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"Modernist Cuisine" by Myhrvold, Young & Bilet (Part 1)


Renn
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Here's a thought I just had. This is the least elitist cook book I've read in a long time -- particularly relative to the reputation some people think it deserves.

Kung pao chicken, barbecue, shrimp cocktail, you name it: Everything is treated the way a course at El Bulli is treated.

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Chris Amirault

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It's really a shame that all the press coverage focuses purely on the whiz bang stuff: sure, there are recipes with (optional) centrifuged components. There is also an entire section of grilling! And one on braising! And one on roasting! Plus don't forget that all of volume one is stuff like food safety. A lot of people (Alice Waters I'm looking at you) are pooh-poohing the book based on some ludicrous belief that "Modernism" is somehow unemotional or some such crap. When it's not like the book is even exclusively focused on techno-wizardry at all! It's sort of infuriating, really.

Chris Hennes
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It's really a shame that all the press coverage focuses purely on the whiz bang stuff: sure, there are recipes with (optional) centrifuged components. There is also an entire section of grilling! And one on braising! And one on roasting! Plus don't forget that all of volume one is stuff like food safety. A lot of people (Alice Waters I'm looking at you) are pooh-poohing the book based on some ludicrous belief that "Modernism" is somehow unemotional or some such crap. When it's not like the book is even exclusively focused on techno-wizardry at all! It's sort of infuriating, really.

Begging your pardon Chris, but how would any of us know that?

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... A lot of people (Alice Waters I'm looking at you) are pooh-poohing the book based on some ludicrous belief that "Modernism" is somehow unemotional or some such crap. ...

(I haven't seen anything specific about Ms. Waters, so I don't mean this to refer specifically to her, but...)

I think a lot of people would prefer to NOT understand how cooking works. They would prefer it be a "mystery" and an "art". Actually seeing the man behind the curtain takes away from their awe looking on the visage of the great and powerful Oz. They're afraid of loosing the "emotionality" or "poetry" in cooking. (Which strikes me as hugely ironic - a massive part of what Achatz and Blumenthal do is rooted in powerfully evoking emotions and nostalgia, where a "classic" meal is typically wonderful, but doesn't attempt to evoke much more than "mmmmm... delicious" from the diner.)

For others, I suspect they actually like their culinary myths and traditions. How many chef-myths are there about mayonnaise, for instance? McGee and others blew them up, but I suspect that there are a few folks out there who are resentful. "I do it the way it has always been done!" and to hell with anyone who figures out how to do it differently, or better (or creates a simpler, more reliable or less labor intensive technique which puts the end result within reach for less skilled cooks, or those who are not properly initiated into their secret order.)

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(I haven't seen anything specific about Ms. Waters, so I don't mean this to refer specifically to her, but...)

In the first part of a two-part interview with Stephen Dubner (of Freakonomics fame), Waters said of the modernist movement:

I can’t say that I care a lot about it. I can’t say that . . . It’s a kind of scientific experiment, and I think that there are good scientists and crazy old scientists that can be very amazing. But it’s more like a museum to me. It’s not a kind of way of eating that we need to really live on this planet together.

Dave Scantland
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Eat more chicken skin.

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But it’s more like a museum to me. It’s not a kind of way of eating that we need to really live on this planet together.

Hard to swallow that when you're looking at the American barbecue section.

So I'm home and have the volumes out. I have already learned about eighteen things I didn't know, and I want to dive back in. So, instead of stringing together a few more raving adjectives, I offer to play the following game with you.

Ask me any question you have about savory food: history, fundamentals, techniques, equipment, animals, plants, ingredients, and preparations. I wager that I will be able to answer most, if not all, of those questions simply by referring to this book (using it's remarkable index and cross-referencing).

I'm not talking about details of cuisines or dishes here, as it's not that kind of a book; it also doesn't cover pastry and baked goods (though there's a lot about what baking is). But what happens when questions, should you or should you not questions, best techniques, temps, and times questions? All are fair game.

Who'll start?

Chris Amirault

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Ohh, barbecue. I spend most of my other time perusing virtual the Weber Bullet website and there's lots of talk about "high heat" BBQ. I don't have that many folks to feed so I'm not as willing to experiment with my meat. I like my old low and slow brisket and ribs but if I could make it as good or better in less time that would be awesome. Maybe I'm a snob but if someone like Nathan M said that 400+ is as good or better than 225 I would be more willing to try. Does he address this question?

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Question about resting meat after grilling: The hardest piece of beef for me to rest correctly is flank steak. I grill it to medium rare and it is so hard to rest it enough to keep all the juices from spilling out when I cut it. Does he say anything about resting times and maybe temps for beef? Anything new?

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Ohh, barbecue. I spend most of my other time perusing virtual the Weber Bullet website and there's lots of talk about "high heat" BBQ. I don't have that many folks to feed so I'm not as willing to experiment with my meat. I like my old low and slow brisket and ribs but if I could make it as good or better in less time that would be awesome. Maybe I'm a snob but if someone like Nathan M said that 400+ is as good or better than 225 I would be more willing to try. Does he address this question?

Fast answer, no shortcuts. But read on.

Barbecue requires two processes covered in detail in the book: smoking and cooking. (Barbecue is covered in detail as well.) Both require low temps and long times, especially the cooking, to reach desired effects with tough muscles like pork rib meat. Speedy high heat just doesn't break down the collagen in the ribs to make them tender and juicy.

However, the (intense and detailed) information in the book stresses that there are ways to break the process into component parts that allow for greater cooking ease: smoke then cook sous vide until tender, then finish under the broiler, on the grill, or with a blowtorch. But "hot smoking" barbecue is 52-80C/125-175F -- nowhere near 400F and not quick.

To read more, check out volume 5, pp 66-79 is the whole hog American BBQ recipe, and there are sections on different muscle types (V3, pp 6-12) and smoking (V3, 208-213 and V2, pp 132-143 and more). That is to say, there are physiological, thermal, chemical, and technical discussions of this question -- and a bunch of related others -- in several volumes. Indeed, it appears that the definitive positions on controversies like "the stall" are covered, well, definitively.

Chris Amirault

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Question about resting meat after grilling: The hardest piece of beef for me to rest correctly is flank steak. I grill it to medium rare and it is so hard to rest it enough to keep all the juices from spilling out when I cut it. Does he say anything about resting times and maybe temps for beef? Anything new?

Boy, there's a lot of information circling this question! Most specifically, from "What Happens When Meat Rests," V3 p 84:

Degraded and dissolved proteins slightly thicken the natural juices as they cool during resting. The thickened liquid then escapes more slowly when the meat is sliced. Resting also allows the steep temperature gradient inside the meat to come closer to equilibrium. The core temperature of the meat continues to rise after you stop cooking it because heat in the surface layers continues to diffuse inward. Because this "heat wave" has already been set in motion, the peak temperature reached at the core is practically the same whether you rest the meat in a low-temperature oven or dunk it in an ice bath.

There are charts about core temps for beef related to doneness categories in V 3 p 96, including flank steak. The flank recipe on V 3 p 199 cooks the steak to 54C/129F for at least 1 and up to 24 hours. (I do this all the time with flank steak and go the full 24.) But it's cooked SV, not grilled.

In the extensive discussion on grilling (V 2 p 7-17), it becomes pretty clear why they wouldn't include a chart with resting (or grilling) times: a grill is an alarmingly variable heat source with large changes in temperature along all three dimensions (height of the grate and position of the meat on the plane of the grate itself). Then there's heat consistency, the ways that the grill's sides reflect the heat rays, and of course thickness of the steak... too many variables, I think, to build a precise chart on how long you should rest that nicely charred flank steak.

That having been said: in the section quoted above, the book refers to resting the meat for "a few minutes." So there you are -- and given the speed at which most grilling takes place, "a few minutes" sounds a lot like Robuchon's recommendation to let meat rest for half the time it took to cook it.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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OK here's my question: What is microwaved beef jerky? And why do it?

The book explains repeatedly that microwave ovens exploit the moisture content of food by heating it (2:153). As such, it can be used to quickly and thoroughly dry food -- as long as you attend to the variables of power level and time with care.

So: beef jerky (3:184). The flank steak is cut with the grain into thin strips and marinated in soy, fish sauce, sugar and salt for 48h. It's then dried and microwaved for a total of 5 minutes in small batches. (There's an additional step to crisp it up by pounding then frying it.)

As for why, well, this cuts the drying time by about 10 hours, so that's my guess.

Also, is microwaving herbs as easy as it sounds?

Yep: recipe on 3:312 (also one for frying herbs in the microwave with a bit of oil), again, with a note that this is a speedier method of dehydration than a conventional dehydrator.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Also, is microwaving herbs as easy as it sounds?

Yep: recipe on 3:312 (also one for frying herbs in the microwave with a bit of oil), again, with a note that this is a speedier method of dehydration than a conventional dehydrator.

I noticed this recipe in the online review version, and have been dying to use it on sage leaves to serve with butternut squash ravioli.

Matthew Kayahara

Kayahara.ca

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Is there any way to cook cranberry beans without losing their awesome coloration?

I think you've stumped the book there, Renn -- but I'm also pretty sure that the answer is a flat "no," because the pigments in mottled beans like cranberry beans are water-soluble.

ETA: Just checked McGee (485): yep, they are.

Edited by Chris Amirault (log)

Chris Amirault

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It's very interesting to read these explanations but when I read any kind of science papers I am of course interested in the results part but even more in the part which describes the experiments to get to the results. In science the interpretation of experimental results and discussion part can be sometimes very different depending which scienctist is working on it. It's not that I don't believe their explanations but I would always like to understand what experiments they did to get to these explanations. Does the book have any description of the experiments ?

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Well, it's not a science paper; it's a book about cooking. As a result, there aren't "methods" sections for each of the explanations. Thankfully, I suppose: given the depth of explanation on a wide array of subjects, mandatory methods discussions would multiply the size of the book by an order of magnitude!

There is some discussion of the general experimental approach in the first volume, and there are a few discussions of specific experiments here and there, especially when they were surprised. ("Jaccarded meat is juicier" got a lot of experimental attention.) But in general, like most cooking books, you're expected to take the sum total of the explanations, citations, and reputation of the authors to place your faith in the knowledge presented. It's pretty clear to me that the quality of those three things surpasses any cooking book I've ever seen -- by a few miles.

Chris Amirault

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Why exactly are some gnocchi leaden and others as light as pillows? Recipes differ notably in the ratio of flour to potato, eggs or not, etc, but I suspect that technique plays as important a role.

 

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Another stumper!

There are two "modernist gnocchi" recipes on 4:119 and 123 using Activa & gelatin, on the one hand, and Kudzu root starch, on the other. The pasta section that closes volume 3 focuses nearly entirely on wheat (and egg) pastas. So no insights on the leaden gnocchi question, sadly.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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It's really a shame that all the press coverage focuses purely on the whiz bang stuff: sure, there are recipes with (optional) centrifuged components. There is also an entire section of grilling! And one on braising! And one on roasting! Plus don't forget that all of volume one is stuff like food safety. A lot of people (Alice Waters I'm looking at you) are pooh-poohing the book based on some ludicrous belief that "Modernism" is somehow unemotional or some such crap. When it's not like the book is even exclusively focused on techno-wizardry at all! It's sort of infuriating, really.

It is true that the -for lack of a better word - "scientific" recipes - the ones requiring centrifuges and autoclaves, etc. are the ones that get the attention of the media. They're looking for something different to cover, obviously.

I'll admit to thinking most of those recipes were pure wankery reading about them the first time; the sort of thing I can't really be bothered with in the kitchen, especially when I'm just trying to feed my family. I won't be buying a $500 cookbook set anytime soon on my budget, let alone start stocking hydrocolloids and buying whatever equipment. I don't even own a Kitchen-Aid. :rolleyes:

However, I am very interested in the techniques and information about food and cooking that are coming out of this sort of work. Things like juicing pomegranates with Ziploc bags; resting meat; what goes on inside of a wok. I'm relying on eGullet to show us the breadth of information in these books. It seems it's not going to come from other mainstream sources, because it's not whizz-bang enough.

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