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Image: Nathan Myhrvold
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Nathan Myhrvold is the author of "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking" — a work that traces the development of cooking from prehistoric spit-roasted meat and early agriculture to the seemingly magical foods of the modernists.
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updated 3/30/2011 8:09:35 PM ET 2011-03-31T00:09:35

Nathan Myhrvold did not just go to school; he worked on the quantum theory of gravity with Stephen Hawking. He did not just get a job; he became Microsoft's first chief technology officer. As a hobbyist, he did not just get into grilling; he won several top prizes in the World Championship of Barbecue.

So it is unsurprising that when Myhrvold decided to write a cookbook, he did not just write a cookbook.

He outfitted his kitchen laboratory in Bellevue, Washington, with hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of whiz-bang equipment, including a centrifuge, freeze-driers, humidity-controlled smokers and special evaporators. He brought together dozens of people, including top chefs, and spent the next three years turning slabs of meat into pincushions for digital thermometers and cutting expensive cookery in half to demonstrate how it works.

The result is the 2,438-page, six-volume, 46-pound, $625 "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking." Astonishing in its scope, audacious in its ambition and breathtaking in its photography, the work traces the development of cooking from prehistoric spit-roasted meat and early agriculture to the seemingly magical foods of the modernists — dishes that change temperature as they are bitten into, gels that transform liquids into solids, edible dirt — and then tells you how they are made.

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"I didn't believe it made sense to tell part of the story," Myhrvold said in a recent interview. "It seemed to me there was a huge value in having all of this material all in one big work, all cross-referenced, so that, sure, if you want to do a recipe, you can just do a recipe. But if you care about why something happens, you can figure that out, and if you want to know the why behind the why, by God we can point you at that too."

Released this month with an initial press run of 6,000 copies, "Modernist Cuisine" comes at what might seem an odd time. The Slow Food movement, with its emphasis on back-to-the-land simplicity, is widely popular. Alice Waters, one of the movement's most prominent figures, recently dismissed modernist cooking by saying such food "doesn't feel real to me." And in a New York Times review of "Modernist Cuisine," prominent food writer Michael Ruhlman suggested the style is limited to a "splinter group of passionate chefs who care about this difficult and expensive form of high-end cooking."

Myhrvold argues persuasively that such criticisms are irrelevant. First, the book is largely about new techniques, and there is no reason modernist chefs cannot also have sustainable, organic or healthy values. Secondly, he readily concedes that modernist cuisine is not for everyone, especially those for whom convenience is key.

One of the book's accomplishments, however, is helping readers, even those who might never try a modernist recipe, to understand what might otherwise just seem like bizarre food. Much like avant garde art or architecture, modernist cuisine, or "molecular gastronomy," seeks to challenge and surprise diners by showing them what can be done with food. Most buildings are not the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain; most meals do not involve centrifuged pea butter.

In other words, Myhrvold says, it is nothing to be afraid of. Most of the tools in the typical home kitchen once were technological breakthroughs, and many traditional ingredients, including baking powder and baking soda, are no less synthetic than certain staples of the modernist kitchen, such as the calcium salts in gelling ingredients. Myhrvold hopes the ultimate legacy of the book is to help some of the new methods trickle down into broader use.

The tome's price tag does raise an immediate question: Who buys a $625 cookbook? Much of the material is directed at professional chefs, who are far more likely to have access to the specialized equipment required for some of the techniques. There are only so many people who are going to make gelled spheres of carbonated mojito or foie gras parfait, or spend 30 hours making a mushroom Swiss cheeseburger with tomato confit, smoked lettuce and mushroom-based ketchup.

Myhrvold says chefs with such a modernist bent, however, should be able to learn how to do those things without apprenticing at cutting-edge restaurants like elBulli, in Spain, or The Fat Duck, in England.

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For professionals, $625 — $462 on Amazon.com — might not be too much for access to information that cost millions of dollars to produce, including a detailed primer on food-borne pathogens which reveals that much of what government officials have to say about food safety is off base. Many might find "Modernist Cuisine," co-authored by Fat Duck alumni Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, worth its freight simply for explaining how to preserve costly truffles in carbon dioxide.

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There also is plenty to fascinate home cooks, too, from discourses about how traditional cooking methods work to the debunking of conventional wisdom and easy suggestions for improving your own culinary chops. Want to turn your standard electric oven into the heating equivalent of a wood-fired pizza oven? Stick in a three-quarter-inch slab of steel, preheat as hot as the oven will go, and cook your pizza on the hot steel under the broiler for 2 minutes or less. The oven door doesn't even need to be closed, because it is the steel and the broiler, not the hot air in the oven, that is cooking the pizza.

Want to dramatically improve your charcoal grill? Put a short cylinder of reflective sheet metal around the coals. The coals primarily heat food by infrared light, which means the obtuse angles and black paint of ubiquitous kettle-shaped grills are all wrong.

During his research, Myhrvold says he perused every major food-science technical publication of the past decade in search of tips. One article seemed downright weird: The shelf life of fresh lettuce and berries can be extended by plunging them first into hot water.

Intrigued, his team tested the theory. Sure enough, dipping blueberries in 140-degree water for 90 seconds extended their shelf life from 7 days to 20. Grapes placed briefly in slightly cooler water lasted 25 days instead of five.

"You'd think, no, that will wilt the lettuce," Myhrvold says. "But it seems to wash off and kill the organisms that would wilt the lettuce. So we put it in the book."

Video: Food + science = delicious dishes (on this page)

That sense of joyful curiosity permeates "Modernist Cuisine." Myhrvold gets a kick from sharing new information, perhaps nowhere more so than where the authors explain the book's raison d'etre, cooking "sous vide" — French for "under vacuum."

The technique involves heating food to extremely precise temperatures inside plastic bags submerged in hot-water baths. Using it, cooks can eliminate the guesswork in knowing whether the food is done. Meat also can be quickly seared to improve its appearance. It's a feature of many if not most of the 1,500-plus recipes in the book.

Image: Stacked hamburger image
AP
A stacked hamburger illustration from "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking" by Nathan Myhrvold.

When Myhrvold first began to learn about the technique, there was little information available. He started posting the results of his own research on the foodie website eGullet, where other people encouraged him to write a book. That book became "Modernist Cuisine" as Myhrvold found more and more topics to explore.

Even at 2,400 pages, though, there was no room for pastry, and the only dessert to speak of is ice cream made with liquid nitrogen.

Most responses to the book have tended toward awe-struck, but it has ruffled some feathers. Myhrvold says some chefs were offended by the book's findings that the process of making a confit, cooking in rendered fat or oil at low temperatures, did not improve the texture of meat; unlike, say, the salt ions in a brine, fat molecules are too big to penetrate the flesh. One writer on eGullet suggested that sous vide's digital temperature control takes the soul out of cooking.

Myhrvold has little patience for such views. He wondered aloud whether such skeptics are not influenced by a sort of Stockholm syndrome where eaters develop an affinity for inconsistently or poorly prepared food, the way captives can develop an affinity with their captors.

"When you change something fundamental, there are some people who grouse about it for a while, and in the short run there can be controversy," he adds. "But in the longer run the part people actually like is going to happen. I can't promise you that means every technique we have in the book is going to happen, but I think we've got some interesting techniques that are going to find very widespread usage because people are going to discover, 'Wow, I like the way the food tastes when I cook it this way.'"

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Food + science = delicious dishes

  1. Closed captioning of: Food + science = delicious dishes

    >>> this morning on "today's kitchen," step by step , the cutting edge of cooking. a new six- volume set of books reveals science-filled techniques. nathan is one of the thors and joins us this morning. good morning.

    >> good morning.

    >> the book is more than $600. is this for a chef, at-home cook or scientist?

    >> it's more people who love food and are curious about it.

    >> you take recipes to the next level. you use a centrifuge on one, a homogenizer on another. you're making a striped mushroom omel omelet. how do we start?

    >> this is a mushroom puree with dehydrated egg. we don't want it too soupy.

    >> okay.

    >> we'll spread this here on the nonstick pad.

    >> okay.

    >> a little bit more.

    >> this is time-consumer, not something to make the kids before they rush to school in the morning.

    >> right. you can make the mushroom omelet without the stripes but the stripes are cool.

    >> okay.

    >> this is a pastry comb used in pastry to put stripes on things. bring it across and there are the stripes.

    >> you put it in a framing device. tell me about the eggs.

    >> just normal beaten egg. our usual rules for a three-egg omelet, two whole eggs and one yolk. it improves the texture.

    >> you let it hit the statue la first so it doesn't ruin the stripes. and you are actually going to steam it.

    >> we steam it at 179 degrees fahrenheit.

    >> other than just because you can, what's the purpose of this? does it make it lighter?

    >> it makes it perfect every time. normally a french omelet is technique-intensive. it takes years to do it just right. using a very high heat, a second off here or there and you have a problem.

    >> this is what it looks like after the steaming. it makes a nice thing. it's easy to manipulate. to make up the plate we have it here on the plate. we put some mushroom marmalade on. this is egg. it's already cooked, scrambled egg .

    >> looks like whipped cream on this thing. all right.

    >> now we are going to put a layer of the foamy scrambled eggs .

    >> how many of these do it get in an order?

    >> as many as you would like.

    >> all right.

    >> now we put on the herbs.

    >> okay. you make your little sandwich there.

    >> there you go.

    >> there is the striped mushroom omelet. tell me what we ee're making next.

    >> a vegan gelatto. this is pistachio which is a mild flavor. if you add the cream you lose the flavor. here we have ground pistachio turned it into pure mipistachio oil and we'll use this homogenizer.

    >> just like i have at home.

    >> hit run. what we are doing is beating this up. a really good blender would also do this.

    >> it allows you to combine things that don't want to be combined.

    >> and turns it into a cream. it's getting lighter and lighter. if we did it for a while we would have something with the texture of a dairy cream.

    >> okay.

    >> but it's made out of pistachios.

    >> what do you do after you have combined it this way?

    >> add some sugar. turn it into ice cream . here is some.

    >> that's the gelato?

    >> yes. it has an amazing pistachio flavor.

    >> strong pistachio flavor.

    >> which you don't get if you made something with cream and eggs in it.

    >> this last one is a pea puree using a centrifuge.

    >> right. it starts as pea puree here. we spin it in the centrifuge 40,000 times normal gravity. it separates out into almost a clear broth. then you can see there is a layer it shall ha -- hard to see that we call pea butter. it's really not a butter. but we make this into a dish.

    >> i will take a bite of that. the book is "modernist cuisine." thank you very much. we're back in a

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