Modernist Cuisine at Home (review)

chac_moolOctober 21, 2012

On Friday, Powell's Books in Portland had several copies of Modernist Cuisine at Home [MCAH] on display (and on sale for $98; list $140.). Someone said the book arrived a few hours before I turned up, although Amazon says it was published in early October 2012.

This is a new book, not excerpts from Nathan Myhrvold's 2011 Modernist Cuisine (5 volumes, $625. list), aimed primarily at professional chefs. MCAH covers similar territory for the rest of us.

MCAH consists of two dissimilar volumes in a sturdy cardboard slip cover (13.75" x 11" x 2.5"). The larger hardcover book (379 pages; plus further reading, sources, glossary, reference tables & index) has beautiful photos and is organized into two parts. The first lists modernist tools, cooking gear, sous vide, and unusual ingredients. Part two describes over 400 recipes -- a few adapted from Modernist Cuisine, but most new and all tailored for home cooking.

The smaller softcover spiral-bound manual (8.5" x 11", 220 pages) lists all recipes step by step without photos, on paper that resists tearing and can be wiped clean with a damp cloth. You'll likely use this manual while cooking, leaving the larger volume elsewhere.

This is not a diet cookbook. Its 406 recipes (this count includes variations) are covered in 19 chapters on basics (stocks, sauces, marinades, spice mixes), breakfast eggs, salads / cold soups, pressure-cooked vegetable soups, steak, cheeseburger, carnitas, braised short ribs, roast chicken, chicken wings, chicken noodle soup, salmon, shellfish, pizza, mac and cheese, risotto / paella, cornmeal, dishes for the microwave, and custards / pies.

Recipes give ingredients by weight (mostly in grams), not volume, and specific instructions are given for scaling recipes up or down.

The larger volume lists and describes 16 invaluable modernist tools: digital scale, thermometer, pressure cooker, water bath, vacuum sealer, blowtorch, whipping siphons, blender, immersion blender, silicone mats, silicone molds, meat tenderizer, dehydrator, long tweezers, paintbrush, and coffee cold-brewing kit. It gives details about using and selecting these tools, such as specific brands of blenders, mixers, ice cream makers, juicers, and dehydrators, as well as using conventional appliances such as conventional-, microwave-, and combi- (steam) ovens, grills, pots and pans, pressure cookers, vacuum sealers, and water baths. Unusual ingredients are described, and places to order some online are provided.

There are other things of interest. For example, they use pots and pans from Ikea with induction. Myhrvold's group also explored various pizza stones. The best, in their opinion, is a dark steel plate 1/4 - 1/2" thick (if over an inch thick, it tends to burn the bottom crust). The steel plate takes at least an hour to preheat, and its heavy. A pizza stone, the next best choice, takes at least 30 min. to preheat, but has less thermal capacity and temperature stability than a steel plate.

As with Modernist Cuisine, MCAH explores principles rather than blindly following rules. The USDA's meat quality grading system is compared, unfavorably, with more modern and nuanced systems in Japan and Australia. In some cases, MCAH does not follow USDA cooking temperature guidelines, arguing that these guidelines include errors and are oversimplified by not separating cooking temperature from cooking duration.

MCAH is aimed at home cooks interested in modernist cuisine (esp. sous vide, pressure cooking). Not all of the recipes in this book require these two approaches, but many do; the book will be of most interest to people using these tools. Because of its focus on appliances and cooking tools, it may be of interest to people designing a new kitchen as well.

Here is a link that might be useful: Modernist Cuisine website

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I looked into the pro series when it first came out, but the price put me off. Interesting that it has a spiral bound sidekick a la the early Time-Life Foods of the World series--probably my all time favorite.

    Bookmark   October 22, 2012 at 8:22AM
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Ha! I was thinking the same about the Time Life books.

    Bookmark   October 22, 2012 at 9:10AM
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