Harold McGee is one of the pioneers of the idea that science informs us about how cooking works. His master work is On Food and Cooking, first published in 1984 and then reissued in revised form in 2004. Food writer Michael Ruhlman has written that “On Food and Cooking is, in my opinion, hands down the most important book about food and cooking ever written.” It’s hard to disagree because the idea that science has utility for a chef is a theme that has driven a lot of modern cuisine.
That said, On Food and Cooking isn’t a cookbook; it doesn’t cover tips or techniques. The book focuses instead on the science (primarily chemistry) that drives many aspects of cooking. Although the book contains implicit lessons for the chef, and for anyone who has curiosity about how things work, it doesn’t offer much in the way of explicit guidelines.
McGee remedies this omission with his most recent book, Keys to Good Cooking, published in October 2010 by Penguin Press. This new work focuses exclusively on the tips and tricks that can transform an ordinary dish into something extraordinary.
Previous books on culinary tricks have tended to suffer from what I call the “always or never” phenomenon. Chef A’s book says “in order to have a good result, you must always do X.” Meanwhile, Chef B is equally insistent that “one should never do X”, sometimes even as it discusses the very same dish. Who should you believe?
In other cases, the chefs agree on the proper technique and proclaim that “you should always do X, because of reason Y”, yet the reason given is easily seen to be false. Does that mean that you should or shouldn’t do technique X? Again, it is unclear what to believe.
The great thing about Keys to Good Cooking is that McGee is exactly the sort of person that you’d want to sort out these sticky issues and get to the real truth. He does this for trick after trick, creating an engaging work that will be useful to any serious home cook or chef.
In Part One of this three-part series, I described how we developed the recipes for Modernist Cuisine. In this second installment, I will shed some light on how we captured the high-quality, amazingly vivid photographs found in the book.
Most of the credit for the imagery in Modernist Cuisine goes to Ryan Matthew Smith, our photographer, who seems to make every frame explode with detail and vibrancy. But for every photo that causes a reader to say, “That’s crazy; how did they do that?” a member of the kitchen team likely did something risky to get that shot.
One photo in particular has attained near-legendary status due to its level of danger: the Pad Thai cutaway. The picture is already impressive because of the use of the cutaway technique, a method frequently employed throughout the book. (We have the luxury of working near a machine shop, so anything that a chef might want cut in half, such as an appliance, can usually be sliced within a day or two.)
The famous Pad Thai Cutaway photo features a cutaway wok with all of the ingredients for pad thai suspended above it in mid-flight, including the noodles. To capture the realism of noodles being wok-fried, Max and Ryan had to toss all of the components, in smoking-hot oil, as high as possible into the air. This is a feat that turns out to be akin to juggling napalm.
The Pad Thai Cutaway features a halved wok containing sizzling hot oil, noodles, and the dish’s other components.
While no chefs were harmed (much) in capturing images for the book, it is important to note that for every remarkable shot that graces the pages of Modernist Cuisine, someone on the kitchen team spent hours making it work, often by doing something many people would consider crazy.
Check back again soon for the final installment of this three-part series, in which I’ll explain how the kitchen team developed the parametric recipes and tables found in Modernist Cuisine.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Modernist Cuisine culinary team!
Allow me introduce myself. My name is Maxime Bilet, and I am the head chef of research and development in the culinary lab and one of the co-authors of Modernist Cuisine. It has been a very intense three-year journey of creative endeavors and accomplishments here in the kitchen. The entire Modernist Cuisine team has shared an amazing learning experience that we are excited to soon share with you. Every dish, recipe, and photo in our book tells a story of our inspirations, the seasonal bounty of the Pacific Northwest, the very unique processes that we learned to refine, and most importantly, a culinary collaboration that we hope will inspire other chefs and bring clarity and awareness to the great insights of Modernist cooking.
For me, Christmas is both a period of sharing and introspection. It can be an observance of gratitude, a celebration of life, and also a time to share with those whom we care deeply for. As chefs, our greatest gift is to create a feast of abundance. Each year, the flavors or the inspiration may change, but the intention is always to express our love for family and friends by feeding them as best we know how.
As a Frenchman, the Yuletide meal for me means goose, foie gras, chestnuts, farce, gratin d’Auphinois, roasted pears, and Bûche de Noël. Since I grew up in New York, most of my holiday meals have been a wonderful combination of American tradition and French flair. This has meant a little herb butter with the turkey, some mustard jus with the baked ham, a gratin d’Auphinois made with yams (c’est sacrilège!), or even having a praline-flavored Bûche de Noël share the table with apple pie and pecan ice cream. I have come to love baked sweet potatoes, sage-scented bread stuffing, and cranberry jelly from a can as much as any other Christmas dish.
A few weeks ago, Anjana, Grant, Johnny, Sam, and I got together and discussed what might be a way to share our Modernist interpretation of a Christmas feast, something that would exemplify our experiences together working on the book, as well as our varied cultural and life experiences. One iconic Christmas image that we all shared was the honey-glazed ham with pineapple rings and maraschino cherries. Thus, we decided that we would provide our Modernist take on this cherished dish.
For our version of honey-glazed ham, we cure and slowly cook a pork shank. Then we serve it with bright cherry gelée orbs and shaved fresh pineapple. Johnny’s simple glaze of fresh pineapple juice and honey not only brings balance to the rich and salty pork, but also unifies it with the other components.
As for the rest of the feast, we decided that a cabbage component, a sweet potato dish, and a pumpkin pie would round out our version of a Modernist Christmas meal. So, first, nothing is better than deep-fried Brussels sprouts, period. (Thank you, David Chang!) You can make anyone who hates vegetables eat Brussels sprouts simply by deep-frying them until deeply golden. They will have an incredibly complex and nutty flavor.
Our sweet potato dish consists of confit in butter cooked sous vide and topped with a delicate version of “whipped marshmallow” made by aerating a fried sage infusion. Finally, Grant worked on an elegant rendition of pumpkin pie that turned out beautifully. I’d like to think that it turned out as “Frenchie” as pumpkin pie has ever been, but since Grant is a native of the Pacific Northwest, I’ll have to settle for Modernist.
We really hope you enjoy these recipes. Happy holidays to you and yours.
Deep-Fried Brussels Sprouts
Yields: 4-8 portions
Peel away outer green leaves off from Brussels sprouts and reserve.
Cut sprouts in half lengthwise and deep-fry in 190 °C / 375 °F oil for approximately 3-4 min, until deeply caramelized.Drain on paper towels.
Season fried Brussels sprouts to taste and reserve warm.
Brussels sprout leaves, from above
Blanch reserved outer leaves in boiling water for 2 min and then shock in ice water.
Melt butter in pot and warm blanched leaves.
Garnish the fried sprouts with the sautéed leaves.Season with lime juice.
Christmas Ham Hock with Pineapple and Cherries
Yields: 4-8 portions
Ham hock, fresh, with skin on and bone in
Set hock aside, combine all other components for liquid cure and dissolve.
Submerge hock with cure and vacuum seal.
Cure hock refrigerated for 3 d.
Remove hock from brine, rinse and vacuum seal.
Sodium nitrate, optional (for color)
Refrigerate vacuum-sealed hock for 24 h.
Cook sous vide at 65 °C / 149 °F for 48 h.
Remove hock from bag and clean away any excess gelatin.
Pat dry and reserve.
Pineapple juice, fresh
Combine juice and honey in pot.
Clear liquid honey
Reduce over medium high heat until syrupy, about 10 min.Reserve warm.
Deep-fry cooked pork shank in 200 °C / 390 °F oil until golden brown and slightly puffed, about 3 min.
Brush with glaze and slice to desired thickness off of bone.
Fresh pineapple, peeled
Slice 3 mm / ? in thick and punch out coins with 4 cm / 1½ in diameter ring mold.
Black cherry juice (from bottled)
Season cherry juice as desired. It will be a seasoning for the pork, so be generous about acidity and sweetness.
Blend in calcium gluconolactate and xanthan gum to fully disperse.
Vacuum seal and refrigerate for 1 h to hydrate.
Pour into silicone hemisphere molds and freeze.
Combine and heat to dissolve to make setting bath for cherry spheres.
Heat bath to a simmer and remove from heat.Drop frozen cherry spheres into hot sodium alginate bath.
Allow spheres to set in bath until the center of each sphere is no longer frozen, about 3 min.
Rinse spheres in hot water three times and reserve in fresh warm water until ready to serve.
Arrange thinly sliced pork with cherry spheres and pineapple. Serve with Brussels sprouts and sweet potato confit on side.
Garnet Yam Fondant with Sage Foam
Yields: 4-8 portions
Red garnet yam, peeled
Peel and use ring cutter to cut out tubes measuring 4 cm / 1½ in. in diameter and 6 cm / 2¼ in thick.
Combine all and vacuum seal.
Unsalted clarified butter
Cook sous vide at 90 °C / 194 °F for 1 h 20 min.
Drain and remove from bag. Cool or serve immediately.
For yam chip:
Red garnet yam
Slice into 1 mm / 1?16 in sheets on mandolin.
Punch out disks that are 3 cm / 1¼ in. in diameter and reserve.
Combine all and bring to a boil to make syrup.
Blanch yam disks in the syrup for about 15 s.
Lay on nonstick tray and dehydrate at 62 °C / 145 °F for 12 h.
Maple syrup (Grade B)
For sage foam:
Fry sage in 190 °C / 375 °F oil for about 10 s.
Drain on absorbent paper towels.
Combine with fried sage leaves and vacuum seal.Cook sous vide at 90 °C / 194 °F for 30 min.
Strain and cool sage infusion.
Add and dissolve into sage infusion.
Whip with electric whisk to form stiff peaks.
Spoon over sweet potatoes and garnish with yam chips.
Pumpkin Pie: Butternut Squash Custard
Yields: 600 g
Butternut squash, peeled and cubed
Place all ingredients in pressure cooker and cook at full pressure (15 psi) for 20 min.
Remove lid and reduce until the bottom of the pan is barely wet. Remove spices.
Puree squash mixture, and pass through fine sieve.
Maple syrup (Grade B)
Measure 500 g of puree for recipe.
Squash puree, from above
Place all in Thermomix and blend for 1 min.
Turn on heat and continue blending until 90 °C / 194 °F is reached.
Maple syrup (Grade B)
Cast onto pastry table with bars at a thickness of 1.5 cm / ½ in until firmly set.
Refrigerate until use.
Toasted walnut oil
Pumpkin Pie: Ginger Cream
Yields: 250 g
Whip all to medium peaks.
Pipe 1 cm / ? in tip into cylinders with sides touching to make sheets.
Ginger juice, raw and fresh
Toasted walnut oil
Pumpkin Pie: Caramelized Crust
Yields: 600 g
Blend in food processor and reserve.
Dissolve sugar and salt into water.
In large bowl, pour flour and butter mixture over the liquid mixture.
Mix until just incorporated.Place on silicone mat and press into layer about 2.5 cm / 1 in thick.
Place in refrigerator and let rest for 1 h.
Remove and roll out 3 mm / ? in thick.
Rest in refrigerator for 1 h.
Bake in 160 °C / 320 °F oven until golden, about 18 min.
Maple syrup (Grade B)
Heat in pot until just melted and whisk to emulsify.
Brush all over the pastry crust and bake in 190 °C / 375 °F oven until dry, about 10 min.
Pumpkin Pie: AssemblyYields: 4 portions
Butternut squash custard square
Cut crusts to desired dimensions.Cut custard to fit on top of crust, with crust evenly exposed on edges.
Cut frozen ginger cream into the same dimensions as the custard. Be sure to place cream on top while still frozen.
Transfer to serving dish.
Garnish with orange zest, grated walnut, and walnut oil.
During promotional events for Modernist Cuisine, we are often asked what exactly we do all day. While one might imagine that our days are filled with whimsical experimentation coupled with high-tech gadgets and mysterious powders, the reality of this project is that a book needs to be written and that book needs data.
So, the short answer to what we do all day is that we provide data for the 1,000+ recipes and step-by-step procedures contained in the book. This information includes the numbers, percentages, ratios, and recipes for the plethora of formulations and tables that supplement the body text of Modernist Cuisine.
In this three-part article series, I will describe the process by which we developed our recipes, staged the photographs, and tirelessly captured the parametric data for the book. This first installment will discuss our recipe development process.
Inside The Lab with the Modernist Cuisine Kitchen Team: Recipe Development
Over the last three years, we have developed hundreds of recipes in our test kitchen. Most of these recipes have been either adapted from or inspired by various chefs and styles of food. But beyond inspiration, our goal with these recipes has always been to put our own unique Modernist take on them. Whether we improved upon the methods used or completely restructured the dish, we always sought to provide something novel in our approach to every recipe.
The recipe selection and development process evolved over time. Initially, Chris and Max worked together closely with Nathan to assemble an initial plan of recipes that dovetail with the body text to illustrate all the various cooking techniques and ingredients discussed in the book, and that also fit together to form highly appealing plated dishes.
That recipe plan was refined and elaborated extensively as the research kitchen staff grew. In 2009, the recipe development and testing process evolved into its final form. That process usually begins when Maxime, after hours of research and consultation with Nathan, presents the rest of the kitchen team with a dish that inspired us. We are then collectively given the assignment of finding a way to redefine and refine the technique(s) in which the inspired dish is approached.
For example, several months ago, we were asked to make a Modernist ham and cheese omelet. We already knew there were certain components that we wanted treated a certain way. For instance, the omelets filling would consist of finely diced ham and cheese, but it would also contain a siphoned scrambled egg with a silky smooth consistency.
After many trials, we finally found the perfect temperature and time for cooking the eggs sous vide, in such a way that the finished eggs were still fluid, but not sticky. From there, we moved on to the omelets skin, which we found to be ideally tender when baked in a steam oven at around 82 °C / 179 °F.
In short, we began with a vision of the model traditional omelet (specifically, a fluffy un-caramelized skin with a moist filling) and methodically worked our way towards its Modernist extreme, creating, in our opinion, a remarkable result.
The Modernist kitchen team whiteboard.
Stay tuned for the second installment of this three-part series, in which I will describe our preparations for capturing the images used in the book.
As described in a recent post, quite a lot of effort went into making Modernist Cuisine a long-lasting and high-quality experience for the reader. From the paper stock and type of binding, to the inks and printing method, the team researched and scrutinized every detail before making final selections for the project.
We are excited to share with you the first image of Modernist Cuisine, which will also include a kitchen manual (not shown).
A number of people have asked about the kitchen manual, printing quality, paper, and binding of the forthcoming Modernist Cuisine. From the very beginning of this project, the book was to be of the highest possible quality. From the depth of the information and accuracy of the data, to the resolution of the images and the durability of the paper, the Modernist Cuisine team went to great lengths to ensure that the finished product would be of the highest quality. Here are a few examples of what went into the process.
Nathan describes the printing process at IFBC 2010.
The Kitchen Manual
For starters, we realized that it would not be prudent to actually take the volumes into the kitchen with you. The volumes are incapable of withstanding splashes of flour, olive oil, liquid nitrogen, or water, all of which would ruin the stunning photography. The book, however, felt incomplete without something durable enough for the kitchen. Our solution is a highly practical, spiral-bound Kitchen Manual. It is printed on waterproof, tear-resistant synthetic paper. The Manual features easy-to-use, condensed versions of many of the parametric, example, and plated-dish recipes contained in the five volumes.
The Printing Quality
We are fortunate to partner with iocolor (Seattle, WA) and the Shenzhen Artron Color Printing Company (Shenzhen, China), which are both known for their high standards of quality control, innovative printing procedures, and track record for producing high-quality printing for museums, artists, and photographers. Since the photography is such a key aspect of Modernist Cuisine, it was understood right from the beginning that only the highest resolution and widest gamut available for reproducing the spectacular photographs would be acceptable.
Stochastic screening is a difficult printing process that reproduces images in much the way that traditional film grain does. In standard book printing, a halftone dot is used to simulate changes in tone. (A printing press can only print or not.) This trompe l’oeil uses dots that range from small in the highlights to large in the shadows; they are lined up in rows with 175-200 dots per linear inch. This technique was first attributed to William Fox Talbot in the 1850s and by the turn of the century, it was in regular use. Because the surface areas of individual dots control the spread of the ink, the process tends to vary around the middle tones, causing issues with color balance.
For Modernist Cuisine, it was decided that stochastic screening would be used, a process that has become feasible on a commercial scale with the advent of computer-to-plate (CTP) systems that image printing plates directly, skipping the step of creating film. In stochastic screening, all of the dots are the same size, and the frequency of the dots creates the variation in tone. It was determined that a dot of 15 microns in size would be used to maximize the subtle detail in Modernist Cuisine. This FM (Frequency Modulated) approach is more stable on press, but even so, every Komori LS40 press utilizes scanning spectrophotometers to ensure consistent quality across the entire book.
The efforts at creating superfine details are also supplanted by the use of ChromaCentric inks. This new ink set has much less color contamination in the cyan, magenta, and yellow scheme, resulting in purer hues with which to work. This trait is especially noticeable in the ink’s ability to convert the full range of color from the RGB files captured by the digital camera used in the photography. The results are truer, more lifelike colors that traditional printing inks would leave dull and out of gamut.
Once the printing process was determined, the next task was finding the absolute best paper available for Modernist Cuisine. It’s one thing to look at paper samples in a book and pick one that you think will work, but for Modernist Cuisine, we submitted all of the likely candidates to actual printing tests. In order to achieve exact color reproduction on the tested papers, we first churned out test forms on the presses with each of the candidate papers to determine optimum printing conditions and gathered colormetric data on each contender.
Once the test sheets were analyzed, profiles for RGB to CMYK conversion were created, plate setter curves were set, and ink tolerances were entered into the on-press spectrophotometers. It was now time to convert the digital camera files for the printing conditions of each paper and then print the test papers with a sampling of pages to be used in the book. Papers were judged by how well the ink sat on the coated surface, the amount of show-through between neighboring pages, overall look and feel, and finally, resistance to scuffing. The matte-coated paper actually has a surface that is quite rough, so it was determined early on that a protective varnish would be applied, not just to make the images “pop,” but to ensure that the massive nature of these tomes would be able to withstand use for many years.
Once the 128 gsm weight of paper was chosen — it was a tough choice because anything heavier would have resulted in books that would require an assistant to read — OJI paper from Japan was chosen over all of the samples, and our testing proceeded to figuring out the type of varnish that would be applied to the paper. We produced samples that ranged from dead matte to super glossy; a mix of varnishes was chosen to showcase the fantastic images.
First-stage dummy books on the chosen paper were created, while we knew full well that the later additions of ink and varnish would add weight and thickness (about 8-10 mm) to the volumes. Producing the dummy books also allowed us to determine what kind of reinforcement would be needed for the special round-backed binding used on these volumes.
Second-stage bindings are now being created from actual printed and vanished sheets to obtain accurate measurements for the finished products before actual production continues. Even with the special round-backed binding, we recommend that you remove a book from the case by grabbing the middle of its spine, and not pulling on the top of the spine.
The result of this fanatical focus on quality will be a beautifully detailed set of volumes that should remain stunning for a lifetime or more.
To keep your coffee hot for as long as possible, should you add cream right away or wait until just before you drink it? Will the addition of cream make coffee cool faster or slower?
The Modernist Cuisine team sought to answer these important questions. It turns out that coffee with cream added actually cools about 20% more slowly than plain black coffee, so it is best to add the cream immediately. But why is this?
A sidebar in Modernist Cuisine reveals the three major principles of physics that determine why coffee with cream cools more slowly. Check out the high-speed videos below and see if you can guess these three factors!
Mr. Fahey-Burke grew up in Athens, Ohio and attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) immediately after high school. After completing his internship at Aureole in New York and graduating from culinary school, he enrolled in a six-month fellowship program at the CIA, which he spent at the Italian restaurant on campus.
Mr. Fahey-Burke then moved to Bray, U.K., where he worked at The Fat Duck for two years. He also held positions at COI in San Francisco and FiftyThree in Singapore before joining the Modernist Cuisine team as sous chef of the culinary lab.
Anjana Shanker: Chef
Ms. Shanker was born and raised in Coorg, Southern India. Her interest in food can be traced to her childhood spent on a cardamom, coffee, and orange plantation, where there was an emphasis on local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients. Ms. Shanker inherited a love of cooking from her mother, who enjoyed sharing the family’s culinary secrets as they prepared elaborate meals together.
While growing up, Ms. Shanker dreamt of opening a café to feature her homegrown coffee and spices. She eventually left Coorg to attend college in Chennai, but her agrarian upbringing continues to influence her cooking. Ms. Shanker applies modern techniques to the flavors from her past and remains committed to using local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients.
After attaining a BA in economics and history, Ms. Shanker worked for Nestlé and Singapore Airlines. She later moved to the U.S. to attend Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, Arizona where she graduated with honors. This training broadened her gastronomic education and exposed her to different culinary traditions. Ms. Shanker’s culinary training continued at Mary Elaine’s in Scottsdale, and Lampreia in Seattle.
Ms. Shanker is inspired by chefs Alain Passard and Michel Bras’s vision and approach to cooking. She is constantly honing her skills and knowledge in their path. Preserving the essence and flavor of ingredients has become a passion for Ms. Shanker, as is her work with the Hunger Intervention Program, a Seattle charity where she has volunteered for the last three years.
Johnny Zhu: Chef
Originally from Shanghai, Mr. Zhu grew up in Seattle. His roots and upbringing helped shape his passion for food, as he grew up in a family that loved to eat, travel, and share their culinary adventures. Experiences such as eating his way through Singapore for his 30th birthday helped Mr. Zhu realize his love for intense flavors.
Mr. Zhu honed his love of food into a career. A graduate of Reed College and the Western Culinary Institute, he has worked for such notable restaurants as Alinea, Jean-Georges, and Spice Market. Mr. Zhu was chef de cuisine for Veil in Seattle and then head chef for Eric Bahn’s Monsoon restaurants before joining the Modernist Cuisine team.
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