Food Religion

It’s amazing to me how political the food world can be. I don’t mean political in the sense of political parties and elected officials. By “political,” I mean the process by which strong opinion is driven by deeply entrenched ideology. An even more apt term is “religion”—a set of core beliefs that are based on faith rather than reproducible evidence.

In discussing Modernist Cuisine with others, I often run into those who have ideological views about a certain style of cuisine. Here is a verbatim exchange of this sort I recently had:

Me: “Chefs following what I call the Modernist Revolution are breaking the rules and conventions of cooking. This lets them create food you couldn’t make any other way. It also helps expose some of our ingrained assumptions about food and challenges them.”

Person: “But isn’t that all about highly processed foods? Why can’t a chef just be content to expose the natural goodness of great ingredients? Why can’t food look like what it is rather than these elaborate preparations?”

Me: “Give me an example of a meal you’d prefer.”

Person: “You know, simple food, like a plate of pasta with a great sauce, a glass of red wine, some bread and cheese.”

Me: “You’ve just named some of the most processed and artificial foods in all of cooking!”

At this point, I burst out laughing. This is not very polite, especially if you are trying to win someone over to your cause, but unfortunately, I just couldn’t help it. With great sincerity and without a trace of irony, this very well-meaning person had said something that from a factual perspective was totally ridiculous. In fact, their statement perfectly illustrated the point about how food conventions become implicit. The person wasn’t even aware of the assumptions that pasta, bread, wine, and cheese are simple and natural.

After regaining my composure, I continued with an explanation. Pasta is about as different from raw wheat kernels as you can possibly get. You must select the right wheat and grind it to a fine flour. Then you mix it with exactly the right ratio of water, plus possibly egg or another binder, and then either extrude the dough through a pasta die at very high pressure, or roll it extremely thin.

If the person had said bulgur rather than pasta, they might have had a point—but pasta is an utterly artificial food in the sense that it is made via a complicated process that transforms the original raw material into something that looks completely different. Pasta was invented; it is an entirely human creation. It doesn’t grow out of the ground and it isn’t harvested in the wild. Don’t get me wrong—pasta is a wonderful and delicious food. But it is hardly an example of serving a natural product in its original form.

Bread is, if anything, even less natural than pasta. In addition to milling the flour and being careful to knead it to develop the gluten proteins into a cohesive gel, one must also introduce a microorganism that ferments the dough and produces carbon dioxide, which causes the dough to rise and bubble into a foam. Bread is not a “natural” product that grows on trees. (Although, amusingly, there is something called breadfruit that does in fact grow on a tree. Try some, and it will only reinforce the fact that it isn’t bread.)

Bread is one of the most artificial foods human cooks have ever invented. It is also one of the most successful foods. So while I totally endorse bread-making and eating, let’s dispense with the notion that it is an example of a simple, unprocessed food that resembles its ingredients.

The story of wine is much the same. Making wine involves an incredibly complicated process that involves a tremendous amount of science. If you don’t believe me, read up a bit on malolactic fermentation—or any of a dozen other steps in the complex microbial and chemical processing that winemakers obsess over. The result of all of that transformation is utterly different from raw grape juice—thank God!

Finally, cheese, like wine, is the result of tremendously involved processes that generate myriad products that are nothing like the original milk—and that aren’t even much like each other, for that matter.

Historically speaking, the initial innovations that drove these foods happened many years ago. Pasta, interestingly, was the last of these to be developed. The ancient Romans had bread, cheese (of a sort) and wine, but no pasta. The most pasta-like foods in Roman larders were panfried fritters or pancakes made with a starch or bean batter. The panisse, a dish made in Provence from a panfried chickpea batter, is probably a surviving remnant of Roman protopastas.

True pasta was introduced to Italy from the East, most likely by Arabs who brought it first to Sicily, long after the Roman civilization was gone. Medieval Italian cooking included no pasta. In that era, Italian cuisine was virtually indistinguishable from cooking in England, France, or Germany. The earliest recipe for lasagna comes, ironically, from a British cookbook. The origin of pasta may well be China, but that is still a bit murky—and in any case, besides the point of this post.

I have no quarrel with someone who says that they like eating pasta with red wine, bread, and cheese. Good for them! I think it’s arrogant for anyone to tell people what they “should” prefer to eat. Preferences and taste are, by their nature, very personal. Plus, it so happens that I like all of those foods myself.

When one discusses how food is prepared, however, it seems reasonable to insist that English words mean more or less what the dictionary says. In the conversation I quoted above, what the person I was talking to really meant to say is that, in their personal food religion, “natural”, “simple,” and “unprocessed” are all synonyms for “good.” So a familiar food that they like must, by that equation, be “natural,” “simple,” and “unprocessed.” Never mind that the actual processes for making these foods makes them more unlike their raw materials than the wildest creations prepared by a Modernist chef. Conversely, in the same food religion, “artificial” and “processed” are bad words—things you say about food you don’t like or approve of.

This particular food religion is quite widespread. People who adhere to it have a deep-rooted bias against anything new, because the ill-meaning words “artificial” or “processed” can be easily applied to any new technique. So they tend to attack Modernist cuisine because it offends the sensibilities of their food religion. Yet the same people love food that, under any unbiased definition, is completely artificial and processed. Their religion isn’t based on the real meaning of the words “artificial” or “processed” (or their opposites). Those words are used as code or slogans rather than for their literal definitions.

When people dislike artificial or processed food, what they usually mean to say is that they don’t like cheap, low-quality, industrially produced packaged foods—the kind of crap that fills the aisles of most American supermarkets. The fact that many of these foods don’t taste very good (e.g. cheap artificial vanilla), are stale by the time they are bought (because much of the processing is done to increase shelf life), or are filled with lots of salt and sugar (because most people prefer them that way!)—those are the real complaints.

These complaints have merit. There is really something bad about that sort of food. The trouble is that at some point, people started turning complaints about industrially produced crap into broader, abstract principles that any “processing” at all by human means is the evil part.

Modernist food isn’t the same thing as the ready-to-eat stuff that clutters supermarkets. Skilled chefs are not factories. They are guided by acutely sensitive palates and highly trained aesthetics, not the mission of shaving pennies off the cost of each package. The process by which Modernist chefs create their refined and sophisticated dishes must, by its nature, transform the food from its original form into something new. Once upon a time, those culinary innovations included pasta, bread, wine, and cheese. These days, it means all sorts of novel dishes and approaches. The fact that it takes great skill, technique, and inventiveness to come up with new techniques isn’t a reason to hate culinary innovation.

The Leidenfrost Effect

In a previous post, we asked what high-speed kitchen event you would like to see slowed down to human eye speed. Among your responses was a request to see droplets of water sizzling in a pan. Thus, the resulting video reveals just how much is going on during that split second when a drop of water contacts a hot surface.

Most of you have sprinkled water on a very hot griddle or pan and watched in amazement as the water broke into small spheres, skating and gliding around on the surface like tiny ball bearings or droplets of mercury. Instead of flattening out and instantly boiling away as one might expect, the water droplets appear to stay round and behave as though they are somehow hovering over the surface. As it turns out, this is indeed almost exactly what happens.

When a drop of liquid first contacts a surface that is much hotter than water’s boiling point, an extremely thin layer of vapor forms under the drop. This layer of vapor suspends the drop slightly above the surface, creating the hovering effect. The vapor also acts as an insulation layer between the surface and liquid, keeping the liquid from rapidly boiling away. This fascinating occurrence is known as the Leidenfrost effect, named for the 18th-century German doctor and theologian who first described the phenomenon.

Most of you have seen the Leidenfrost effect in real time at home, but the Modernist Cuisine team wanted to take you much closer to the action by slowing things down a bit. For this video compilation, we used a Nikon 200 mm 1:1 lens with a 2x teleconverter. The clip was shot at 3,000 frames per second. Playing it back at the conventional speed of 30 fps has the effect of slowing down the video by a factor of 100. We used liquid nitrogen (which has a boiling point of around -321°F)poured onto a room temperature surface, this creates the same effect as water on a very hot pan. The result is stunning. Please enjoy and keep those suggestions coming!

The Leidenfrost effect slowed down by 100x.

Inside The Lab with the Modernist Cuisine Kitchen Team: Trials and Variables

In Parts One and Two of this three-part series, I described the processes by which we developed the recipes and captured the images for Modernist Cuisine. In this final post, I will explain how one of the most tedious aspects of our job turned out to be among the most useful.

With most cookbooks, a chef must usually spend a lot of time deciphering a particular recipe in order to break down its components to the essentials. Modernist Cuisine is different in that we furnish the chef with parametric recipes and tables that provide the crucial components of a dish, and then we offer some suggested variables.

For example, a typical sausage recipe will contain meat, fat, binders, and spices calculated to specific measurements. In contrast, Modernist Cuisine provides a table that shows a ratio of meat to fat to binder, plus any other components, for different styles of sausage. Providing a ratio allows the chef to introduce his or her own preferences and tastes to create their own distinctive dish without having to reverse-engineer it from a static recipe.

These tables require a large, sometimes exhaustive, amount of data. For example, just to fill out the additives portion of the sausage table, we set up and tasted 56 variations of additives, binders, and emulsifiers, all in at least three different concentrations! For the 14 temperature grades in our egg chart, we tested the entire range of 55-80 °C / 130-176 °F, degree by individual degree. The sheer number of variables became mind-numbing at times, but the utility of this raw data is invaluable.

The hot fruit and vegetable gels table.

This series has encompassed in a nutshell what the kitchen team behind Modernist Cuisine does all day. While our work can be wearing, we think it is definitely worth the results, and we hope that you do as well. We look forward to the forthcoming release of the book and to finding new ways of pushing the boundaries of cuisine. As we discover more new and exciting things, we will post the results right here, so check back again soon.