Modernist cooking - call it "molecular gastronomy" only if you're willing to suffer the wrath of its pricklier practitioners - is gaining favor with more and more chefs who see value in the cuisine's vacuum sealers, water baths, and dehydrators. Home cooks, by contrast, happily cling to the classic 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 Myhrvold recently 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 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.
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") .
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 strive for better and more precise methods - I learned after fighting my way through a number of dishes that I want recipes that are more open-source code than proprietary software.
This cookbook often demands the exact tools, the exact right ingredients, and, most of all, the exacting mind-set of a scientist, one who values precision over the loose, a-pinch-of-this-a-pinch-of-that methods 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 striking as the jaw-dropping food photographs in this book.
My homemade version of the modernist Steamed Herb Omelet 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 needed to invest in another piece of equipment, a common theme with this cookbook.
With that said, the book can be a benevolent dictator, happy to reward those who toe the line. I prepared dishes from easy to advanced with deeply satisfying results. My favorite was 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 it with the recipe for creamed spinach, made with Wondra flour and mascarpone and Comte cheeses, you'll have a meat-and-side combo rivaling a steak house's best.
You will have also spent at least two hours preparing the meal, not including the time spent searching for Wondra. This is one of the essential calculations you have to make before deciding to buy Modernist Cuisine at Home: How much time and money are you willing to invest to join the movement?
Makes 2 to 4 servings
Two 1-pound New York strip steaks, at least 1 inch thick
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Freshly ground black pepper
Note: The steaks must chill in the freezer for 30 minutes before cooking. You need an instant-read thermometer.
1. Place the steaks on a baking sheet and put in the freezer for 30 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees. If your oven doesn't go that low, set it to the lowest possible temperature. Brush both sides of the steaks with the oil.
3. Heat a heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, over high heat and sear the steaks on each side for 60 seconds or until they reach your desired level of char.
4. Return the steaks to the baking sheet and insert the probe of an oven-safe digital thermometer into the thickest part of one steak. Roast until the meat registers an internal temperature of 133 degrees.
5. Brush the finished steaks with the melted butter and season with salt and pepper to taste. Slice and serve immediately.
Note: One of the keys to success here is buying fresh, thick steaks straight from your butcher's case.
Per serving (based on 4): 540 calories, 49 grams protein, no carbohydrates, 37 grams fat, 150 milligrams cholesterol, 210 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber, no sugar
Makes 21/2 cups (4 to 6 servings)
12 cups packed fresh baby spinach
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
21/2 tablespoons minced shallot
11/2 tablespoons Dijon-
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
1/2 teaspoon Wondra flour
1/10 teaspoon xanthan gum
1/3 cup cold whole milk
10 tablespoons finely grated Comte cheese
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest (from 1/2 medium lemon)
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Working in batches, cook the spinach in a large saute pan or skillet over medium-high heat with the salt and 11/2 tablespoons of the oil until the spinach has wilted. Transfer to a bowl and allow it to cool. Wrap the cooled spinach in clean cheesecloth and squeeze out any excess moisture. Finely chop the spinach.
2. Heat the remaining 11/2 tablespoons of oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the chopped spinach and cook for about 3 minutes. Add the mustard and stir until incorporated. Add the mascarpone and stir until melted. Remove from the heat.
3. Whisk together the Wondra flour, xanthan gum, and milk in a small bowl, then add to the spinach. Return the pan to medium heat and heat until barely bubbling. Once the flour mixture has been incorporated into the spinach, remove from the heat.
4. While the spinach is still warm, fold in the grated cheese and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm.
Per serving: 230 calories, 6 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 40 milligrams cholesterol, 380 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, no sugar