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?".