High-Speed Video: Popcorn Popping @ 6,200 FPS

The key to why popcorn pops is its unusual moisture-proof hull. As the kernel is heated beyond the boiling point, the water inside begins to turn into steam and expand. Since the hull will not let steam out, the pressure inside the kernel begins to rise. The hull can handle a pressure of around 135 psi before bursting open. At this point, the pressure inside the kernel is released very rapidly, expanding the starch and proteins into a dense foam that sets quickly.

Kitchen Tech and Progress

The link between humanity’s development and the evolution of cooking techniques is well-documented and perhaps even obvious. Less apparent, however, is that along the way, many “traditional” chefs and cooks turned up their noses at new and emerging gastronomic tools and techniques of their time.

Some new products, such as the pressure cooker, initially seemed destined for mass-market adoption, but have never become commonplace. Other, much more outlandish-sounding contraptions, perhaps most notably the microwave oven, eventually became so widespread that a backlash occurred and people waxed nostalgic for the way food used to be prepared. But somewhere between the Kyocera hand-honed ceramic knife and the Slap Chop are the inventions that simplified difficult, time-consuming, or previously unfeasible kitchen tasks enough to become essential tools in their own right.

There are Luddites and technophiles in every realm and every generation. Despite its title, Modernist Cuisine doesn’t take a strong position on old versus new. Rather, the book was created to explore the boundaries between the conventional and the avant-garde, and to push the envelope of modern cooking. Modernist Cuisine employs science to discover and explain how things work, why they don’t, and how to achieve culinary feats formerly considered impossible.

Does water boiled in a microwave oven or on an induction burner taste or behave any differently than water boiled over a gas flame or on a wood stove? Does anyone miss the prolonged stirring, beating, whipping, and kneading that is now handled by the ubiquitous electric mixer? Is a pinch or a dash somehow better than a gram or a microgram as measured by an electronic scale? Who’s to say that the ultrasonic pressure cooker won’t someday soar in popularity like the microwave oven or that the rotary homogenizer won’t ultimately be as common as today’s electric blender? Stranger things have happened.

History’s culinary scientists, inventors, and pioneers had to create every recipe, implement, and technique in use today. The team behind Modernist Cuisine is aware that not everyone wants to be on the bleeding edge of food science. But someone has to do it. Otherwise, sharp rocks and pointed sticks would be the only tools of the culinary trade.

The Language of Food

Masters of a given skill or discipline often converse using a passionate and descriptive language that is somewhat unique to their craft. Mechanical engineers use terms like “fluid motion.” Architects describe structures as having “dynamic lines” and “elegant curves.” Drummers use “bright” and “cold” to describe the sounds of certain cymbals.

Artists often say that a particular work or the raw materials from which it is made, “speaks” to them in some way. Some artists can translate what a piece says to them into language that evokes that feeling in the rest of us. Maxime “Max” Bilet is one of those artists. On a recent visit to The Cooking Lab, I asked Max about the role language plays in the creation and enjoyment of his art.

In art, as in science, a common language for expressing values and variables enables collaboration and progress. Scientists use math to convey theories and findings while artists rely on adjectives to express the elements of a piece. But as Max points out, “Whether or not you have the words for it…if someone is giving it their love, their creativity, and their hard work, you experience it no matter what your involvement with food is. Everyone connects to food and I wouldn’t presume that we know better.”

Dinner with René Redzepi

Nathan, Max, and I recently had the pleasure of meeting chef René Redzepi from Noma while he was in Seattle promoting his wonderful new book, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. I really admire what René set out to accomplish at Noma and am impressed by his well-deserved success. René’s sincerity and passion are apparent when you talk to him. And, while he is perfectly fluent in English, his modesty and restraint constantly reminds me that he is very much a Dane.

I recognized this personality trait because I’d seen it before. There was a period in my life when I lived in Sweden, and I spent enough time in Denmark with Danish friends to recognize that, in both countries, there is a profound sense of social responsibility that influences nearly every aspect of day to day life. Scandinavians like to cooperate: with each other, with society, and with nature. Indeed, the word Lego—perhaps the most famous Danish export—originates from the words leg and godt, which together roughly translate as “play well.” Those lucky enough to have dined at Noma have experienced firsthand how closely René’s cooking cooperates with nature and expresses a profound sense of place. And, having spoken with friends who have spent time cooking with René at Noma, it’s clear that the importance of cooperation and openness goes beyond the food and cooking.

Speaking of food, we didn’t go hungry on our night with René. Chef William Belickis hosted the reception for chef Redzepi and his cookbook at Mistral Kitchen. William prepared an outstanding menu inspired by the cooking of Noma, adding a few great dishes that were distinctly his own—the tandoori-charred lamb loin with a sauce prepared from lettuce was not only delicious, but also reminded me that lettuce is often given short shrift as a versatile ingredient. The meal also reminded Nathan, Max, and me how fortunate we are to live in Seattle. While we won’t be cooking with musk ox or wild sea buckthorn anytime soon, the Cascades and Puget Sound offer an abundance of ingredients that can only be found here and can imbue our cooking with a sense of place that is uniquely Pacific Northwest.

Not Your Average Carrot Soup

At August’s International Food Bloggers Convention (IFBC) in Seattle, the Modernist Cuisine team prepared a dish they (rather modestly) described as carrot soup for the kickoff reception. Before heading downtown with the team, I caught Maxime “Max” Bilet and Anjana Shanker at The Cooking Lab and asked them to describe the dish they were preparing for the reception.

Max and Anjana describe their carrot soup.

The process to which Max alludes is one of many in the book that involve the use of a pressure cooker to achieve unique tastes and textures. Anjana explained that the carrot soup presented at the reception would have a better and more complex flavor than its more familiar, ungarnished form. To demonstrate, she walked me through the plating process and described the various roles played by the additional ingredients.

Anjana plates the carrot soup.

The final product was indeed a bit hit at the IFBC kickoff reception. The turnout at the Modernist Cuisine table was fantastic. The team received many compliments on both the carrot soup and the BLAD (sample pages from Modernist Cuisine) they handed out.

IFBC Kickoff Reception

But as the reception wound down, one thing stood out for me and perhaps the other fortunate tasters at the event: Calling it carrot soup just didn’t do it justice!

Does It Matter Why We Love Chocolate?

Looking at Modernist Cuisine as a (nearly) complete body of work, the amount of information and level of detail can seem overwhelming. On the surface, it is tempting to think of the book as a research report or textbook on food science – but that is far from the full story. If you stumbled upon Modernist Cuisine in a bookstore’s cookbook section, you might ask, “Where’s the love?” The short answer from the Modernist Cuisine team would be, “It’s in there!”


Pushing the culinary envelope requires a thorough understanding of the physics and chemistry involved in cooking food. To gain and convey this understanding, we had to use some laboratory equipment and the mathematical language of science. But don’t let the technical terms fool you. We understand that love is a key ingredient in any kitchen – including ours. Our team of 20-plus chefs, writers, researchers, and photographers are passionate about cooking and sharing all they have learned on this journey with readers.


We’ll be the first to admit that the project (which began as an exploration of sous vide cooking) has grown into something much larger and more scientifically comprehensive than originally envisioned. The Modernist Cuisine team totally understands that a science-focused tome on modern cooking techniques isn’t for everyone (at 2,400 pages, it isn’t exactly “light reading” for the home cook). Rather, it is designed and written to be the most comprehensive resource for information on the latest techniques and the science of cooking. While that won’t resonate with everyone who loves cooking, we believe it will speak to food geeks like us.


In a sense, Modernist Cuisine can be compared to a book on the latest advances in neurochemistry. There exists a lot of neurological research on the chemicals that trigger feelings of love and happiness in humans. Chocolate is believed to contain several chemical compounds that interact with those neurotransmitters and can trigger the associated feelings.  Not everyone who is interested in love, happiness, or chocolate needs or wants to know the names of their associated neurotransmitters. Most are happy simply knowing that eating chocolate makes them happy without knowing exactly why that is. Others are compelled to find out exactly how the love-chocolate interaction works, and thus require a higher level of detail. Modernist Cuisine was written for them.


By exploring the latest advances in food science and cooking technology, the authors are not damning or seeking to replace traditional cooking techniques. Traditional techniques have their place — and their limitations. Modernist Cuisine is meant to pick up where traditional techniques and cookbooks leave off. The type and amount of detail one desires in their culinary reference material is a matter of personal taste, but knowing that there is a scientific explanation for much of what we know intuitively should not obstruct the experience. The answers are out there, but if eating chocolate makes you happy, the Modernist Cuisine team hopes you’ll continue to enjoy it whether you know why or not.

Official Release Date for Modernist Cuisine

We’ve been working diligently to get our book done in time for the 2010 holiday season, but have been overtaken by events. Proofreading and correcting 2,400 pages is, as you can imagine, a very big job, and it has been taking longer than we expected to complete that work. Although we are optimistic that we will be able to turn around the remaining galley proofs in less time than the first few volumes required, we are realistically still looking at a few weeks of work ahead of us.

Another source of delay arose when the external packaging for the book—the shipping box and the shock-absorbing pieces inside it that protect the heavy volumes and their slipcase during transit­­—failed a rigorous series of drop tests. The book is sold as a box set, and we have designed a very impressive slipcase for the volumes that we haven’t yet discussed publicly because we need to be certain that we can deliver the sets to customers in mint condition. The best approach is to package the sets in their slipcases and shipping boxes right at the printer, in much the same way that computers and other consumer electronic products are boxed by their manufacturers.

At more than 40 pounds (18 kilograms), our six-volume set is well beyond the usual experience of printers, so we had them create a custom-designed box-within-a-box arrangement to serve as the shipping container. Amazon.com offered to put this package, with mock-ups of our volumes inside, through a series of torture tests at their lab. It was a good thing the tests were done because the prototype failed! Two new packaging options are now being built. They were supposed to arrive awhile ago, but these, too, are taking longer than expected.

In starting our own publishing company, we’ve learned a lot about the subtleties of this business. Publishing dates, for example, are not as straightforward as you might think. I initially assumed that the publishing date was simply the first day that customers who preordered the book saw it arrive at their doors. In fact, that exact date varies, depending on how long it takes for the books to clear customs, where the customer lives, what mode of shipping was selected, and so on.

Nevertheless, the whole publishing world expects a publishing date that is a single specific day. I laughed out loud when we were looking at the calendar to choose the official release date, and an old hand in publishing told me, “You’ll want to pick a Tuesday.” Why? I was told the various reasons, and frankly none of them added up. It’s one of these old practices that may have made sense once upon a time, but continues today mainly due to tradition.

For most books, the official publishing date is chosen to be late enough so that the books have already been distributed to stores, inventoried, and put out for sale on the shelves. It is thus common for the official publishing date to occur as long as one month after books have started shipping to the customers who preordered.

All of this information is a preamble to announcing that we at last have an official publishing date: March 14, 2011. That date is more precise, but obviously a bit later than the December 2010 target that we originally posted. It isn’t a Tuesday, because for the life of me I don’t see why it has to be. But with continued hard work— and some luck—the book may actually be available sooner.

The biggest concern with the delay is that we will miss the 2010 holiday season, which is a traditional time to give gifts. Of course, the rejoinder is that the holidays come every year, so rather than being just in time for 2010, we will be quite early for 2011. Nevertheless, I personally apologize to everybody who had their heart set on giving the gift of Modernist Cuisine this holiday season.



Foodies Gone Geek

Dr. Nathan Myhrvold’s presentation at the International Food Bloggers Convention (IFBC) today appeared to be a big hit with the food bloggers in attendance today. Despite the rather scientific nature of the book and the presentation, the audience seemed engaged throughout. The high speed, high definition videos and high resolution photographs elicited cheers from the audience who demanded to see some of them again.

After the presentation, the audience had questions ranging from the definition of an emulsion to the source of the parasites pictured in the book. After the conference organizer stopped the question and answer session in the interest of time, bloggers lined up to talk to Nathan until the next presentation began.

Look for a more detailed account of Nathan’s presentation in a few days. Meanwhile, here are a few photos.

The MC team at work

When Food Words Fail

Is food blogging its own unique art? The short answer is yes, as I discovered during Kathleen Flinn’s “Writing With All Five Senses” workshop today. This IFBC workshop was packed with professional food bloggers who seemed to have no problem with the seemingly simple exercise of describing a lemon. A few bloggers read their descriptions aloud for the group. The ones that drew applause were reminiscent of romantic poetry, complete with sensual double entendres and emotional descriptions about…the experience of seeing a lemon. “I think porn writing and food writing at their best are very similar,” said Flinn after a particularly suggestive description.

Each exercise (touch, smell, sound, and taste) elicited emotionally descriptive and evocative musings from the audience. I eventually stopped trying to compete and just listened to what the others were writing. That, as it turned out, was the overarching message of the workshop.

“Pay attention to every moment of your life,” said Flinn in her summation of the session. “You must love something about food to be a food blogger. Challenge yourself to embrace even more something you love, because it is so easy to get caught up in feeding the beast.”

This reminded me of something one of the chefs at The Cooking Lab told me yesterday. As I watched the chefs prepare dishes for this week’s IFBC events (look for videos of this here later), I asked Max if the average person’s palate was sophisticated enough for them to distinguish and describe the complex sensations associated with what I was eating. “Well,” he said with a polite smile. “We may have to learn how to describe all of the flavors and textures we experience when we eat, but we are born knowing how to taste.”

As the subtitle of Modernist Cuisine suggests, cooking is as much art as science. This is true of eating as well. But while science can help a chef express his or her artistic vision of a meal, the eater needs to neither know the science behind it nor have the words to describe it to enjoy the result.

Turning lemons into...food porn?

The Cooking Lab Reception

Last night, the authors of Modernist Cuisine hosted a small demonstration and reception at The Cooking Lab, where the book was created. (I say “created” rather than “written” because the book contains more original art and research than some universities — but that is for another post). In attendance were approximately 30 food bloggers, many in town for the International Food Bloggers Convention (IFBC) which kicks off later today. I will leave the coverage of the reception itself to the other bloggers for now, but you can see a copy of the menu here. I personally am still thinking about the ultrasonic fries and pressure-cooked grits.

The authors — Nathan, Chris, and Max — clearly enjoyed the passion and energy of the assembled group. Nathan was constantly surrounded by a group three people deep, who barraged him with questions about everything from metallurgy to physics. Chris engaged in detailed and thoughtful conversations with smaller groups and individual bloggers. I overheard a few guests ask, “You did WHAT to that cherry?” (You probably had to be there to really appreciate that, but the authors created a delicious foie gras that looked like a cherry.) Max, who happily conversed and entertained from the kitchen side of the lab, said of the evening, “Every conversation I had was meaningful.”

Don’t get me wrong. This wasn’t a social gathering of the book’s or the authors’ fans; they were food writers and connoisseurs. They asked some tough questions and pressed for their answers. But they did so out of what appeared to be genuine interest. The conversations I saw struck me as in-person analogues of the sincere and bidirectional online interactions on which the IFBC is based.

But you needn’t take my word for it. If you are in Seattle and happen to be registered for IFBC, stop by the Modernist Cuisine display on Friday night and see for yourself. The first 50 or so attendees to stop by for a taste of our caramelized carrot soup with young ginger, licorice root, and carotene butter, will also receive a sample booklet to take home to the family. See you there!