Kitchen Science

Three times longer than Mastering the Art of French Cooking and as authoritative as an encyclopedia, Modernist Cuisine is destined to become a classic of food geekery.

For the $529 that a copy of Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet will set you back, you could invest in a low-end iPad and load it with some great cooking apps from Martha Stewart or Jamie Oliver. But then, you’d miss out on a magnificent five-volume (plus kitchen manual), 2,438-page work of art full of jaw-dropping photography and comprehensive culinary information that won’t be obsolete in a year or two. The spiral-bound manual, which contains the actual recipes, is possibly the most kitchen-friendly book you’ll ever own. Printed on waterproof, stain- and rip-resistant paper, it could, conceivably, go into the dishwasher. Try that with an iPad!

In truth, the recipes in Modernist Cuisine aren’t anything most of us would actually use to get dinner on the table. But they are useful both as inspiration and as guides, particularly if you’ve embraced sous-vide, a method of  cooking vacuum-sealed food slowly in a water bath. Since our copy arrived earlier this spring, my husband and I have been scouring the book, primarily for information – the hows and whys of combining ingredients – then adding or subtracting heat to achieve something edible, if esoteric. The results are often more complicated than is strictly necessary. British sous-vide wizard Heston Blumenthal’s idea of a perfect hamburger, for example, calls for 30 hours of prep time, plus a bowl of liquid nitrogen. To date, we’ve experimented with techniques but haven’t yet tried any actual recipes (though popcorn seasoned with powdered duck fat is tempting).

Where the book really comes into its own is as an encyclopedia of food knowledge – as my husband describes it, “Harold McGee on steroids.” (The American author has written extensively on the science of food.) There are exhaustive chapters on subjects like food safety and hygiene, the fundamental nature of ingredients such as meats and plants, and the physics behind cooking techniques and tools. I particularly appreciate the over-all organization and indexing of the volumes. The recipes are particularly well-presented, using the principles of baker’s percentages, an invaluable method for scaling recipes in general, and in particular for solving everyday mysteries like just how much salt to add to a given recipe (1 percent by weight is the recommended level).

Modernist Cuisine isn’t encroaching on Best of Bridge territory, and it will never displace Joy of Cooking in anyone’s cookbook collection. And there are critics aplenty. One chef friend of ours argues that the modernist approach to cuisine, with its emphasis on manipulating the molecular structure of food by way of foams, gels and centrifuges, is nothing more than attention-seeking gimmickry. She argues that classic techniques should be enough to satisfy the most discriminating appetite. But humans have always manipulated food, both for palatability and portability, as well as for fun and aesthetic satisfaction. In fact, that propensity to play with food is precisely what makes us human, some anthropologists argue. Modernist cuisine is simply another form of culinary exploration. As Blumenthal asks, “Where do you draw the line? The logical end result of this kind of purist thinking would have us all cooking with sharpened sticks over an open fire!”

While many of the techniques and ingredients in modernist cuisine seem too far-fetched for the home kitchen, inevitably some of the more useful stuff (not to mention the fun stuff) will filter down to the mainstream. For example, Polyscience’s Smoking Gun (a hand-held food smoker) has made the transition from the professional kitchen to home kitchen shops. Agar, a favourite gelling agent among modernist chefs, is a pantry staple for home cooks who prepare gluten-free foods for celiacs.

Evidently there is a healthy, if minuscule, market for this kind of deluxe information. The first print run of 6,000 copies of Modernist Cuisine sold out before the book was shipped. The second printing of 25,000 should be ready for delivery by June and will also likely sell out. Promising as those numbers sound, the extraordinary production values and the sheer volume of the volumes mean that the book is unlikely to be profitable in any conventional sense of the word. Fortunately, Nathan Myhrvold, the team leader behind this project and former Microsoft chief technology officer, can well afford to play both Medici patron and Michelangelo in producing this particular masterpiece.

In short, for food geeks like us, there are far worse ways to invest $529.

 – By Sandra McKenzie

Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Billet, The Cooking Lab, 2011, $529.99



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