Friday, August 31, 2012

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Bookshelf: Modernist Cuisine

I’ve cast, on occasion, disparaging remarks about modern food and drink. Meant every word, too. As a drinks judge, I’ve been served badly executed drinks by aspiring molecular cocktologists hellbent on deploying foams and smoke in places they did not belong (once, horribly, with Diet Dr Pepper and black tapioca pearls). Cooks are not immune to the desire to foist upon us novel creations. A few months back, the San Diego Tribune asked me to suggest places with great modern desserts. “I’ve had it with modern desserts,” I responded.
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.

Click to embiggen
Different cooks have different takes on what modernist cooking is, but if there were one common thread, it is an earnest questioning of received kitchen knowledge and a desire to discover through experimental inquiry how best (defined variously) to prepare certain dishes.

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.

Order up: The Mushroom Swiss Burger
At a breath-taking $625, this isn’t a purchase for the casual cook. The recipes can seem daunting with their calls for esoteric equipment and occasionally obscure ingredients. I’ve been working my way through it on and off for the last month. Quite simply, I cannot afford many of the kitchen tools, toys, and ingredients described in its pages. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting a hamburger as prepared following Myhrvold’s method: wrapped (a la Laura Palmer) in plastic, warmed in circulating water for about thirty minutes to 56°C/133°F, frozen in liquid nitrogen for 30 seconds, then deep-fried in 232°C/450°F oil for one minute to brown the crust. In volume five, Myhrvold gives the recipe for a mushroom Swiss cheese burger. Despite the 30-hour preparation, I want, as Liz Lemon says, to go to there.

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
ISBN: 0982761007

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.

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