'Modernist Cuisine': Peek inside a $625 cookbook

Former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold's study of sous vide cuisine led to development of his epic "Modernist Cuisine" cookbook set.

Nathan Myhrvold's epic "Modernist Cuisine" cookbook consists of five volumes housed in an acrylic case. The sixth volume, the Kitchen Manual, is spiral bound and printed on waterproof pages for easy mid-cooking reference. The title references revolutionary periods in the arts when painters, writers and architects eschewed traditional methods and created their own unprecedented styles. "Modernist Cuisine" is dedicated to a similarly innovative movement in the culinary arts.

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Microsoft's first CTO, Myhrvold left the software company in 1999 to pursue a lifelong interest in cooking and food science. In particular, Myhrvold became focused on sous vide, a method of cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags in a water bath. In 2004, Myhrvold started exploring sous vide cuisine in eGullet's online forums and he decided to write a book about it – which would eventually become "Modernist Cuisine".

Volume 1, "History and Fundamentals," begins with a history of the culinary arts, including the emergence of Modernist cooking. It also covers food safety, including the biology of food-borne illnesses, and nutrition. Two chapters tackle what the authors call the most fundamental ingredients of all cooking: heat and water.

"In the kitchen, we use these every day, in every dish. Yet even the most experienced cooks find themselves occasionally frustrated or bewildered by the unexpected ways in which heat moves into and through foods, and by the genuinely odd chemical and physical properties of water," explain the authors.

In Volume 2, "Techniques and Equipment," Myhrvold and company address the methods and machines of cooking, including how to cook in modern combi ovens and watervapor ovens. It covers specialized equipment -- such as centrifuges, freeze dryers, rotary evaporators, homogenizers and vacuum filters --and includes "several fun and only slightly dangerous tricks you can perform with a microwave." More than 80 pages are devoted to sous vide cooking, a technique in which food is vacuum-packed in bags then cooked in a water bath.

As the "Modernist Cuisine" team grew to include more cooks, editors, designers and photographers, Myhrvold moved the operation from his home kitchen to a state-of-the-art laboratory kitchen in a workshop owned by Myhrvold's patent portfolio development firm, Intellectual Ventures. The lab is outfitted with not only the latest culinary equipment, but also heavy machinery that made it possible to shoot cutaway photos that are designed to show what happens inside food as it cooks.

Volume 3, "Animals and Plants," delves into the nature of muscle and other edible animal parts and what happens as they're cooked. In the authors' words: "there are many common misconceptions based on an incomplete understanding of the unique biochemical and molecular nature of meat that can lead cooks astray, or at least prevent them from making the most of a cut or fillet." This volume also covers different methods of preparing and preserving produce and grains.

Volume 4, "Ingredients and Preparations," covers new ingredients and new ways of using traditional ingredients. "In its 400 pages, Volume 4 goes beyond traditional ingredients to explain thickeners, gels, emulsions, and foams — the real keys to both traditional and Modernist cooking at the highest level," explain the authors. "Ever want to infuse liquid smoke into lettuce or noodles? Or cook an egg to the perfect custard texture? The instructions are all there."

Myhrvold's co-authors are Chris Young and Maxime Bilet. Young opened the experimental kitchen at chef Heston Blumenthal's legendary Fat Duck restaurant in London. With degrees in mathematics and biochemistry from the University of Washington, Young is known for his ability to apply science and technology in the kitchen. A graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, Bilet worked as head chef at Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar; accepted a stage with Blumenthal's development team at The Fat Duck; and trained as sous chef to open the London branch of Auberge de L'Ile.

Volume 5, "Plated-Dish Recipes," presents recipes in a textbook-like fashion, the authors say. "Although we are telling the story of Modernist cuisine, our recipes are not limited to cutting-edge dishes. Instead, we cover everything from American regional barbecue to innovative flavored gels. The point is not to tout modern approaches or science for its own sake but to illustrate how the principles of Modernist cooking can, and should, be applied across a wide range of recipes."

Among the more recognizable recipes in "Modernist Cuisine" is one for the ultimate cheeseburger – which calls for a hamburger bun made from scratch and toasted in beef suet; a hamburger glaze of suet, pureed tomato confit, beef stock and smoked salt; a maitake mushroom, sautéed in beef suet; romaine lettuce infused sous vide with liquid hickory smoke; vacuum compressed heirloom tomato; cheese made from Emmental, Comte and wheat ale; a short-rib patty ground to vertically align the grain; and crimini mushroom ketchup with honey, horseradish, fish sauce, ginger and allspice.

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