Few things depress me more than the freakish curiosities of pastry chefs who’ve abandoned familiar forms in a misguided rush for the sublime. Deconstructed this and re-imagined that...Just make a cake and make it delicious. I don’t need to crack open an egg shell (“Oh, look! It’s really the frosting, frozen with liquid nitrogen! And ambergris angel food cake with a colloidal Meyer-lemon center!”) to get genuine, unalloyed pleasure. Keep your modern desserts. I’ve got ice cream and brownies.Yet as hamfisted as some of the executions are, modernist cuisine — what some have dubbed molecular gastronomy — is creeping into wider acceptance, understanding, and successful use. Even by home cooks. And so I’ve been boning up on modernist cooking. Like it or not, the approach will grow more widespread in upcoming years as ingredients and techniques once thought exotic or uber-geeky become commonplace. It behooves us to understand what we're facing when we're presented with such things.
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Quite famously, for instance, in On Food and Cooking, science writer Harold McGee debunked the widely held notion that searing a steak “sealed in” its juices, making it juicier and more succulent than without the customary brown crust. As adamantly as even some professional chefs insist on this practice, it has no basis in truth. In fact, searing steak demonstrably causes it to lose moisture. That sizzle you hear when a steak is slapped on the grill? Those are juices vaporizing. If the surface were sealed, you wouldn’t hear that sound. Any steak eater can attest, however, that a degree of sear on a steak is good — not for any juice-sealing, but because of a browning process that helps makes food from cookies to dry-aged rib-eyes taste delicious. The process is called the Maillard reaction. Merely knowing that will earn you a degree of respect among cooks who dig this sort of thing.
The go-to book of the moment — and undoubtedly for decades to come — is Nathan Myhrvold’s six-volume Modernist Cuisine. Sure, you could (and should) read Harold McGee’s books if you want to get a grip on why modern cookery at times seems to have become unmoored from its classical foundations. You should also read those edited or written by and about Hervé This, Ferran Adrià, Nicholas Kurti, Heston Blumenthal, and others at the fore of what Jeffrey Steingarten has dubbed “hypermodern” cooking. Modernist Cuisine, though, is where the vacuum-packed, sous-vide meat of the matter lies.
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Like the very best manuals, Modernist Cuisine is one to revisit time and time again. The photography is a joy and the writing is easy to understand even if the concepts are not at first intuitive. I didn’t absorb it all on the first reading, nor will I on the second. But having plowed through it feels a bit like I’ve survived a postgraduate seminar on anatomy and organic chemistry — and I’m hungry for more.
Just keep those foaming, smoking, glow-in-the-dark, hot-gel cocktails at arm’s length.
Nathan Myhrvold et al (2011)
Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking
2438 pages (hardback)
The Cooking Lab
Goes well with:
- A more approachable (and affordable) manual comes from British bacon-curer Maynard Davies. Manual of a Traditional Bacon Curer may be smaller and cheaper than Modernist Cuisine, but it too is very good indeed.
- Speaking of cocktologists, don't forget this guy when you're deciding what to drink.