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In the interest of full disclosure, I had access to a free electronic review copy from the publisher prior to receiving my (unfortunately NOT free) copy from Amazon.com, and I work for an organization mentioned a few times in the book (eGullet).
It's hard to review this book without it coming across as hyperbolic: after all, it's a 50-pound, 2400-page beast that will cost you an entire year's cookbook budget and must have cost unfathomable sums to produce; you're either going to love it or hate it. However, I can say with confidence that if you liked McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, you are going to love Modernist Cuisine.
While the press coverage of the book so far has focused on the more esoteric aspects of the book--centrifuges, rotovaps and chemicals, oh my!--the book actually simply treats those items on equal footing with woks, sauté pans, and water. It covers them because you can cook interesting, tasty food with them. Of course, the weird stuff gets all the attention, because, well... it's weird. But this is a book that devotes an entire chapter to *water*. And the things it teaches you *will* make you a better cook. The authors are never satisfied with "it just works, don't ask why." It seems like every paragraph, on every detail, is tightly focused on the question of not just "what happens?" or "how do you do it?" but also "WHY does it work?" and "HOW does it work?" This book is particularly excellent if you are science-minded, but it is written with such clarity that I believe anyone can learn these things from it. Who knew that blowing on a spoonful of soup to cool it was so complicated, and so interesting?
Probably the most relevant criticism I have encountered is the notion that the recipes it presents are unapproachable. And a few things do, in fact, require a centrifuge (though the majority of the time it is an optional step). There is no doubt that many if not most of the recipes require ingredients that standard American kitchens don't stock. Most of us don't have Agar and Xantham Gum in our cupboards, and some find the very idea of cooking with "chemicals" a frightening, foreign, or downright objectionable practice. Truth be told these "chemicals" are no more (or less) unnatural than baking soda or refined sugar (the book spends a great deal of time discussing food safety and nutrition before diving into the "crazy chemicals"). Amazon even sells a starter kit that I've found quite useful: Experimental Kit Artistre - 600 grams. And for the most part these ingredients are not used "just for fun": the goal of the Modernist Cuisine movement is to examine the foods we eat, and our perceptions of that food, and try to make things that taste great, and perhaps even engage us on an intellectual and emotional level. I've made a few recipes from the book so far, and in particular the Mac & Cheese was astonishing: it is far and away the best M&C I've ever had or made, without question. It actually tastes like cheese! (What a concept, I know). And it's easier to make and more forgiving than the traditional béchamel-based method. So some of the recipes are simple, and some are complicated. If you have Alinea you probably have a pretty good idea of what the complicated ones look like: daunting, yes, but *not* unachievable if you are willing to put the time in.
Obviously a review of a 2400-page book could go on more or less forever, but I think the upshot is this: if you are interested in learning the "how" and "why" of cooking, of even the most mundane processes (they cover boiling water in great detail), this book is probably deserving of six stars; it is simply monumental. Save your pennies, this is a worthwhile purchase. If, on the other hand, that is *not* interesting to you, it's probably two stars: get the first and second volumes from a local university library, and don't worry about the rest (if you are only going to read the first two volumes I'd say it's tough to justify the price tag).
* Level of detail is incredible
* Covers the "how" and the "why" of every detail of the cooking process
* Depth and breadth of coverage is... well, worthy of 2400 pages
* Stunning photography, graphic design, and even printing
* Many of the recipes are very challenging
* Coverage of hyper-expensive equipment can be off-putting
* Too tall to fit on any normal bookcase
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So, here you are, reading this review. That alone is enough for me to tell you that if you're intrigued and thinking maybe you want to own Modernist Cuisine, then I can answer all of your concerns and questions right now by saying YES! YOU WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED! Just click the button and order it, and settle back and read the rest of this review while you wait for delivery :)
Does MC live up to its hype? Yes it does. Is it relatively expensive as cookbooks go? Well, on a pound-for-pound basis, no, not really. Sure, in absolute terms something like $450-$625 for a "Cookbook" will seem crazy to many, but their error will be in pigeonholing MC as "Just a Cookbook", which is like categorizing a Ferrari as "just another car".
Are the authors of MC the ultimate Gods of Cooking? Well, no, not necessarily. They have their own viewpoint which becomes pretty clear after reading through any amount of the text, but still their contribution to the science and practice of cooking is huge, and their resulting construction (this set of books) is worthy of ownership for ANYONE interested in food OR cooking.
Reading MC is like reading McGee's On Food and Cooking, but with actual practical advice, actual recipes, and incredible illustrations.
So, misconceptions: "This book is only for the Molecular Gastronomy crowd". Really not true. There's surprisingly little Xtreme Cooking in the first three volumes. This set has a HUGE amount of general information that will be relevant and interesting to any cook, and indeed any lover of food. Even if you find the plated dish recipes in volume five to be inaccessible to you, you (yes YOU) will get an amazing amount of useful and fascinating information out of the first four volumes (at least).
Another one: "No mortal can actually cook any of the recipes in this book". Well, there are a few like their Mac & Cheese that pretty much anyone can probably do, but the majority of the recipes in the book become accessible as soon as you're willing to acquire the capability of cooking Sous Vide, which does not seem at all unreasonable. But even if you never cook a single recipe out of this set, you can easily get your money's worth from it just for the knowledge about food and cooking that it will impart to you.
What will you find in here? Lots of information you won't find anywhere else. This might not be the *only* book you need to own on cooking, but if you don't have a copy then your world will be seriously incomplete. Here's a quick rundown of the contents:
Volume one: History, Microbiology for Cooks, Food Safety, Food and Health, Energy, Water. The history section is interesting, but honestly the book really pick up until it starts talking about really practical stuff. In this respect, volume one, while fascinating, is the most boring of the lot. There's lots of interesting stuff packed into the Food Safety chapter for example, but in later volumes the authors seem to play more fast and loose with some of the safety issues. But this volume sets the standards and the basis for using the cooking techniques in the rest of the set safely. The food and Health section can be summarized as "Honestly we don't know very much about nutrition." and "It's probably not so much what you eat as how much you eat.". The authors give many examples of where the "common wisdom" about nutrition from the last 20-30 years actually turns out to be unjustifiable once the high-quality long-term studies are in. The chapter on the physics of Water sets the stage for perhaps the most core scientific principal that permeates the rest of the book: the way that water affects almost everything in cooking.
Volume two: Techniques and Equipment. Covers all the traditional cooking methods (grilling, pan-frying, etc., etc.) and for each it provides interesting and scientifically useful information about how it *really* works. Again, almost nothing in here is specific to Molecular Gastronomy type cooking. It's all really useful information that anyone can use, especially the backyard BBQ aficionado. In addition, this volume covers cooking Sous Vide in depth. Chapter 10 covers equipment for the Modernist Kitchen, and while it's easy to be scared off by the fact that they include a $10,000-$30,000 centrifuge in the "Must-have tools for the Modernist Kitchen" list, the reality is that having some form of vacuum sealer and a temperature controlled water bath for Sous Vide cooking will cover the majority of the techniques in the book. Sure they cover lots of Xtreme techniques, but, again, the reality is that a much higher percentage of the information in the book will be relevant, or at least interesting, to almost any reader.
Volume three: Animals and Plants. More than you ever wanted to know about how animal muscle flesh becomes meat, how it behaves chemically, under various forms of cooking etc. Lots of practical advice about how to do stuff. Parametric recipes for Risotto that alone will be worth the price of the book for some people. 400 pages of interesting and useful, practical information. Most of it not so obscure that any cook won't be able to learn MANY useful things from it.
Volume four: Ingredients and Preparations. Finally, some actual "modernist" space-age stuff. This volume covers Thickeners, Gels, Emulsions, and Foams, and additionally includes chapters on Wine and Coffee. Many if not most of the techniques described here are accessible to the home cook, even if they do involve exotic ingredients that would formerly have been more at home in a commercial food processing company or a food science lab. Lots of interesting and new ideas for food creation and presentation.
Volume five: Plated dish recipes. This volume is a showcase of the authors ideas and those adapted from other "modernist" chefs around the world. While the previous volumes (especially the later ones) contain many recipes, this volume shows how to construct complete plated dishes constructed out of multiple individual recipes and processes. In that regard it's perhaps the least interesting to a general audience that lacks the complete stable of equipment necessary to execute at least some of the dishes presented. But in terms of ideas, there's a wealth of information here for the professional or amateur home-cook.
Volume six is the Kitchen Manual, which is a spiral-bound plastic-type paper (i.e. almost indestructible) reproduction of most of the recipes in the book, along with a limited amount of reference material. The idea being that you can just take this into the kitchen when you actually want to cook something from the book. It's a nice touch, but does not really contain anything that isn't in the other volumes. It's basically just the recipes from the other volumes, and does not contain all the plated dish recipes due to space constraints.
The set's production quality is excellent. The total weight of the set is around 47 pounds, and it comes packed in multiple layers of cardboard and paper and with a nice acrylic storage case. The individual books are very large and just on the edge of usability in terms of size and weight when you curl up with one to read through it. But it's both an Objet d' Art that will look beautiful on a kitchen counter as well as a fount of knowledge that one can return to again and again.
The information contained in the set is very accessible, all of the text is very readable, and the pictures and their printing are exquisite. I would be surprised if, in the end, you didn't have a few quibbles with the authors on one point or other, but regardless of what you think of them, their production of this set does indeed represent a landmark in the history of food and cooking, at least comparable to the impact of McGee's On Food and Cooking.
There's way cool, totally useful, interesting information in this set. Whether you are a professional chef, a technology and science inclined home cook, or just a dedicated foodie or lover of beautiful things. It's really just not all that expensive considering what you get. If you fall into any of those categories, then you will NOT be disappointed.
A few slightly more philosophical points (originally from my blog reply at ruhlman.com) in regard to the more famously exotic techniques and equipment of Modernist Cuisine / Molecular Gastronomy:
I think one of the things that excites me about this book is that people will take the ideas that appeal to them and they will find ways to make them work with whatever means are available to them.
If you're a bazillionaire and want to distill/concentrate something, it's pretty easy to go out and by a $70,000 rota-vap which will do the job quite well. But there are of course much simpler distillation techniques that ought to be easily accessible to the home cook that might be pressed into service to at least do something similar. Once it's pointed out that you can do something interesting with this technique, people will find ways to accomplish those techniques, or even invent something new and even more exciting in the process.
Sous vide immersion circulator too expensive? People will adapt. DIY sous vide controllers are already one of the most often mentioned projects for hobbyists playing with things like the popular Arduino microcontroller for example.
To the degree that the ideas in MC are compelling, I think there will arise a "modernist cuisine at home" movement that will embrace simpler solutions along with the undoubtedly forthcoming consumer versions of some of these more exotic technologies, just as the Sous Vide Supreme and even PolyScience's own Sous Vide Professional have started to bring these technologies at least a bit closer to the reach of the average home cook.
I think there are a lot of food geeks out there who are excited by the idea of being able to play with food construction and "food hacking" and MC is going to give these people a whole new hobby (which might turn into a significant segment of the kitchen gadget market).
There are a lot of people who like food but who don't really "cook" for one reason or another, just as there are a lot of people who like art and may even want to create it, but don't think they can draw. In that world we now have various 3D software packages that people find empowering because the computer does exactly the stuff they don't think they're good at. For the less artistically inclined cook wannabe, MC comes along with its scientific quantitative methods with the message that things aren't magic and it's possible to understand how things work and construct a dish or recipe more or less from first principles without years of practice. It's somewhat like having a computer programming language for food.
In this respect it's not so much Modernist Cuisine but Modernist Cooks that may be enabled by the book. It may inspire an entirely new route of entry into the field of cooking.
Which is more appealing? Going to a cooking school where day after day you have the old school techniques drummed into you until you can reproduce them perfectly even though you don't really know WHY that particular magic works, or would you rather learn the science behind everything and start with a blank slate and ultimately derive many of the classic techniques while actually understanding how and why they work and then having the basis for new evolutionary experimentation?
I think if I were the head of the Culinary Institute of America, or any similar institution, I would call all of my instructors into a room and point to my new copy of MC sitting on the table and ask them "Why is it that WE didn't produce this?".
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This review isn't directed at professional chefs with large budgets. If they want to know the latest techniques at the coolest restaurants, this book seems to be a reasonable intro.
However, this book claims to be more than a review of the latest fads in restaurant technique: it claims to be a "scientific" approach to cooking, and it presents itself as a rather encyclopedic guide that has numerous insights even for the home cook.
Let me first address the "scientific" issue. Previous standards for popular "scientific" culinary guides have been set by Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking" and some other lesser titles. Aside from the descriptions of "modern" techniques, the scientific material in this book isn't a significant improvement over McGee's book, so first buy McGee's book for 1/20th of the price or so, and then maybe consider this book.
What this book does have is lots of photos, many of which are awesome and even "artistic." This makes a great coffee-table book. But only a fraction of the photos that take up so much space in this book are actually useful. Sure, it's fun to look at a grill or pan or souffle sliced down the middle. But rarely does it seem to actually add to our knowledge about what is going on. This is clear when you realize that few photos are actually accompanied by detailed explanation in the text. After dozens of photos of souffles cut down the middle, I can reasonably conclude that there are air bubbles in them that expand when heat is applied. But I already knew that. Hundreds of pages of pretty pictures and wasted ink -- for little "scientific" purpose. Occasionally, you see a comparison of photos showing variations of technique or the results of bad technique, but usually it's just a bright beautiful photo of a perfect dish. Again, great for a coffee table book. If you like that, buy this book.
Once the "wow" factor of the photos wears off, you're left with the rest of the content in the text of this book. And it is fairly disappointing. For the moment, let's set aside the bad proofreading and multitude of obvious errors in scientific understanding that have been pointed out in some previous reviews.
A "scientific" approach to a cookbook should have a few basic things: (1) empirical testing, (2) data, (3) sources for previously known information so readers can check facts, (4) discussion of methods and results. What does this book give us?
(1) Empirical testing is rarely performed. Where are the double-blind taste tests? We take the author's and chefs' word that these techniques and recipes are better than anything else, for the most part. (As I will mention below, the evidence that is reported in the wine chapter shows the problem with this.) (2) Data is only presented haphazardly, and rarely are we given sources for it. (3) Sources are rarely provided for any general discussion sections, so we just have to take the word of the author when he provides some scientific explanation that most people who haven't studied food science would know. Worse, even if this information is correct, the reader is stuck with however much detail is provided -- for some topics, that means pages of information on some minor detail, but in other cases, a summary of a few sentences might review a vast area of traditional cuisine or technique. If sources were provided, readers could evaluate the claims made and perhaps learn more about a topic if they wanted to. (4) As mentioned, discussion is uneven. Rarely is the actual value or improvement in flavor or quality by a novel technique addressed in any detail. In most cases, we just take the author's word for it.
This is NOT a "scientific" approach to cooking, in the normal sense of the word "science." It is mostly a collection of novel techniques whose worth isn't evaluated, combined with badly sourced and uneven synopses of food science knowledge. The occasional paragraph of new insight is completely buried in a morass of useless (but very pretty) photos, rehashed bits of often poorly explained old knowledge, and speculations concerning the techniques in vogue at a few top restaurants.
At a minimum, one would hope that this book would be able to separate cooking "lore" from scientific facts. Unfortunately, even that isn't always true. Take the section on wine for example. I commend the author for putting in results of recent scientific studies using blind taste tests that basically show that the most educated palates generally aren't able consistently to make basic distinctions in wine tastings. Ratings of judges in wine contests are so inconsistent that they are equivalent to picking winners out of a hat. (Don't blame me or my comment for this; it's all explained in this book, which for once actually cites some sources.)
If this is so, all of the stuff we think we know about what makes great wine comes under question. Yet, the wine chapter opens with some 30 pages laying out all the traditional lore about terroir, etc. to supposedly answer the question "What makes a great wine?" Why? If this is a scientific approach, shouldn't we interrogate those traditional theories in light of the new studies that show wine-tasting to be far more inexact than most people believe?
Ah, but the inclusion of all these old wine legends is a hint to what this book is really about: the promulgation of a certain kind of pretentious culinary culture. That's why there are large sections on wine and coffee, but none on beer or tea. The latter are not as closely associated with the highest levels of haute cuisine, while the former topics are the traditional haunts of loads of culinary nonsense spouted out by self-proclaimed "experts" who value expense over fact. The deliberate inclusion of a few hints at "low-brow" cuisine (e.g., the infamous hamburger discussion) only serves to highlight the deficiencies of the rest of the volumes. (For a book that breaks down cuisine into such broad categories as "foams" and "emulsions," why not some chapters on "alcohol" and "caffeine"?)
I'm not arguing for populism here. I have greatly enjoyed most of the fine dining and haute cuisine experiences I have had. But I would never confuse such experiences with "science," as this book seems to.
Despite the flaws, the book is not terrible. (Hence my 3-star rating.) But it is a poorly-digested first pass at a very incomplete vision. It is not ready for the home cook mainly because it completely ignores vast sections of traditional cuisine, even ones that are still very much a part of "modernist" styles.
Here I speak, for example, about baking and pastry. If there is a place where scientific knowledge and study has been done and further development is warranted, it is clearly in baking, where some precision techniques (weighing, exact temperature control, even pH measurements in sourdoughs etc.) have been in use for much longer than in most cooking.
Yet there is almost nothing in these five volumes about baking, aside from a few specific dishes (like souffles). Almost all of the subtle craft of the pastry chef should, according to the author's classification, be contained in a few sections in Volume 4, the advanced technique book on foams, gels, etc. Most baking, according to the author's categories, should fall under "foams."
But there are only two cake recipes, one of which actually is cooked in a microwave. (I wish I were kidding.) Bread only appears in a few very brief discussions. Perhaps this could be made up for with better information in the rest of Volume 4's discussions. But despite all of the fancy business of gels, emulsions, etc., little is added to traditional knowledge. For example, in the "thickeners" discussion, except for a list of more exotic and more processed thickeners that home cooks are unlikely to encounter or need, I learn about as much from this book about the science of starches as I do in a few short pages of McGee's book.
I've mostly listed criticism focused on one volume out of necessity in a short review, but this applies to this collection as a whole. It is not scientific, and the coverage is incredibly uneven for such a massive and expensive undertaking.
In sum, there are only two reasons to buy this book. (1) You want a really expensive and unique coffee-table book with lots of beautiful pictures, or (2) you're a professional chef with the resources to buy lots of unusual and expensive equipment (centrifuges, etc.) and ingredients to generate examples of the ultra-modern techniques included here.
If you're a home cook or a chef without such resources, there's no reason to buy into the hype for this book. For a fraction of the cost, you can stock up on a library of better-organized and better-researched books on the science of food that cover 97% of what you'd find in this book. If you want to experiment with the few ultra-modern techniques that might be affordable already or in the next few years, like sous vide, there are books focused specifically on sous vide already... again, at a fraction of the cost.
In a decade or so, some of the advanced techniques in this book will undoubtedly become more mainstream and affordable. Others will disappear or only be practiced at a few kitchens. By that point, there will be a number of other books on the techniques that have become mainstream, and they will surely not cost anywhere near as much as this book. Until then, for most people this is merely an uneven and incomplete, but very pretty, picture book.
A better title for this book would be "Modernist Cuisine: (An Incomplete Tour of) the Photography and Technology of Cooking (in Fancy Restaurants)."
EDIT -- A LITTLE SCIENCE CAN BE DANGEROUS
One section which I did not mention in my original review deserves special attention.
The food safety discussions in volume one should be read with some caution. I have to commend the authors for pointing out the ridiculous nature of many FDA guidelines, which have led to many overcooked pork roasts and chickens for no scientific reason.
But this book's decision to propose amended "scientific" guidelines has its flaws as well. The most glaring issue is the dependence on Salmonella death curves as the sole indicator of food safety during cooking. As the authors explore earlier, there are many types of microorganisms, and while some simply die, others can leave behind toxins. Most of these toxins can be destroyed at relatively low temperatures, but others won't be destroyed until temperatures approach boiling or even higher, sometimes for extended periods of time.
The book's recommendations to simply follow Salmonella death curves (based on data from two recent scientific articles) shows the problem with a little science. What if someone decided to roast a turkey with an oven at 140F (for days), believing (per the book's tables) that as long as the turkey was above 125F for five hours or so, everything should be fine? The FDA's recommendations to roast meats at 350F or so are overly cautious, but in this era of experimentation with low cooking temperatures, I've definitely come across many recipes for sous vide "pot roast" cooked for over 24 hours, as well as turkeys roasted below 200F for more than a day. Chances are that if one is reasonable with roasting (even, say, at 180F or so as an oven temp), the time in the high growth bacteria zone is unlikely to cause problems. But stuff a turkey and roast it for a couple days in a 140F oven, and the results could be dangerous or even fatal. How is the experimentalist cook to know that such an exercise is out of bounds in a world where it's normal to cook a vacuum-sealed roast for a day or two at 140F or lower, as long as it ends up at the right temperature at the end? (Of course, in sous vide, the roast will come to equilibrium much faster than in roasting, negating the problem of a long time in the high-growth zone.)
The responsible thing to do in this case would be to give additional scientific citations where the growth rates of other bacteria that produce persistent toxins have been studied.
And this is not the only problem in the food safety section. For example, the book advocates leaving leftovers out to cool for a few hours before refrigerating (following common amateur kitchen lore). While it's true that this is energy-efficient and doesn't strain the refrigerator, it's certainly not the safest course, particularly if you follow the book's recommendations and cover the food to avoid contamination. Yes, covering avoids contamination, but it also slows the cooling rate significantly, and with a large vat of chili or something, you are going to require an ice bath or something else to get the temperature down fast enough. Without using an ice or cold water bath, a safe course would be to break up a pot into small containers and refrigerate immediately. (To be fair, the book does describe these methods too, but only after implying it is safe in most cases to leave your food on the counter for up to four hours to cool.)
The book even justifies its advice by saying that hot food will heat up your refrigerator -- implying that you introduce safety concerns to other food in the fridge. A few years ago, I actually tested this theory myself by putting a large pot of very hot soup directly in the fridge and measuring surface temperatures of other items in the fridge with an infrared thermometer every half hour or so. Even in the cheap old refrigerator I was using, the only food outside of the pot that got above 40F was something sitting next to the pot and almost touching it -- everything else, even on the same shelf, stayed within a couple degrees of the 36F or so that my fridge was normally on average. I suppose if you had an old icebox with no air circulation whatsoever inside or some sort of novel energy-efficient fridge that doesn't maintain temperature properly, you might be careful about where you put hot foods, but otherwise, it's generally safer to get foods refrigerated as soon as possible -- particularly things that could grow spores and toxins, such as rice. If you have hot food in a large enough quantity that would strain your fridge, it's usually necessary to use a cold water bath or something to get it down to a reasonable temperature, rather than just leaving it on your counter.
If you couple these two errors together -- allowing a very long time for food to heat up during cooking and potentially develop a lot of dangerous toxins and spores, and then leave your food out on the counter for 4 hours to cool the leftovers, you could end up with food that is literally teeming with toxins and dangerous microbes. This could only happen under certain conditions with certain foods, but the problems with these recommendations are not insignificant.
There are many other concerns about safety recommendations in the book too, but hopefully these couple cases illustrate that scientific coverage in this book is indeed spotty -- and, when it comes to food safety, one should probably check any recommendation offered here against other sources. Just because the FDA's recommendations are ridiculous and nonsensical doesn't mean that one can come up with a whole new set of food safety guidelines just by reading a few scientific articles, as the authors seem to think.