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Oct 16, 2012 11:16 AM

Modernist Cuisine at Home

Hi all
My partner was kind enough to order the new Modernist Cuisine at Home for me as a surprise. I do most of the cooking at home and I have been quite curious about this book and Myrvhold grand opus Modernist Cuisine, but I have to say that even with the simplified approach of the at Home book I'm not actually sure I will cook from it.
Typically I am not afraid of a challenge, but after perusing the book last night a few issues came up:

1. Eventhough many of the recipes don't call for any special equipment, there are unfortunately a very large number that do. I have a well equipped kitchen with good quality, pans, pots, mixers, food processors, immersion blenders, and various other implements, but many recipes call for pressure cookers, air syphons, blow torches, juicers, and sous vide machines (more on this letter). While I would consider adding a pressure cooker and maybe even a blow torch they aren't traditionally that high on my list. To cook from the book however the pressure cooker is an absolute must, and a sous vide set up would be great also.
2. It's all a little precious. I always try to plate food as best I can, being conscious of the composition of the plate, colours etc, and while the pictures are beautiful I don't think I am likely to ever plate as they are doing. Of course I think it is beautiful, and more power to anyone that is willing to take on the task of these presentations, but I'm not sure it is for me.
3. Years ago I read Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, and while I don't want to seem too old fashioned (I am 35 after all), I'm not sure I like the idea of cooking in plastic bags and using certain additives (otolyzed protein etc...). In the past few years I've attempted to eat locally and organically as much as possible and to avoid foods that have been engineered or subjected to extensive processing. The author states clearly that cooking in plastic bags is entirely safe, but somehow I am more likely to trust the wisdom of a good old cast iron pan. Plus some of his suggested methods for jury rigging a sous vide machine at home would have you rewiring your slow cooker, or have you maintain a constant temperature for hours on your stove top, which simply don't seem practical.
4. In my circle of friends and family I am often regarded as a very adventurous cook who isn't afraid to roll up his sleeves and take on arduous preparations in the kitchen. That said, I think I have met my match. To me Modernist Cuisine at Home seems like it might still be just too much. It is undeniably a beautiful book that was meticulously researched, is full of interesting recipes and techniques, and would likely yield superior results, but will the braised Korean BBQ be noticeably better than the one I already make. I'm not so sure.
5. Lastly, some of these recipes may be better, even perceptibly so, but to make a steak I may need to cook it sous vide for an hour and then remove from its bag to sear in a pan or use a blowtorch. Right now if I want to cook the steak (outside of BBQ season) I pull out cast iron pan and heat it till it is searing hot and then pop my steaks in for a few minutes a side. Then into the oven they go to finish, before coming out for a quick rest. End to end the steak will be in my plate in 15 minutes, it will have a beautiful crust and still be nice and pink inside. True, the doneness will not be perfect since the bottom and top of the steak will have been closer to the heat source than the centre, but again I'm not so sure this will make a big difference.

The jury is still out for me, I plan to spend a few more days with it before I decide to return it or not, mostly because some of the slow cooker recipes just might be worth it to me, but also because my partner went to the trouble of getting me a nice gift. That being said, at over $100 and nearly 10kg it needs to be a book I am going to use.

Has anyone else had any experiences with the book?

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  1. I haven't had any experience with Modernist Cuisine at Home (I think that it's only been out for 9 days?) but I have had a chance to look over the Modernist Cuisine encyclopedia volumes. I believe that Dr. Myhrvold decided to write the encyclopedia (and the shortened "Home" tome) because of the dearth of information available on molecular gastronomy. The books focus on the science of cooking, hence the "Modernist' in the title and the many references to "cooking revolution" in the sales blurbs - however this information as far as I can tell is never said outright, though it may be raised in customer reviews.

    If you were stimulated by Alton Brown and want to go one step further in understanding the science behind why your food ends up the way it does, than the book may be very insightful and useful to you. If you are interested in the science behind the cooking, but not in the molecular gastronomy techniques, than as you mentioned, a lot of the recipes and techniques in the book are useless to you. You can still apply the understanding of the science to traditional techniques in order to be a better cook.

    Cooking Sous-Vide in the correct plastic bags (not only food safe, but thermally stable and don't leach BPA chemicals or EA chemicals...) is as safe as current science knows (and at times new science proves the old science wrong....) There are alternatives, such as silicone bags from Lekue (again, "food safe" silicone bags as far as current science).

    If Sous Vide in general is too big of a step, you can do a quarter-step and cook En Papillote in an oven for similar heat control, though you won't get the effect of the vacuum, nor as efficient of heat transfer of the water bath.

    6 Replies
    1. re: khuzdul

      Cooking en papillote is something I do quite often, usually with good results. In terms of the plastic bags my concern is just what you said " times new science proves the old science wrong...'. I am definitely skipping the sous vide, I don't see the point, and the health concerns worry me. That being said, I have reviewed many of the pressure cooker recipes and some are enticing.

      1. re: khuzdul

        Cooking En Papillote bears no resemblance whatsoever to cooking sous vide.

        1. re: pikawicca

          No resemblance is a pretty strong statement... I mean they both heat up "food" and turn ingredients from "raw" to "cooked" (yes this is a lame attempt at humor). That specific example is a pretty general "resemblance" but there are other much stronger and direct resemblances depending on how you choose to do either. Also depending on what you think of as the central cooking idea of sous vide, if that can be accomplished by other means than vaccume packing and water bath.

          For one, en papillote, you seal all the ingredients in a pouch so that everything you started the meal with is what you finish with, no more no less. This however is not the central sous-vide cooking benefit. To me, the most important part of sous-vide is really the temperature control - to bring the entire meal up to temperature evenly and sustain that temperature long enough to cook it through and not overcook anything. This can be done en-papillot in the oven using oven settings for precise heat control. The transfer of heat via air is less efficient than water, but it can and it will get the job done. You should probably make your packets smaller than with a water bath so that the cook times to heat all the way through doesn't get ridiculously long which would greatly increase the possibility of botulism and other nasties.

          It's not like the water bath and vaccuume packing of the modern Sous-Vide has been around forever, certainly not in the late 1700s/early 1800s when the slow precise temperature control cooking method was first written up. I am not claiming that en-papillote is EXACTLY like sous-vide, but I am claiming that, you can accomplish what I consider the most important tenet of sous-vide by adapting en-papillote (quarter step rather than a full step to sous-vide)...

          1. re: khuzdul

            " To me, the most important part of sous-vide is really the temperature control - to bring the entire meal up to temperature evenly and sustain that temperature long enough to cook it through and not overcook anything. This can be done en-papillot in the oven using oven settings for precise heat control."

            The cost of ovens that can maintain temperature to within 1 degree is just SOOOOOOOO expensive though, and that level of control is necessary to really compare something to sous vide cooking. A swing of even 10 degrees of oven temp can totally change a preparation. Id love to have a Rational oven in my kitchen, but I think for most home cooks looking into getting into this type of cooking a water bath is going to be the only sensible route.

            1. re: twyst

              Well, that is where the non-conductive nature of air can makes up in part for the oven imprecision. The oven air temperature swinging +/- ten degrees won't vary the food temperature as much as the same imprecision of a water bath. I would say that the current vacuum/water bath is qualitatively more precise than trying to use an oven, and brings about more consistent results and greater reproducibility.

              I just read Scott's/ModernistCuisine's comment below, and in 3 he mentions using combi-ovens to approximate the precision of sous-vide. IIRC, there are quite a few pages about combi-ovens in the full Modernist Cuisine about combi-ovens, but I don't remember the details. Again, another step beyond commonly found equipment in most kitchens, but very similar in concept to what I was writing about, just with steam.

              1. re: khuzdul

                Yes, combi ovens are awesome! I have a bad habit of using the words combi oven and Rational oven interchangeably because every restaurant Ive worked at has used a Rational brand and it has been referred to as "the Rational"

      2. I haven't looked at the "...At Home" version, but I've read and cooked from the original version.

        The point of these books isn't to make you cook elaborate, modernist style recipes every time you cook from now on. Instead, you try out the new techniques, make note of the difference in effect, and try to understand fully why and how the new technique brought about the different effect - you can then apply that to everything else you cook. Learning new techniques and a little of the science of cooking makes you a better cook, a more precise cook, a cook better in control of what you're doing whether you're using modernist technique or not.

        I've cooked sous vide regularly at home for several years, starting well before Modernist Cuisine was released. It's useful enough to justify, IMO, giving me more control over the kinds of effects I can create and also helping me manage larger and/or more complicated meals with more wiggle room. If it doesn't appeal to you, then it doesn't appeal to you. But there's nothing unreasonable about it. It's no harder to learn than real low & slow barbecue, and the equipment is no more expensive.

        As for the safety of plastic bags - I guess I can't convince anyone whose mind is already made up that it's safe, since absence of evidence is not evidence of absence [of harm]. Still, just thought I'd point out that there is no actual evidence that using the correct bags for sous vide carries any risks at all. Just to play devil's advocate, there is just as much if not more evidence that carbonized material like the seasoning in a cast iron pan is carcinogenic as there is that the plastics found in bags used for sous vide is carcinogenic. In neither case have any risks been established from realistic use in cast iron cooking or sous vide cooking, so quite a bit of extrapolation is needed if you're gonna get worked up about it.

        1 Reply
        1. re: cowboyardee

          Good points all around. I have also heard that the seasoning process might be harmful, but I suppose my point is that when science is inconclusive I am most comfortable with a product that is as close to natural as possible. I understand that no one is mining for cast iron pans, but we are talking about a product made from a naturally occurring element that we as a species have been using for a very long time. It is much the same argument as high fructose corn syrup, is there much difference between it and any other form of sugar, no, but I would still prefer to eat the least refined sugar product possible. I expect the difference may primarily be a philosophical one, but such issues are often the basis for choices we make in life.

        2. James Cooper, food columnist for the Fairfield Examiner, has been discussing that book this week, and has tried several of the recipes. He suggests that there are alternatives that are much easier to make.

          Here is a link to his latest article. There are links to the others at the end.

          1 Reply
          1. re: DonShirer

            That review is kinda funny.

            "We discovered partway through the cooking process that the oven had been misset to 140F instead of 170F...So we stuck it in the microwave for one minute which just brought it up to temperature.

            How was it?

            The chicken was good and juicy and we really liked the caramelized onions. It might have been even juicier if we hadn’t had to rescue it by microwaving it for a minute.

            However, we are unlikely to repeat this recipe to try to get it right, since cooking an open pan of onions in the oven for more than 3 hours leads to a terrible onion smell permeating the house, even with the stove’s exhaust fan running. This smell persisted for a couple of days.

            This again shows that the recipe testers for this book didn’t actually cook in a home kitchen, but in their fancy lab where fume exhausts are probably much more powerful, like the hood in our old chem lab.

            You could do just as well by making our spatchcocked chicken (split at the breastbone) and quickly caramelizing some onions to go with it."

            I'm guessing they don't like keller's recipe for french onion soup either.

          2. I'm kind of underwhelmed to be honest. I also own the original set and think they are the greatest thing ever, but this book just kind of fell flat for me. It just seems to be missing something /shrug.

            1. Scott from the Modernist Cuisine team here. First, I wanted to thank you for posting this. There are lots of folks who have made up their minds about Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Cuisine at Home before they've ever opened the books, so it is incredibly meaningful to see that you're really giving the book a shot before making up your mind. We appreciate that greatly!
              Now, let's see what we can do to address the issues you mentioned.
              1. Special equipment. Yes, you are correct that, to really cook the book cover-to-cover, you'll likely need to add some gear to your arsenal. There are several recipes that require a pressure cooker or a whipping siphon, and even more that benefit from a sous vide machine. Although we include lots of alternative methods and improvised setups, it’s true that the recipes work best with the right gear.
              But, even in the absence of all of the equipment called for in the book, we think it’s interesting just to know about those techniques. In the original Modernist Cuisine, for example, there are whole sections dedicated to the centrifuge, the rotary evaporator, the spray drier, etc. Very few people own or cook with those tools. But, lots of folks still think it’s neat to understand how they work, even if they’ll never buy one.
              In Modernist Cuisine at Home, we had the same philosophy, but we wanted to pick a set of tools that _could_ reasonably be found in most home kitchens. Sure, sous vide baths and pressure cookers are not as popular as microwave ovens and slow-cookers (at least not yet). However, if we were to remove those tools from our repertoire, we would also have to eliminate many of the most interesting, unique, Modernist techniques from the book, and that’s no fun. So, for us it was a balance. Should we include sous vide? How about centrifuges? Ultimately, we drew the line at tools that were available at Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma or similar stores. We do hope, though, that we can show the value of investing in additional tools, and guide you in the right direction when making a purchasing decision.
              2. Preciousness. I think we’ll have to take this one as a compliment . Our chefs are natural-born food stylists, which is a very handy thing when making a cookbook. We believe that most people “eat with their eyes” first, so we do like to make our plateups look nice... perhaps even precious, at times. It’s one of the hallmarks of Modernist cooking – embracing the aesthetic aspects, the “art” aspect, of cooking. However, we hope that our presentation can serve as an inspiration, as opposed to a standard of success or failure. Trust me, your dinner guests will love the mac and cheese regardless of how nicely the topping is coiffed.
              3. Not quite ready to embrace sous vide. Sous vide can be a very polarizing thing. Although the current body of scientific research assures us that cooking sous vide with the proper types of plastic is perfectly safe, some folks are opposed to plastics for other reasons. In those cases, we advocate cooking foods sous vide in mason jars, topped off with oil to seal the food. The cooking time will be longer, but no plastic is involved. Alternately, home combi-ovens can approximate the precision of sous vide cooking, but without any plastic whatsoever.
              You’re correct that cooking sous vide without a sous vide machine can sometimes be a tedious endeavor. In those setups, you’re playing the role of the human thermostat, monitoring the temperature of the water and adjusting it up or down accordingly. Interestingly, you’re even more of a human thermostat in traditional cooking methods – cooking a fillet of salmon in a skillet, for example. However, with traditional cooking, the consequences for getting your heat or timing wrong are typically more severe. Salmon can go from undercooked to obliterated in just a few moments on the high heat of a skillet, but sous vide, even improvised, is much more forgiving. Although you may not want to go to the trouble for every meal, we think it’s worth knowing how to produce those results, even if you choose to use that method infrequently.
              4. Are the recipes worth the trouble? Generally speaking, yes. It’s probably painfully obvious that Modernist Cuisine at Home doesn’t offer the “easiest way” do make those recipes. In fact, we’re just plain uninterested in the easiest way. What we care about is the method that achieves the best results, even if it requires more effort. However, I can attest to the fact that the extra effort is not in vain. If you take the time to follow them, the recipes from Modernist Cuisine at Home produce results that outshine simplified methods in just about every instance. Part of this is evident in our attitude about purity. Take the mac and cheese sauce recipe, for example: we leave out everything that isn’t cheese, such as cream, butter and flour. The result is a cheese sauce that is intensely cheesy. The same principle applies in throughout the book: the home jus gras recipe, the pistachio gelato recipe, the caramelized carrot soup recipe… these foods do require a little more effort than their traditional counterparts, but in return, you get an unparalleled intensity of flavor.
              5. Sous vide takes a lot of time. Yes, sous vide cooking is almost always slower than traditional methods. But, a) it produces better, more reliable results, and b) it involves very little _active_ cooking time. Although a steak may take an hour to cook sous vide, only a few minutes of that time require your attention. And, should your partner or dinner guests happen to be running late, in most cases, your food doesn’t suffer if it sits in the bath a while longer. Personally, I find sous vide cooking to be extremely liberating. However, it’s a very different approach to cooking. It rewards planning and patience over the ability to juggle a stove full of skillets. I don’t use sous vide all the time (it makes terrible toast) but it can be a hugely valuable and rewarding method for home cooks.
              Again, we really value your thoughts and feedback. We know that Modernist Cuisine at Home is a very different book than most cookbooks, and that’s exactly the point. Even if you don’t decide to take the plunge with new equipment, we hope that the insights from our recipes will work their way into your everyday cooking.

              8 Replies
              1. re: ModernistCuisine

                Thanks, that was an interesting post. Count me amongst those who have no interest in modernist cuisine, at home or in a restaurant. And yet reading your post got me a little bit interested! I especially liked the following:

                "However, we hope that our presentation can serve as an inspiration, as opposed to a standard of success or failure. Trust me, your dinner guests will love the mac and cheese regardless of how nicely the topping is coiffed."

                1. re: ModernistCuisine

                  Hello Scott, thanks so much for taking the time to put together such an insightful response, it is very much appreciated. I have to say I was very curious about the book before its release and that my curiosity has not dissipated now that it has arrived, I have perused many of the recipes and read the introductory sections and I can a lot of work went into creating this book. There is no doubt that it is very much a mini master class in some very interesting techniques that would likely yield great results.
                  While I am still dubious as to how much I will use the book to cook from, my review of the recipes has enticed me enough that I have decided to keep it and give some of the non sous vide techniques a try, although the confit process in a mason jar sound very doable and definitely addresses concerns over plastic.
                  Very helpful advice.
                  Best of luck in all your future projects.

                  1. re: ModernistCuisine

                    Hi Scott,

                    To your point about sous-vide being more forgiving, when using the stovetop method, what is the tolerance level? Say if i only check the temp every 15 minutes and adjust +/- 10 deg will it still be OK? Would like to try it out before investing in a sous-vide machine.

                    Got the book as a gift and love reading it so far but haven't had the time yet to actually cook something.

                    1. re: mrbitterpants

                      The level of forgiveness depends entirely on the food you're cooking and how much temperature fluctuation it experiences. 10 degrees F in internal temperature can make a huge difference in delicate foods like fish or eggs. But, in most cases, it's the peak temperature that makes a difference in doneness. On a skillet or in an oven, the internal temperature of your food is (almost) always climbing and can overshoot the desired doneness temperature in the blink of an eye. With sous vide, because the food heats more slowly, and because the temperature of the water bath is usually the temperature you want the food to reach (+/- a degree or two) the risk of overshooting the desired temperature is much lower.

                      We actually recommend the camping cooler method. Heat a large pot of water to the right temperature for the recipe you're making. Then, fill an insulated camping cooler with the hot water. Add your bagged food, close the lid, and walk away. As long as the ratio of water to food is high, the water will cook the food and you don't need to adjust the temperature much, if at all.

                      1. re: ModernistCuisine

                        I was referring more to the temp of the bath fluctuating over time on the stovetop. Based on your reply, I'm inferring that as long as the food reaches the correct bath temp (and the bath temp wasn't wildly fluctuating) then we're good to go?

                        Camping cooler is a fun suggestion though!

                        1. re: mrbitterpants

                          ' as long as the food reaches the correct bath temp (and the bath temp wasn't wildly fluctuating) then we're good to go?"

                          Pretty much! Make sure your foods core temp hits the desired temp and is held for the recommended time and you're good to go. If you are going to "ghetto sous vide" and are going to have to deal with temperature swings, try to make sure that during those swings the water temperature does not exceed the target temperature. Its MUCH better to have it drop below temp than go over. Make sure you check your core temp with a thermometer when cooking this way until you get set up with a proper sous vide setup (you're gonna love the results you are going to get!)

                          Also, make the squash/lemongrass pressure cooked soup, its delicious!

                          1. re: mrbitterpants

                            Twyst is right. Just a couple things to add:

                            It's important to know whether the sous vide recipe you about to use is attempting to pasteurize or not. Temperature fluctuation when you're not trying to pasteurize (typically this means a shorter cooking time and/or a lower temperature, often with the food seared either before or more often after the sous vide bath, and the food is normally eaten promptly instead of being stored), isn't a big deal. Twyst is correct that temperature fluctuations above the recommended temperature could damage the texture, while fluctuations below the recommended temperature tend to have little or no effect as long as the food reaches your desired temp in the end.

                            If you are attempting to pasteurize, things get more complicated. Here, temperature fluctuations above the recommended temp still can damage the texture, but they won't endanger the pasteurization process. Fluctuations below the desired temperature - that depends on the recipe. If you're cooking shortribs at 145 deg F for 48 hours, then being a few degrees low for some or much of the cooking will have no effect on safety - because you have a large margin of error in pasteurization at this temperature and cooking time. If you're cooking those same shortribs to 131 however, a few degrees low can potentially be more problematic from a safety standpoint. It really just depends on how much margin of error you have in pasteurizing your food, and also how much of fluctuation. In truth, I'm not sure exactly how much wiggle room you have - at least in some cases, you can compensate just by cooking longer. But holding food for, say, 36 hours when most of that times is spent at, say, 125 deg F... I don't know whether that would be safe, and I wouldn't feel confident eating it, even if you brought the temp up and pasteurized it fully afterward.

                            1. re: cowboyardee

                              " But holding food for, say, 36 hours when most of that times is spent at, say, 125 deg F... I don't know whether that would be safe, and I wouldn't feel confident eating it,"

                              Ya, I dont want to go below 130 on my 72 hour shortrib for safety concerns, but Id really like to be able to drop it to 127 or so :(