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Molecular Gastronomy Cookbook "Modernist Cuisine" Weighs in at 46 Pounds

by GENE JOHNSON
Friday Apr 1, 2011
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SEATTLE (AP) - Nathan Myhrvold didn’t just go to school; he worked on the quantum theory of gravity with Stephen Hawking. He didn’t just get a job; he became Microsoft’s first chief technology officer. As a hobbiest, he didn’t just get into grilling; he rocked several top prizes in the World Championship of Barbecue.

So it’s unsurprising that when Myhrvold decided to write a cookbook, he didn’t just write a cookbook.

He outfitted his kitchen laboratory in Bellevue, Wash., with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ of whiz-bang equipment, including a centrifuge, freeze-driers, humidity-controlled smokers and special evaporators. He brought together dozens of people, including top chefs, and spent the next three years turning slabs of meat into pincushions for digital thermometers and cutting expensive cookery in half to demonstrate how it works.

The result is the 2,438-page, six-volume, 46-pound, $625 "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking." Astonishing in its scope, audacious in its ambition and breathtaking in its photography, the work traces the development of cooking from prehistoric spit-roasted meat and early agriculture to the seemingly magical foods of the modernists - dishes that change temperature as you bite into them, gels that transform liquids into solids, edible dirt - and then tells you how they’re made.

"I didn’t believe it made sense to tell part of the story," Myhrvold said in a recent interview. "It seemed to me there was a huge value in having all of this material all in one big work, all cross-referenced, so that sure, if you want to do a recipe, you can just do a recipe. But if you care about why something happens, you can figure that out, and if you want to know the why behind the why, by God we can point you at that too."

Released this month with an initial press run of 6,000 copies, "Modernist Cuisine" comes at what might seem an odd time. The Slow Food movement, with its emphasis on back-to-the-land simplicity, is widely popular. Alice Waters, one of the movement’s most prominent figures, recently dismissed modernist cooking by saying such food "doesn’t feel real to me." And in a New York Times review of "Modernist Cuisine," prominent food writer Michael Ruhlman suggested the style is limited to a "splinter group of passionate chefs who care about this difficult and expensive form of high-end cooking."

Myhrvold argues persuasively that such criticisms are irrelevant. First, the book is largely about new techniques, and there’s no reason modernist chefs can’t also have sustainable, organic or healthy values. Secondly, he readily concedes that modernist cuisine isn’t for everyone, especially those for whom convenience is key.

But one of the book’s accomplishments is helping readers - even those who might never try a modernist recipe - understand what might otherwise just seem like bizarre food. Much like avant garde art or architecture, modernist cuisine - also known as "molecular gastronomy" - seeks to challenge and surprise diners by showing them what can be done with food. Most buildings aren’t the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain; most meals don’t involve centrifuged pea butter.

In other words, Myhrvold says, it’s nothing to be scared of. Most of the tools in the typical home kitchen once were technological breakthroughs, and many traditional ingredients - including baking powder and baking soda - are no less synthetic than certain staples of the modernist kitchen, such as the calcium salts in gelling ingredients. Myhrvold hopes the ultimate legacy of the book is to help some of the new methods trickle down into broader use.

The tome’s price tag does raise an immediate question: Who buys a $625 cookbook? Much of the material is directed at professional chefs, who are far more likely to have access to the specialized equipment required for some of the techniques. There are only so many people who are going to make gelled spheres of carbonated mojito or foie gras parfait, or spend 30 hours making a mushroom Swiss cheeseburger with tomato confit, smoked lettuce and mushroom-based ketchup.

But Myhrvold says chefs with a modernist bent should be able to learn how to do so without apprenticing at cutting-edge restaurants like elBulli, in Spain, or The Fat Duck, in England.

For professionals, $625 - or $462 on Amazon.com - might not be too much for access to information that cost millions of dollars to produce, including a detailed primer on food-borne pathogens which reveals that much of what government officials have to say about food safety is off-base. Many might find "Modernist Cuisine," co-authored by Fat Duck alumni Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, worth its freight simply for explaining how to preserve costly truffles in carbon dioxide.

Much like avant garde art or architecture, modernist cuisine - also known as "molecular gastronomy" - seeks to challenge and surprise diners by showing them what can be done with food.

But there’s plenty to fascinate home cooks, too, from discourses about how traditional cooking methods work to the debunking of conventional wisdom and easy suggestions for improving your own culinary chops. Want to turn your standard electric oven into the heating equivalent of a wood-fired pizza oven? Stick in a three-quarter-inch slab of steel, preheat as hot as the oven will go, and cook your pizza on the hot steel under the broiler for 2 minutes or less. The oven door doesn’t even need to be closed, because it’s the steel and the broiler - not the hot air in the oven - that’s cooking the pizza.

Want to dramatically improve your charcoal grill? Put a short cylinder of reflective sheet metal around the coals. The coals primarily heat food by infrared light, which means the obtuse angles and black paint of ubiquitous kettle-shaped grills are all wrong.

During his research, Myhrvold says he perused every major food-science technical publication of the past decade in search of tips. One article seemed downright weird: You can extend the shelf life of fresh lettuce and berries by plunging them first in hot water.

Intrigued, his team tested the theory. Sure enough, dipping blueberries in 140-degree water for 90 seconds extended their shelf life from 7 days to 20. Grapes placed briefly in slightly cooler water lasted 25 days instead of five.

"You’d think, no, that will wilt the lettuce," Myhrvold says. "But it seems to wash off and kill the organisms that would wilt the lettuce. So we put it in the book."

That sense of joyful curiosity permeates "Modernist Cuisine." Myhrvold gets a kick from sharing new information, perhaps nowhere more so than where the authors explain the book’s raison d’etre, cooking "sous vide" - French for "under vacuum."

The technique involves heating food to extremely precise temperatures inside plastic bags submerged in hot-water baths. Using it, cooks can eliminate the guesswork in knowing whether the food is done. Meat can also be quickly seared to improve its appearance. It’s a feature of many if not most of the 1,500-plus recipes in the book.

When Myhrvold first began to learn about the technique, there was little information available. He started posting the results of his own research on the foodie website eGullet, where other people encouraged him to write a book. That book became "Modernist Cuisine" as Myhrvold found more and more topics to explore.

Even at 2,400 pages, though, there was no room for pastry, and the only dessert to speak of is ice cream made with liquid nitrogen.

Most responses to the book have tended toward awe-struck, but it has ruffled some feathers. Myhrvold says some chefs were offended by the book’s findings that the process of making a confit - cooking in rendered fat or oil at low temperatures - didn’t improve the texture of meat; unlike, say, the salt ions in a brine, fat molecules are too big to penetrate the flesh. One writer on eGullet suggested that sous vide’s digital temperature control takes the soul out of cooking.

Myhrvold has little patience for such views. He wondered aloud whether they aren’t influenced by a sort of Stockholm syndrome where eaters develop an affinity for inconsistently or poorly prepared food, the way captives can develop an affinity for their captors.

"When you change something fundamental, there are some people who grouse about it for a while, and in the short run there can be controversy," he adds. "But in the longer run the part people actually like is going to happen. I can’t promise you that means every technique we have in the book is going to happen, but I think we’ve got some interesting techniques that are going to find very widespread usage because people are going to discover, ’Wow, I like the way the food tastes when I cook it this way.’"

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