"Modernist Cuisine," Myhrvold, Young, and Bilet

Pros: Stunning collection of information, techniques, diagrams, photos, tables, recipes, and more!
Cons: Very expensive; many of the recipes and techniques also require expensive, difficult-to-obtain, or space-hogging items or ingredients; complex techniques and recipes are not for the casual cook!
Rating: 5 out of 5

NOTE: The folks involved with Modernist Cuisine were kind enough to give me temporary online access to the set for review purposes. If I (hopefully!) end up eventually picking up a physical copy, I’ll try to come back and comment on the physical quality and characteristics of the books as well. For now, I’ll just point out that according to Amazon, this set spans nearly 2500 pages and has a shipping weight of 50 pounds! Also, since the set is so large and expensive, you’ll have to put up with a longer-than-usual review!

 

Most magazines reviewing Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet) will undoubtedly review it as a curiosity, as a coffee table set, or as a guide for culinary professionals and would-be professionals. I wanted to tackle it from a different direction: at what level might it be worth buying for a non-professional cooking enthusiast/hobbyist? Or would it at all?


 

I love to cook. (Seriously. My husband and I have a whole room full of cookbooks and cookware.) We’ve made everything from puff pastry from scratch to puddings that use chia seeds as thickener. Like many of today’s “cooking nerds,” we’re fond of exploring the more scientific side of cooking—it started with Alton Brown’s wacky “Good Eats” TV show of course, and then to Shirley Corriher’s fantastic Cookwise. I still remember watching the Good Eats episode on making perfect fluffy biscuits, then immediately going to the kitchen and making a batch of the same—until Alton explained all the variables, we had no idea why our biscuits kept coming out dense and flat, but after that they always came out perfectly. Science-based shows and books can take your cooking from good to great by helping you to understand exactly what each step of the cooking process does. The afore-mentioned show and book are strictly aimed at the home cook, however, and don’t dive into the heady world of professional-level high-tech cooking.

You’ll find some seriously weird stuff in Modernist Cuisine. Liquid nitrogen is used to achieve the perfect crackling pork loin skin while allowing the meat to remain tender and juicy. Sous vide bath equipment cooks both meat and vegetables through so that the same temperature and doneness occurs throughout the ingredient—you don’t end up with either an undercooked inside or an overcooked outside. (I’ll come back to the sous vide method in a moment.) A siphon with an injection attachment is used to delicately fill chestnut puffs with chestnut cream.

There’s plenty of information, however, on other methods of cooking. Not sure how to get the most out of your grill? It’s hard to imagine getting it wrong after reading all the information on heat, how it circulates, how to control it, how to best apply it to your food, and so on. The authors strip away the mystique and folklore of what type of grill or coal is best, answering those questions in very factual terms. To make things even more interesting and easy to understand, the book is filled with diagrams, amazing full-color cutaway demonstration photos, charts, graphs, and everything else you need to truly understand the point. I absolutely love the informational material in here; I thought I’d learned a lot about meat in The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat, but Modernist Cuisine goes even deeper beneath the surface, explaining exactly what makes a cut of meat tender, tough, or somewhere in between. You’ll also learn some rather unexpected differences between roasting and baking (hint: most of what we call roasting is really baking) as well as braising and stewing. This might sound like trivia, but all of it contributes your ability to determine exactly what effect you want to create with your finished dish.

 

The authors make extensive use of the sous vide method of cooking, so I feel it deserves a note of its own. In sous vide cooking, you generally place ingredients in a heavy-duty bag, vacuum-seal it, and place it in a constant-temperature warm water bath until the ingredients reach the desired internal temperature. Then you can finish the ingredients in any way you like—for example, you might finish a piece of salmon on the stove with butter and seasonings; it takes almost no time, so while it does contribute color and flavor, it doesn’t dry out the salmon. Now, most people think of sous vide cooking as requiring a specialized machine to keep the water at a constant temperature and to keep water circulating. Not to mention a vacuum-sealer to seal in the ingredients. However, in some cases it is possible to do sous vide with ordinary household equipment. In fact, here’s a set of instructions from Maxime Bilet on preparing salmon at home. Watch the video—the process is so simple that there isn’t much to memorize.

We picked up two slices of salmon. We planned to cook one via the method in the video, and the other simply on a pan on the top of the stove. The top photo below is of the sous vide salmon; the lower one is of the pan-cooked salmon. Please forgive the fact that I am far from being a food photographer:

Sous Vide Salmon

Sous Vide Salmon

Pan-cooked salmon

Pan-cooked salmon

There wasn’t a huge difference between the two, visually speaking. The pan-cooked one had more of the blackened look to it, but honestly a slightly higher temp would have achieved the same thing with the sous vide salmon. Our expectation was that it might make a small difference when eating—say, that last 2% of awesomeness—but that it wouldn’t be a big deal.

We were wrong.

The difference between the two cuts was immediately noticeable. While the inside of the pan-cooked salmon was perfect, the outside, particularly on the thinner part, was dry and clearly overcooked. The sous vide salmon was buttery and succulent throughout. It also tasted… it’s hard to explain, but both my husband and I ended up saying that it tasted “more like salmon.” It was a ‘purer’ flavor.

One of the other things we played around with from the cookbook was pork with a caramelized apple sauce. We didn’t end up making the whole-nine-yards plated dish (no liquid nitrogen on hand, for one thing!) but it was easy to isolate elements of the recipe that we could use with what we had. Once again we made it once using the sous vide method (for both the pork and the apples), and once wholly pan-cooking. Once again the purity and complexity of the flavors, as well as the tenderness of the meat, blew us away. The pork actually tasted as good as steak to me, and that’s high praise.

 

So, to sum up what we’ve found so far: the recipes are scrumptious, and even when they involve odd equipment, you can either improvise (try this article on cooking sous vide in a beer cooler!) or extract pieces of the recipe that you can use regardless. The informational material is fascinating (if not as funny as Alton) and useful in understanding your food well enough to achieved the results you want. The full-color photos and diagrams are gorgeous, and extremely useful in helping you to understand the concepts.

However, this still doesn’t answer the question: is this set worthwhile for the home enthusiast? My answer is, “yes, if…”

  • Yes, if you aren’t on a tight budget. You aren’t going to be able to get full use of this set without specialized equipment, a lot of free time, and money for ingredients, so I doubt it’s worth the cost if you’re on a tight budget.
  • Yes, if you’re really psyched to read all the informational material. I love that kind of stuff, so I’d happily pay for it if I could afford it. Folks who mostly want to dive straight into techniques and recipes are less likely to find enough here to justify the expense.
  • Yes, if you can justify the expense for something that might end up becoming a really expensive coffee table book.
  • Yes, if you absolutely love cooking and it’s more than just a passing fancy for you.

If I didn’t have to worry about the price I’d pick this set up in a heartbeat. As it is, I expect I’ll splurge on it as a joint gift for myself and my husband on the occasion of a major celebration somewhere down the line. You’ll have to weigh the above pros and cons versus your own budget to determine where that line lies for you; hopefully I’ve provided enough material here that you’ll have a better idea of whether it would be worth that expense.

 

I’d like to thank the following for providing personal thoughts as well as helpful links regarding the sous vide technique:

You might also be interested in Nathan Myhrvold’s TED talk as well as the official Modernist Cuisine website.

Posted in Cooking, Reviews Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
One comment on “"Modernist Cuisine," Myhrvold, Young, and Bilet
  1. E Mully says:

    Very intriguing stuff, but you are right…it is very in depth and probably not something everybody can dive into. But there is still some good stuff we can all take from it. Unfortunately, it is probably too expensive to purchase. Thanks for bringing it to our attention though.

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