Book Review: Modernist Cuisine at Home
I’m a geek who cooks. I learned to cook by watching every episode of Good Eats twice, and reading the detailed head notes of every Cooks Illustrated recipe published between 1993 and 2005 (I asked for the back issues for Christmas.) Harold McGee was my bedtime reading. I tried out what I learned in the kitchen, made a lot of mistakes, and learned from them as well. I’m the kind of person who needs to know “why” when I’m cooking, and knowing “why” helps me become a better cook.
It took Pam Anderson’s How to Cook Without a Book to pull me back from the bleeding edge of cooking. That’s when my dinners went from “It’s eight thirty, I’m starving, when is dinner going to be ready?” to “Dinner will be on the table at six thirty. Maybe six forty-five.”
Modernist Cuisine, by Nathan Myhrvold and his team of chefs and scientists, is an encyclopedia about the cutting edge of food. The four volumes contain 2,348 pages, totaling forty pounds of science and technology applied to cooking.
Modernist Cuisine has been on my wish list since the day it came out. It costs over $450.00. It’s still sitting on my wish list.
But! The Modernist Cuisine team just released a second book, Modernist Cuisine at Home. It’s only (only!) $140, 456 pages, weighs ten pounds, and is more oriented towards home cooks than the original.
Ten pounds may not sound like much, but this is a substantial book. It’s the biggest, heaviest book I own, by far. It outweighs my biggest atlas and dictionary, and makes my largest cookbooks look puny.
In addition to the book, with its coffee table pictures and printing, it comes with a spiral bound book with all the recipes printed on water-resistant paper, for use in the kitchen. And a slipcover to house both the book and the spiral bound recipe booklet.
For a food geek like me, getting this book was a second birthday present. I tore through it over the last week, and here are my impressions.
The Modernist team loves pressure cookers even more than I do. This book has more pressure cooker recipes than most pressure cooker cookbooks that I own. They cover the standards, like pressure cooker stocks, braises, and risotto. Their caramelized vegetable soups use the extra high heat of the pressure cooker to brown the vegetables while they pressure cook, a brilliant idea. (They throw a pinch of baking soda in to help the browning process along.)
Then I read how they use canning jars in the pressure cooker. Polenta, rendered chicken fat, garlic confit, pressure cooked in jars on a rack over an inch of water. I love canning jars, I love my pressure cooker, and now I get to use them both together? I’m in love.
*Coming Thursday – I try Modernist Cuisine’s Pressure Cooker Garlic Confit in canning jars.
The book covers sous vide cooking in great detail. Sous vide cooking involves sealing food in a plastic bag, then cooking it in a water bath set to the exact temperature you want to finish at. As they explain, this technique has a lot of advantages over traditional cooking. If I want a medium-rare steak, that’s what I get with sous vide. The water is set to medium-rare temperature, so the steak will cook to that temperature, but no farther. No more “darn it, it’s well done!”. They cover all sorts of sous vide cooking equipment, from expensive immersion circulators to the “bubba sous vide” that I use – a beer cooler filled with hot water. And, they show to brown the food after it’s been cooked sous vide. This can involve a ripping hot pan, a grill, or…a blowtorch.
Other good stuff
I love the book’s focus on basic techniques. There are a lot of master recipes, followed by a list of suggested variations and hints on how to make your own variations. For example, they have a recipe for pressure cooker carnitas. Then come the variations for sous vide carnitas, or using a whole pork shoulder instead of pork cubes. Then they take off on the theme of pressure cooker braises – once you know the basic technique, they show how to use it to make lamb leg tagine, pork shoulder fricassee, braised duck with steamed buns, pork vindaloo, and short rib lettuce wraps.
I am in awe of the photographers who worked on this book. I keep going over the cross-section pictures, noticing details I didn’t the last time. I’m not sure which is my favorite. I have a sentimental preference for the cross-section of a Weber kettle, full of lit coals, in the middle of grilling a kebab. But the cross-section of a microwave, including cross-sectioned vacuum bags with cross-sectioned vegetables is a close second.
The equipment section is also very strong, covering what you need to stock a modernist kitchen. Pressure cookers, sous vide setups, vacuum sealers, scales, thermometers, whipping siphons – they talk about everything.
The book is full of great tips. Like: one of the reasons I dry brine nowadays, instead of wet brining, is because I get crispier skin on my poultry. They solve this problem by injecting the brine directly into the meat, avoiding the skin entirely, then leaving the bird in the refrigerator overnight. The meat brines from the inside, the skin dries out in the refrigerator, and the result is the best of both worlds.
*At least, that’s the plan. I haven’t had a chance to test this technique out yet.
This book is aimed at advanced home cooks, looking to replicate restaurant cooking at home. The recipes aim for perfection. If an extra step will improve the recipe, it’s in there. It doesn’t matter if that’s an extra pot to wash (or strainer, or blender, or whipping siphon…) This book is definitely not for a beginning cook. Or anyone looking to make a weeknight meal. Now, if you want to host a fancy dinner party and impress your guests, this is a great book to turn to.
Also, there’s something about the grilling section that bothers me. Their approach to perfect grilled steak has two options:
Option 1: Sous Vide cook it, then sear it on the grill.
Option 2: Put the steak in the freezer for 30 minutes to freeze the very outside. Sear it over ultra-high heat (using a hair dryer to supercharge the coals), then move it to indirect heat, directly over a loaf pan full of ice, to slowly bring it to medium-rare.
Both of these techniques work, and the result is a great steak. But…wow, that’s a lot of extra work, and it doesn’t feel like grilling to me.
Reading this book taught me something about myself. I’m an odd blend – a Traditionalist Home Cooking Food Geek. I want to learn about these new techniques, but will I use them? I think Modernist Cuisine at Home will be more of a reference than a cookbook.
Also, I really want the big brother, four volume edition. No matter the cost. While I was reading At Home, there were a lot of places I asked “why does that work?” The notes would say “further reading in Modernist Cuisine.” Argh!
I need to try more of the Modernist basic techniques. I’m cooking my way through the pressure cooker recipes, of course. (There’s a lot of them to try out.) Sous vide cooking looks like it can help with meal planning. It removes the time sensitivity of cooking. I don’t have to watch everything, to make sure I get it off the heat at the perfect moment. Everything can sit in a water bath, held at the right temperature for “done”. I can sear and serve when I’m ready, not when the food’s ready. It seems like slow cooking, only more focused.
Will these techniques become a regular part of my cooking routine? I don’t know yet. But I’m excited the Modernist Cuisine team is out there, exploring and documenting these ideas for us.
*FCC Disclosure – I did not receive any compensation for this post, and purchased Modernist Cuisine at Home with my own money. If you buy a copy through my Amazon links, or anything else for that matter, I get a small sales commission. Thank you!