Demand for Modernist Cuisine Will Temporarily Outstrip Supply

In my previous post, I explained how I arrived at the decision to print 6,000 copies of Modernist Cuisine in the first press run. Initially, the plan was for all 6,000 copies to arrive at about the same time. They would be printed and assembled in China and then loaded into containers for the long trip across the Pacific. Then trucks would pick them up at ports of arrival in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere, and finally, the books would fan out to warehouses, both those of individual booksellers, like Amazon.com, and distributors, like Ingram.

Unfortunately, the printer ran into some delays in the binding part of the process. Although all of the books are now printed, binding is not yet complete on all of them. Chinese New Year has been another source of delay, like most businesses in China, our printer shuts down for two weeks surrounding this major holiday. A similar delay occurred last fall.

The good news is that the first shipment of books has left China and is now steaming its way across the Pacific. It is due to arrive at the port of Seattle on February 19. As soon as the books clear customs, they will be trucked to the nearest distribution centers. If you have pre-purchased a book, depending on the bookseller and how long ago you put in your order, your set might be on its way to you in the last week of February or the first week of March. This is actually ahead of schedule!

The bad news is that this first shipment contains only 500 books. The next shipment, which should be larger, is due to arrive on March 17. After that, books are due to arrive every week or two through early May.

As of this morning, 2,721 copies have been pre-ordered through various booksellers, so unfortunately, the first shipment will fulfill only some of those pre-orders. Please bear with us; we will catch up as the books come in.

The old-school publishing way to handle this matter would be to hold all of the books until enough have arrived to fulfill every order placed to date. I actually had people suggest that to me! I was horrified. Some people put in their order way back in August. They were first in line, so it only seems fair that they should get their books first.

Apparently, holding books is the conventional wisdom in publishing because publishers consider the bookstore, not the reader, to be the customer. Publishers take great pains to avoid looking like they are giving advantage to one store over another. So if a shortage develops, the publisher typically delays release until it can give every store its allocation of books on the same day.

That strikes me as just plain silly. It is a simple fact that some stores (both the online variety as well as those made of bricks and mortar) have been accepting pre-orders for Modernist Cuisine for months now. Why shouldn’t they get precedence?

Our allocation strategy is to send each store or distributor a prorated share of the shipments based on the number of orders they have taken. That seems fair to both customers and stores. This allocation scheme means that if you order Modernist Cuisine today, you’ll get it at roughly the same time no matter whom you order from. But if you ordered it months ago, you’ll get it before people who order it now.

This isn’t an exact science, of course. Some distributors have longer delays than others in moving new books through their system. Some distribution centers are farther than others from Seattle, and not all vendors use the same delivery services. I can’t control those variables, so the scheme is as fair as I know how to make it.

There is one small loophole to “roughly the same time” that requires a bit of an explanation. Most books are basically sold on consignment, meaning that stores retain the right to retain any books they stock that do not sell. Books that come back from retail outlets are usually remaindered because they become worn from being handled while on display.

For this very reason, expensive art books are almost invariably sold to bookstores on a non-returnable basis. As a result, most bookstores can’t afford to stock them, the cost of carrying the inventory is just too high. Instead, the store takes one copy to put out for display rather than sale; then it takes orders from customers. This is the way that most brick-and-mortar bookstores are handling Modernist Cuisine. I suspect, however, that a few stores have taken the plunge and bought some copies on spec. They will likely have bought through our distributors, so I can’t say whether they bought copies to fulfill customer orders or to place for sale on on their shelves.

So it may be possible to find a copy of Modernist Cuisine for sale in a bookstore, even if it is back ordered online. Then again, it may not. We’ll just have to find out.

The reason I bother to mention all of this is that the possibility of a shortage of Modernist Cuisine looms in our future. Normally speaking, pre-orders don’t add up to much; people tend to wait for reviews and hear the buzz via word of mouth before they decide to buy a book. In our case, pre-orders are already approaching half of our initial print run. They are running well ahead of my expectations and those of the publishing experts that I have consulted.

Frankly, we have no idea how to extrapolate from our amazing pre-order rate to total sales of the book. It seems likely, however, that in the months ahead, people will continue to order the book at least at the current rate that they have been ordering, and possibly at a much quicker pace. If the latter occurs (there is, of course, no guarantee), then we may find ourselves sold out of the first print run before we can fulfill the last pre-orders. Customers ordering at the tail end of the pre-order period could then see a delay of a few weeks to perhaps a few months before their books arrive.

We’re trying to figure out ways around this issue. We’re now working on ordering a second print run, and talking to our printer about accelerating their shipping schedule. We’ll keep you posted on our progress.

As the First Books Arrive by Air, We Ponder: Did We Print Enough?

The 49 lb. box on a dollyWe were so excited to see the first bound copies of Modernist Cuisine in their beautiful acrylic cases that we couldn’t wait for them to cross the Pacific by boat. So we had a small number shipped to us by air, despite the eye-popping delivery cost involved when you ship a 49 lb / 22 kg package halfway around the world in an airplane.

It was worth it. Several of us gathered in my office as we opened the outer carton, then opened the inner carton, then removed the kitchen manual and elaborate padding, and then, at last, lifted out the case with the five major volumes inside. A chorus of “oooooh” went up in the room, and at that moment, the weight of what we have made really sank in. I don’t mean that just figurativelyModernist Cuisine is so massive you can almost feel its gravitational attraction. You don’t want to drop it on your toe!

Cracking the sealThose of us in the room had seen the photos in these volumes and read the text over a hundred times during the past several years, as we developed the material from rough concept to final, proofread form. But it really does look different, and so much better, when finally printed on a state-of-the-art press and bound, largely by hand, into a high-quality book. Subtle details like the rounding of the spine (so that the books open flat), the extra-wide gamut of the photography, the exquisite sharpness of the text, and the silky feel of the varnished Japanese art paper all really add to the experience.

Lifting off the outer cartonSince then, a few others have laid hands on the books, and many of them seem to have similar experiences. The very positive reception raises the question of whether our first printing will be large enough to satisfy the initial demand.

I’ve been asked many times how many copies we ordered for the first printing. My first impulse was to decline to answer; was this something that one talked about? Would it help or hurt sales of the book?

So I asked one of my publishing consultants what is normally done. “What do ‘real’ publishers say about details like that?” He said, “Oh, that’s easy to answer. They lie!”

Apparently, it is a time-honored tradition among publishers to exaggerate any statistics associated with their books. In fact, it happens so frequently that there is a common phrase in the business: the “announced first printing,” which is the number that the publisher wants you to know. It may or may not be the actual number of first-run books.

Opening the kitchen manualThe economics of printing reflect the fact that there is a lot of work up front getting the presses set up, making the plates for each color of ink, and so forth. For a small print run, those up-front costs can dominate the overall cost. The per-copy cost often drops dramatically as the number of books printed rises. As a result, a publisher commonly orders just 5,000 copies of a new hardcover book initially. That is enough to achieve a substantial economy of scale while hedging against the risk that customers won’t want that many. That said, some books are published with a first run of only 1,000 books or even fewer.

Lifting up the top layer of paddingAlso for most books, the first run is also the last run; that’s all of that given title that will ever be created. Books are sent back to press for second and subsequent print runs only if sales warrant. One commonly hears in publishing that about 40% of all books that are printed are pulped because nobody buys them. This partly reflects the economics of printing, but there are other business and marketing factors that often induce publishers to print too many books, as an industry insider explains here.

Removing the inner cartonAfter thinking it over, I decided that the best thing for Modernist Cuisine is to be transparent and tell everybody what our print run really is. We ordered 6,000 copies of Modernist Cuisine.

We had a lot of internal debate about that number. About a year before the book came out, I took a bunch of printed pages to New York City and made the rounds of publishers. At that point, I hadn’t yet come to the decision Unwrapping the main caseto publish the book myself. One question that I asked about was print run. The answers that I received between 2,000 and 3,000 copies were one of the principal reasons that I eventually decided not to work with those publishers. If they thought that they could sell only that many books, then they probably would; the estimate would likely be self-fulfilling. I didn’t want to work with companies that had that little faith in the book.

Sliding volume 5 out of the caseOf course, I also realized that they might be right! Even so, a tentative approach to printing seemed like a bad idea, given the even bigger plunge I had already taken on writing the book. So my initial plan was to print 10,000 books in the first print run.

We ended up with a number in between, in part because every new book inevitably contains a number of typos. Despite our extensive proofreading, this is bound Perusing volume 4to be true for Modernist Cuisine as well. Given that it contains well over a million words, even a 99.999% accurate proofreading process will miss something like a dozen errors. Once the first copies are out, we and others will catch those mistakes. We might as well fix them on the second printing; otherwise there are that many more copies out there with the error.

Plus, warehousing the book costs money. We did a lot of spreadsheet analysis into how much it costs to warehouse various quantities of books for up to two years. Initial demand is now looking so strong that perhaps we didn’t need to worry about storing books (more on that in my next post), but it’s always important to ask the “what if” question before you leap, rather than after.

Does this mean that the first edition is 6,000 copies? Well, that depends on your definition, because The colored edges of the pages make it easy to find a particular chapter there are no strict standards. Publishers use the term to mean the first typesetting of the book that includes the content. There can be multiple print runs within a single edition, including the first edition. Book collectors often do use the term “first edition” to mean “first print run.” Others, especially in the textbook business, reserve “edition” to mean a substantial revision to the content, as distinct from simply a reprinting with the typos fixed.

Our goal with Modernist Cuisine is to reach as many people as we can, so rest assured that we will continue to print the book by ordering new print runs as often as we need to.

Photos by Ryan Matthew Smith. Copyright 2011 Modernist Cuisine, LLC

The cutaways look fantastic in print

Doneness and Article in Men’s Health

During the writing of Modernist Cuisine, our editor-in-chief Wayt Gibbs pointed out to me that, according to the Webster’s Third New International unabridged dictionary, “doneness” is officially not a word. My response was that it ought to be, and unless there was another word that communicated my meaning just as clearly, then I would insist that we make “doneness” a word. [Editor’s note: We later discovered that the word is indeed included in the 2002 addenda to Web3.]

Doneness —now officially a word, and no longer in need of being separated from other words with a pair of quotation marks—succinctly captures a rather complex notion. For me, doneness means cooking a piece of food to the ideal texture, temperature, taste, and flavor to match the personal preference of whoever will be eating it.

Steak is a great example of a food that elicits strong personal preferences for specific doneness. Some of us are enthusiastic carnivores and want a steak to have a flavorful charred crust, but a center that is raw and meaty. Others, for reasons hard for me to fathom, insist that their steak be well done.

Traditional techniques for cooking steak, like grilling, require that the meat’s time over the heat must be just right. Cook a steak sous vide, on the other hand, and it becomes simple to nail the perfect degree of doneness every time. This is because you set the water bath in which the steak cooks to the final temperature that you want the steak to reach. Once it achieves that temperature, it just doesn’t get any hotter. This difference is one of the most compelling arguments for cooking sous vide, whether you’re a restaurant chef or a home cook.

For the March issue of Men’s Health magazine, I worked with the journalist Paul Kita on an article he was writing on how to prepare the perfect steak at home by using a MacGyver-like sous vide setup. If you pick up a copy of that issue, which is on newsstands now, you’ll see that Paul did a great job of distilling the essential details of how to select the perfect cut, age the meat for great tenderness and flavor, and then cook the steak with nothing more than a zip-closure bag, a pot of water, and an accurate digital thermometer.

One important detail that didn’t make it into the article, however, is the cooking temperature that will yield your preferred degree of doneness. If you happen to like rib-eye steak cooked medium, then the bath temperature of 58–60 °C / 136–140 °F suggested in the article is right on. But if, like me, you prefer your steak done medium rare, a sous vide bath temperature of about 56 °C / 133 °F will give you that juicy pink doneness.

In Modernist Cuisine, we recognize that everyone is entitled to their own preferences for how they like their meat or seafood cooked. With this idea in mind, we developed dozens of “best bets” tables for cooking various cuts of meat and seafood. In each table, we offer suggested temperatures and cooking times that span the gamut from rare to well done.

You may have seen other tables with temperatures corresponding to different degrees of doneness. But notice that those conventional tables rarely include cooking times, which is a crucial component for food safety. Unfortunately, these older tables are usually based on misunderstandings about U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations. In Modernist Cuisine, you’ll find an entire chapter devoted to all of the superstitions around food safety and government regulations. When it comes to cooking meat and seafood, commonly prescribed cooking temperatures almost always result in over-doneness!

It is often claimed, for example, that you must cook beef, veal, or lamb to an internal cooking temperature of 63 °C / 145 °F to prevent foodborne illness. This statement is totally false. The FDA requires NO specific internal temperature for steak. Put simply, even the FDA balks at the idea of telling millions of meat-eating Americans that they cannot have their steaks pink and juicy.

If you study the microbiology at work, as we have, you learn that there is very little need to prescribe a specific internal temperature because the inside of a healthy muscle is sterile. The immune system of the animal took care of eliminating any pathogens in the muscle. (If it hadn’t, the animal wouldn’t be healthy.) So unless the meat has been cut or punctured, the interior will remain sterile even after being butchered into cuts of meat.

It’s the surface of the meat that you need to worry about, because handling it can spread bacteria from the outside of the cut and make you ill. (A word of caution: some cuts of meat are sold “blade tenderized,” which involves puncturing the meat with a large number of small blades. This process can carry bacteria inside the cut, contaminating the meat throughout.)

When you pan-roast or grill a steak, the searing hot temperatures quickly kill any bacteria that have taken up residence on the surface. So it is virtually impossible to cook an intact steak this way and not sterilize the exterior.

The situation is different, however, when cooking steak sous vide. If the temperature is low enough and the cooking time is too brief, some of the bacteria on the surface may survive and remain infectious. If you’re worried about this possibility, you can eliminate the risk by blanching your vacuum-sealed meat in water hotter than 70 °C / 158 °F for a couple of seconds prior to cooking. Alternatively (and this is the approach we prefer), use a wickedly hot blowtorch to give it a quick sear, which also causes a delicious brown crust to form.

Modernist Cuisine to Enter the Cookbook Hall of Fame at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards

Modernist Cuisine will be inducted into the Gourmand Hall of Fame of Cookbooks during the Paris Cookbook Fair on March 3, 2011. The Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, a unique international competition for the book sector that this year drew the participation of publishers in 154 countries, has named Modernist Cuisine the most important cookbook of the first ten years of the 21st century.

Modernist Cuisine Box Set
Best in the World Badge

“If Leonardo da Vinci was alive today, he would write a cookbook called The Codex of Cooking,” said Edouard Cointreau, the President of the Gourmand Awards. “This cookbook exists at last. It is Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.”

The book was written by Dr. Nathan Myhrvold with Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, all respected scientists, prolific inventors, and accomplished cooks in their own rights. Bilet will receive the award in Paris on behalf of the team.

“Nathan, Chris, and I are thrilled that Modernist Cuisine is being hailed as such a significant culinary publication,” says Bilet. “We are very proud of the book and are honored to be recognized among the world’s leading culinary authors.” The Gourmand World Cookbook Awards adds only one book every year to its Hall of Fame, and Modernist Cuisine is just the tenth book to receive this high honor.

Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking is a six-volume, 2,438-page set that reveals science-inspired techniques for preparing food that ranges from the otherworldly to the sublime. The authors and their 20-person team at The Cooking Lab have achieved astounding new flavors and textures by using tools such as water baths, homogenizers, and centrifuges, and ingredients such as hydrocolloids, emulsifiers, and enzymes. Modernist Cuisine is a work destined to reinvent cooking.

The Gourmand World Cookbook Awards were founded in 1995 by Edouard Cointreau to honor those who “cook with words,” and to help readers and retailers find the best food and wine books published worldwide.

For more information, visit https://modernistcuisine.com/contact.

Review: Ideas in Food

Although this blog is mostly about our book, Modernist Cuisine, I’d like to direct some attention toward another book that has come out recently: Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work by Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot. Aki and Alex have been friends of mine since we met online six years ago. Virtually nobody knows them from their restaurant cooking, because their main professional gig was at an obscure lodge in Colorado. The inn had only eight rooms and catered primarily to wealthy elk hunters, who sat down to dinner expecting ranch-style comfort food and instead got a state-of-the-art tasting menu. I once made the pilgrimage out to meet them and eat their food, and it wasn’t an easy journey. The nearest airport had no commercial flights and was more than an hour’s drive from the lodge.

Despite the obscurity of that restaurant, Alex and Aki have gained fame because they also run a website, Ideas in Food, which chronicles what they have learned from their many creative experiments with cuisine. Over the years, the two have written about many culinary innovations of their own and have also reported and explained techniques discovered by others. Ideas in Food has become a must-read for anyone interested in the evolution of cooking techniques.

Ultimately, the reputation that Alex and Aki gained from the site grew substantial enough to launch their careers as cooking instructors, consultants, magazine columnists and now cookbook authors. It’s a story that could have happened only in this Internet-enabled meritocracy that allows talented people to reach wide audiences regardless of their location or financial resources.

Ideas in Food, the book, brings their cuisine to a new and wider audience. It makes an interesting complement and contrast to Modernist Cuisine. It’s a vastly smaller book (319 pages, each of which is a bit less than half the size of a page in MC), and as a result is vastly more affordable ($25 list price, versus $625 for MC). It contains no photos or diagrams, which is another big difference, because MC is an intensely visual book.

Ideas in Food is published by a traditional publisher (Clarkson Potter), and it seems clear that a lot of effort was made to ensure that it conforms to the normal expectations for cookbooks. This is part of the reason that the book is small and inexpensive and has no photos but that is only the tip of the iceberg. I find this fascinating, because in Modernist Cuisine, we basically broke all of these rules, whereas Aki and Alex had to live with them. It is entirely appropriate that we each took the paths we did, because we had totally different goals. Indeed, that is the fundamental reason that we at MC decided to start our own publishing company.

The first 237 pages of Ideas in Food are organized into a section called “Ideas for Everybody.” The recipes give both volumetric measures (cups, tablespoons, etc.) and weights (in grams only) for the ingredients. A lot of effort has been made to simplify the recipes. They bravely (and in my view, correctly) position sous vide as a technique for everybody, and also include mention of the CVap oven (a brand of low-temperature steam oven, which we cover at length in MC).

The last 67 pages of the book are set aside for a different section titled “Ideas for Professionals,” and the discussion here focuses on hydrocolloids, both starches and gums. In this section, the volumetric measurements go away; only grams are given in the recipes. Many of the basic techniques of hydrating and using hydrocolloids are covered here, including a basic discussion of spherification.

The separation of “everybody” from “professionals” is, on the one hand, a reasonable compromise. I am sure that this structure let them get away with including some fascinating material, while at the same time, letting their publisher feel good about the accessibility of the book.

On the other hand, I can’t help but think it ridiculous to imply that xanthan gum, tapioca flour, and some other common ingredients need to be quarantined off in a section for “professionals.” Xanthan gum is available in most supermarkets. (In Seattle at least, every Safeway carries Bob’s Red Mill brand ingredients, and xanthan gum is one of them.) Xanthan gum is super easy to use you just stir it into a liquid to thicken it. Unlike some other hydrocolloids, xanthan gum’s performance doesn’t depend on the temperature of the liquid or its ion content. Just stir!

The only thing even vaguely technical about xanthan gum is that you use it in small quantities. If you want to thicken a sauce with xanthan gum, you typically add about 0.1% to 0.2% xanthan gum by weight. To put that in perspective, the typical amount of salt you put in a savory cuisine sauce is about 1% so you use about one-tenth to one-fifth as much xanthan gum as salt. That just means you need a decent scale. One liter of sauce needs 1-2 grams of xanthan gum. Now, why is that hard?

Please don’t think that I’m dumping on Aki and Alex Ideas in Food is great. I’m not even dumping on the people at Clarkson Potter. After all, they have tons of experience selling cookbooks (a lot more than I have!), and I am sure that they made the decisions that they think are best. They very likely will sell Ideas in Food to many times the number of people who buy MC.

Another way in which the book differs from MC is in the kind of recipes it contains. Here too, I see the influence of the editing and selection process. A joke I have with Alex is that of the most interesting techniques that he and Aki have pioneered on their website, more of them appear in my book than in his! That probably isn’t literally true, because Ideas in Food (the book) often mentions the techniques in passing. But Modernist Cuisine certainly covers them in more detail.

All in all, I heartily recommend Ideas in Food. It is a great introduction to many important ideas and techniques in cooking.

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.

Review: Keys to Good Cooking

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.

Harold McGee

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.

Keys to Good Cooking

Keys to Good Cooking

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.

Inside The Lab with the Modernist Cuisine Kitchen Team: Food Styling

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.