Well, they have one now. “Modernist Cuisine at Home” (The Cooking Lab, $140) is Myhrvold and Maxime Bilet’s attempt to gently coax the curious and the recalcitrant into the chemistry-set fold. The weighty, stone-tablet-like tome is not, as you might assume, some Reader’s Digest Condensed Book of Myhrvold and company’s six-volume, 2,400-page “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking” (The Cooking Lab, 2011), the self-published set that is essentially the Rosetta Stone for the molecular movement.
No, “Modernist Cuisine at Home” is more of a self-contained cookbook, complete with a math nerd’s burden to explain every process in painstaking detail, using color photo illustrations as needed. The cookbook is, by turns, brilliant, absorbing, challenging, frustrating and sometimes even contradictory in its aim for precision and its lack of clarity in directions. (Would you know how to “cut away the wishbone” in a chicken without step-by-step instructions?)
In what other cookbook can you find both a defense of the microwave oven and a method for poaching salmon, sous-vide style, in your kitchen sink with nothing more than a pot, hot water, a Ziploc bag and a working faucet? In this sense, “Modernist Cuisine at Home” fluctuates wildly from the mundane (how to shuck clams) to the molecular (how to make tomato “leather”), channeling equal amounts of Jacques Pepin’s “Complete Techniques” and Thomas Keller’s “Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide.”
So who is this cookbook’s target audience? It’s a question I’ve been pondering as I tested and retested recipes, and the only solid conclusion I’ve reached is this: Home cooks with more gadgets and discipline than I have. As much as I admire the modernist movement and its desire to push the boundaries of cooking — to understand its science and use that science to strive for better and more precise methods — I learned after fighting my way through a number of dishes I am more of a knuckle dragger in the kitchen. I want recipes that are more open-source code than proprietary software.
This cookbook often demands the exact right tools, the exact right ingredients and, most of all, the exacting mindset of a scientist, one who values mathematical precision over the loose, a-pinch-of-this-a-pinch-of-that movements of many home cooks. My inner anarchist sometimes felt confined by formulas that left little room for personal expression. With “Modernist at Home,” if you don’t follow the prescribed steps precisely, you will fail. Or to be more precise, you will fail to create something as gorgeous and striking as the jaw-dropping food photographed in this volume.