If We Can Visualize the Fats in Our Foods, Shouldn't We All Be Reading Modernist Cuisine? Modernist Cuisine: The Epic New Kitchen Manual That Offers New Ways of Visualizing Familiar Foods
A massive six-volume culinary opus makes a strong case for a little science to go with your cooking.
Modernist Cuisine, an epic, six-volume kitchen manual, has been landing on reviewers' and chefs' doorsteps this week. Here's a book that began on the message board eGullet as a series of posts by Nathan Myrhvold, a former CTO at Microsoft, on sous vide—cooking under pressure in plastic bags. After years of research, the books represent an encyclopedic compendium on food safety, techniques, ingredients, and preparations. I've only seen portions of the books, but there seems to be a wealth of informative, surprising information here for both professionals and home kitchen hacks. More importantly, there's a focus on visualizing information in detailed charts, matrices, and novel photographs.
Take the photo above. It's also a chart that demonstrates the weight of liquids in various foods (the total height of the bar) as well as the percentage of that mass that's water (clear liquid) and fats (yellow liquid). The cylinders are filled with, from left to right, cucumber, whole milk, pork belly, pork loin, red wine, walnut. You can see the percentage fat in food. Below, you can see what happens as chicken breasts are cooked more; the meat shrinks, looses moisture, and whitens. These are a new ways of looking at familiar foods.
This may be why the concept of molecular gastronomy bothers people, almost as much as the term "molecular gastronomy" itself. In this week's New Yorker, John Lancaster reviews Modernist Cuisine and writes that he made a recipe for slow-cooked chicken that turned out so moist, juicy, and pink that his kids hated it because it wasn't what they were used to.
The lesson was that no taste is inherently better than another: within certain physiological constraints, tastes are not innate but learned, and the acquisition of tastes is a kind of dance between the person at the stove and the person at the table. The dance between the cook and the eater goes on longest at home, which is why we grow up loving a food from our first and most sustained encounter with it: nothing will ever beat your mom’s chicken, or meat loaf, or whatever it was. No food can ever mean as much to you as that food once did. That is why most of all the cooking in the world is comfort food. It is food designed to remind us of familiar things, to connect us with our personal histories and our communities and our families. That has always been true and it always will be true.
Because both the foods prepared and the terms associated with molecular gastronomy, i.e., dihydrogen monoxide or monosodium glutamate, are unfamiliar to those of us outside the lab, most people remain skeptical about its potential. Maybe the chart about water and fats in a cucumber means nothing in terms of what you're going to eat for lunch tomorrow or how many walnuts you're going to put on top of your salad, but these concept, I believe, can and should be used to make food better—whether you're looking into the nuanced of "processed foods" made far from your home or thinking about improving food safety, nutrition, and storage locally.
The concepts explored in Modernist Cuisine are worth looking into further, and so are the novel ways that the books explain cooking concepts through digital photography. Now, let's just hope this isn't limited to those of us who can afford to shell out $625.