Modernist cooking — call it “molecular gastronomy” only if you’re willing to suffer the wrath of its pricklier practitioners — is the great Borg of contemporary gastronomy, assimilating more and more chefs who see value in the cuisine’s vacuum sealers, water baths and dehydrators. Home cooks, by contrast, still happily cling to the classic (what’s the opposite of “modernist” — stubbornist?) techniques.
Several factors play into the modernist movement’s low impact with us house-bound hash slingers, costs and degree of difficulty prime among them. But as scientist-turned-cookbook author Nathan Myhrvoldrecently noted, home cooks have long been at a disadvantage, too. They haven’t had many resources to explain, in the necessary depth and detail, all the tools, gels, powders and processes behind modernist cooking.
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.
You may be pulling out your hair over that last sentence: Aren’t dishes prepared from most high-end cookbooks, you ask, just pale re-creations of the vibrant, food-stylist-driven food photographed between the covers? Sure, but I think the reason you and I presumably are attracted to “Modernist at Home” boils down to the book’s implied promise: that its techniques and approaches will result in better-tasting and better-looking food. You, too, will be able to prepare an omelet with an exterior as smooth and silky as flan, one that releases a wave of fluffy, daffodil-yellow egg pudding at the prick of a fork.
My homemade version of the modernist Steamed Herb Omelet, however, had the texture of chicken feet. The fault lies squarely with me. Despite owning a pegboard wall covered with pots and pans, I could not locate the recipe’s required 8-inch pan, only a 10-inch one, which obviously spread the egg mixture too thin and resulted in an omelet with thin, wrinkly and elastic skin. I clearly needed to invest in another piece of equipment, a common theme for me with “Modernist at Home.”
With that said, “Modernist at Home” can be a benevolent dictator, happy to reward those who toe the line. I prepared three dishes, ranging from easy to advanced, with deeply satisfying results. My favorite of the trio is the Low-Temp Oven Steak, which uses a dry-heat, low-and-slow method that leaves your barely frozen, thick-cut New York strip steak with a mesmerizing, Mark Rothko-like brushstroke of rose-color flesh at the center of the meat. (Helpful hint: Don’t defrost previously frozen steak for the recipe; buy it fresh, then place it in the freezer for 30 minutes, as directed.)
If you pair the steak with the cookbook’s recipe for creamed spinach, made thick with Wondra flour and rich with mascarpone and Comte cheeses, you’ll have a meat-and-side combo that will rival the best steakhouse’s.
You will have also spent at least two hours preparing the meal, not including the time wasted wandering from store to store in a desperate search for Wondra. This is one of the essential calculations you have to make before deciding to buy “Modernist Cuisine at Home”: How much money and time are you willing to invest to join the movement?