heat and flavor. Apparently, there’s an experiment you can do with slices of American cheese to discover the wavelength of your microwave and a series of procedures for finding the sweet spot on your grill. I’m fascinated by that sort of thing. So I felt thrilled to get a look at Nathan Mhyrvold’s encyclopedic book, Modernist Cuisine, essentially a scientific treatise on the chemistry and physics of cooking.
To geek out fully, I knew I was going to need to be able to cook sous vide: a water-bath method that allows you to cook food to a precise temperature and hold it there for as long as necessary to achieve the exact result you want. So, I bought a Sous Vide Supreme, the first commercially available water oven for home cooks, borrowed a very accurate metric kitchen scale and thermometer from a friend who runs a micro-distillery, and found a place where I could purchase liquid nitrogen. On Top Chef the molecular gastronomists seem to go through a lot of liquid nitrogen. I was, I imagined, on the verge of throwing the best dinner parties.
But here’s the thing: even with the fancy new additions, Modernist Cuisine is not a work that lends itself to the simple appliances in an ordinary home. Almost all of the recipes require ingredients that I wouldn’t have known where to purchase even when I lived in Manhattan and did my grocery shopping at Balducci’s and Gourmet Garage. The sous vide machine did make flank steak that was as tender as filet mignon, perfect soft boiled eggs, and fish cooked exactly to the point of doneness and no more. But I found the times and temperatures for cooking these things from various blogs and recipe websites, not from Modernist Cuisine. In fact, during the three weeks I reviewed the work, the pattern of my days was largely this: find a new recipe for sous vide cooking online, start the protein in the water bath, and then spend three or four hours reading Modernist Cuisine. I used a few components from the recipes offered, but never completed one. I read and reread it, but never really cooked from it.
Here’s one example: I’d wanted to make the egg salad sandwich inspired by Wylie Dufresne, chef-owner of wd-50 in Manhattan and a pioneer of molecular gastronomy. It’s a fascinatingly deconstructed thing, each part of the sandwich greatly altered using the chemicals and techniques of modernist cuisine and then brought back together to make a deceptively simple plate. The photograph of it was beautiful enough to frame and hang in my kitchen. But it required chemicals and tools that couldn’t be obtained locally and wouldn’t arrive, if ordered, for weeks. Had I been able to attempt it, I think it would have been a very Lucille-Ball-at-the-chocolate-factory sort of thing, funny primarily because you, the reader, would know right away it was doomed to failure even if I seemed to think I might be able to pull it off. There would have been sketch-comedy anecdotes about small kitchen explosions and photographs of me in a nineteen-fifties apron holding up a beaker and looking dismayed.
And, for me, that’s the central problem of Modernist Cuisine: the concepts in the book—particularly those about the physics of heat transference and the chemistry of cooking—are surprisingly accessible. But it’s more Eshbach’s Handbook of Engineering Fundamentals than Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I’m a far more knowledgeable cook now that I have read it, but I had to look to other sources for recipes that would let me actually apply this new knowledge in my own kitchen.
Modernist Cuisine is not a cookbook. It’s “a large-scale culinary reference book.” It’s lavishly illustrated, it explains difficult concepts in language that can be understood by a layperson while still retaining the integrity and usefulness of the information, and it’s exhaustive in its scope. If a scaled-down version were offered, one that included the beautiful photography and the exposition but left out the impossible recipes, I’d gladly pay a few hundred dollars for it. But there’s something about these recipes that made me feel like a little kid trying to get the basketball away from a bigger kid who was holding it higher than I could jump. I felt frustrated to learn all this knowledge and then see that I’d never have the equipment, time, or expertise to use it as the book suggests.
Still, dinner tonight will be better than it could ever have been before I read Modernist Cuisine. The duck breasts are in the Sous Vide Supreme as I write; in an hour, I will take them out and crisp the skin in a hot skillet lightly coated with grapeseed oil until the fat is rendered. It’s a technique I would never have tried without Modernist Cuisine, but it’s a recipe I got from Alton Brown’s Food Network blog.