See Us in Action!

Maxime Bilet, Chris Young, and Nathan Myhrvold.

With so many upcoming talks, presentations, classes, and demonstrations, we’ve added an Events page. We’ll also blog about events as we add author appearances to the schedule.

Today, we’re happy to announce that MC coauthors Nathan Myhrvold and Maxime Bilet will be appearing at The Restaurant Show in London on Monday, October 10, 2011, at 2:00 p.m. GST. Click here for more details.

We also have two new events with Sur La Table coming up. At the first, Nathan will turn up at the Sur La Table stall at the Los Angeles Farmers Market on Thursday, October 20. The second event, on Monday, November 14, will feature both Nathan and Max at Sur La Table’s SoHo location in New York City.

Our Urban Herbs

Between grilling ribs, making rare beef jus, tossing pizza dough, and duties as the resident barrista (really, he makes the best macchiatos!), our Culinary Research Assistant Grant Crilly recently discussed one of his other roles at the The Cooking Lab: gardener.

Tell me about the system you set up for growing herbs outside The Cooking Lab.

We plant all of our herbs in burlap coffee bean sacks. You can get them for free from just about any coffee bean roaster. Each bag lasts only for about a season, but they work well for both holding moisture in and for drainage purposes. We put them on pallets, so they don’t rot at the bottom. They’re just regular shipping pallets, but they create a nice circulation underneath the bags.

Tell me about the hoses you have set up for watering.

It’s an automatic drip system, which is set up to drip for 60 minutes every four hours for an 18-hour period throughout the night. You don’t want it to drip during the day because you’ll lose most of the water to evaporation and you can even burn some of the plants on a sunny day.

Do you use any fertilizer?

We use compost. It’s all from Cedar Grove. That’s the local waste management composting company. All of the compostable waste from our building goes to Cedar Grove actually, most of the compostable organic waste from the Seattle area goes to Cedar Grove. They then turn it into actual compost.

You don’t really do much in the way of trimming the plants back, do you?

No, we don’t trim like in a normal garden because we want the blossoms and flowers and everything. We use those. And the bees like them! We just do some general weeding.

The garden is between the Lab’s building and the parking lot, which isn’t a lot of space. Would you say you could do this on, say, an apartment balcony?

Yeah, you can do this anywhere. The nice thing about this system is that you can adjust the size. You can do one bag; you can do a hundred bags. And you can move them around. We used to have garden beds out there, but this system works better because if one plant is done for the season, you can take it out, scrap it, and get a new bag for a different plant to replace it.

Tell me about the cherry tomatoes.

This year has been a rough one for tomatoes in the Pacific Northwest. We grow two types of tomatoes out there: Sweet 100s and Sun Golds.

Some of these herbs I recognize, some I don’t. For instance, I see more than one kind of thyme and basil.

Yeah, there’s a few different types of thyme. There’s a French thyme, and then a lemon thyme. There’s a little bush thyme, but we don’t really use that. The thyme grows like crazy. There are a few different basils, too: a globe basil and a green basil and a purple basil. And then there’s a Pistou, which is a petite basil.

What are some of the more interesting or unusual herbs you grow?

We grow pineapple sage. If you grab it and mush it real quick, it smells like pineapple. Stevia is interesting: it is like pure sugar. It’s the only zero-calorie sugar. It’s super sugary. It’s like eating a whole thing of Bubblicious bubble gum. We grow salsify. We have cute little purple carrots.

You grow chamomile, right?

We used up our Roman chamomile during the last Lab dinner in Max’s sherry reduction for the spot prawns course. Chamomile also has a dry floral component like sherry; they match up really well. Max infuses it in the sauce at the last second. So what you see now, that’s pennyroyal: it looks kind of similar. We use it to flavor broths or serve with fish. It dries on the bud, but we use it fresh or dried. It’s good fresh, but we like to flavor things with the dried pennyroyal.

So, do you really grow enough of each herb to use?

No, we use them for garnishes and stuff like that. We’re not using them for substantial amounts of food. But as a garnish, they bring our dishes a nice freshness.

What are you going to be doing this time of year to prepare for the winter?

Rip everything out, pretty much. Just let it be dirt for a couple of months.

In the springtime, when you put the dirt in a new bag, will you actually dump it out or put the whole bag in a new bag?

You can’t really do that because the bags are so tender, they will start to decompose a little bit. So you have to dump everything out and put it back in there. But you’ll want to do that anyway because you want to rip the old plants out and loosen up the soil. And start over. Get new sacks. Plant new stuff.

Even though some of the herbs would come back?

Yeah, some would, like the mint. Most of the mint and chives are from last year. But it’s getting too out of hand. It’s getting crazy.

So it’s time to restart?


Tipping the Balance

When Nathan began seriously thinking about Modernist Cuisine, he was adamant about one aspect of the recipes: they would all be measured by weight. At The Cooking Lab, we believe that precise measuring by weight is the only way to ensure a dish turns out accurately every time.

The other day, Farhad Manjoo published an article–almost a plea, really–in The New York Times advocating for more cooks and cookbooks to toss their cups and spoons and use kitchen scales instead.

While he doesn’t mention hydrocolloids, or other Modernist ingredients that can change a recipe if off by just 0.1 gram, he does give this anecdote in defense of scales:

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, the managing editor of the blog Serious Eats, once asked 10 people to measure a cup of all-purpose flour into a bowl. When the cooks were done, Mr. Lopez-Alt weighed each bowl. “Depending on how strong you are or your scooping method, I found that a ‘cup of flour’ could be anywhere from 4 to 6 ounces,” he said. That’s a significant difference: one cook might be making a cake with one-and-a-half times as much flour as another.

We ran into the same problem during the production of MC when we wanted to give a table of average volume measurements for people who did not own a scale. Yet despite all of our efforts, it is impossible when working with solid ingredients to consistently obtain a given number of grams simply by measuring the volume. The ingredient dimensions, the force with which you fill the measure, and the natural shifts in water and solid content all contribute to inconsistent measurements; there just isn’t any practical way to replicate these factors every time.

Manjoo explains why we don’t see many recipes giving quantities in grams or ounces, despite all of the evidence that everything from carrots to hydrocolloids needs to be measured by weight:

Yet the scale has failed to become a must-have tool in American kitchens. Cook’s Illustrated magazine said scales were in the kitchens of only a third of its readers, and they’re a fairly committed group of cooks.

There’s a simple reason for this: The scale doesn’t show up in most published recipes. American cookbooks, other than baking books, and magazines and newspapers generally specify only cup and spoon measurements for ingredients. A few, like Cook’s Illustrated, offer weights for baking recipes, but not for savory cooking. (The Times Dining section recently began using weight measurements with baking recipes.)

This creates a chicken-and-egg problem for the kitchen scale. Cooks don’t own scales because recipes don’t call for one, and recipes don’t call for one because cooks don’t own one.

Many people argue that they prefer to cook by feel: they don’t measure because they don’t need to. But they are making recipes that they know, and they have acquired a sense of taste and confidence in the kitchen through a significant period of trial and error. The truth is professional chefs, bakers, and pastry artists often do things by feel, too, but only because they have gained such a breadth of experience beforehand.

Because we wrote our book to teach people and to empower them with accurate information, we saw it as fundamentally important to give them the precision of a weight for every ingredient (the sole exception we made is for final fine adjustments to seasonings that are highly dependent on the individual taste of the cook). People who are learning how to cook and follow a recipe according to volume often end up disappointed by failure and can end up losing interest in cooking; that is a terrible shame when it happens.

We are hopeful that more cook­book authors will embrace this philosophy. Good scales are cheaper and easier to find than ever, and we hope they find their way into all modern kitchens. You can read all about them on pages 1·94-95 and 4·41 of Modernist Cuisine, and find our recommendations in our Modernist gear guide.

Why a Book Was Needed

In this video, Nathan passionately explains the need he perceived and is trying to fill with Modernist Cuisine. You may have heard his story before: having realized that no book included all of the science, techniques, and information out there on Modernist cooking, he strove to create the ultimate guide, including the best high-tech techniques from world-renowned chefs. But it’s different hearing Nathan tell it; his enthusiasm is catching. We bet you’ll be running to your set of books in no time.

If you would prefer to watch this video on YouTube, you can view it here.

Astor Center Presents Dr. Nathan Myhrvold

Astor Center of New York City will present an evening with Nathan Myhrvold on Thursday, November 17, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.:

Join Nathan Myhrvold at Astor Center to learn more about the journey of discovery behind the project, from the new techniques to the cutting-edge photography, the scientific and mathematical modeling used, and what the team envisions for the kitchens and restaurants of the future.

Nathan during his March talk with Padma Lakshmi at the New York Academy of Sciences

Tickets can be purchased in advance for $25. For tickets and more information, click here.

See Maxime at the Epicurean Classic in Traverse City

Modernist Cuisine coauthor Maxime Bilet will be making an appearance at this year’s Epicurean Classic in Traverse City, Michigan. As is EC’s tradition, Maxime will be cooking up a storm at La Becasse on the evening of Friday, September 9. (For reservations, call 231.334.3944.) Max will also give a talk the following day on Modernist techniques for home cooking.

The Epicurean Classic runs September 8-11, 2011. For tickets, directions, and a complete schedule, visit

Nathan on the Photography of Modernist Cuisine

Nathan Myhrvold may be a scientist, but even he describes the cutaway photos found in Modernist Cuisine as magical. Take a look at some of the behind-the-scenes action as Nathan describes the thousandth of a second in which the photos were taken, and what ensued after that second had passed!

If you would prefer to watch the video on YouTube, you can view it here. Adds Six Great New Features

We’ve been thrilled by the reception that Modernist Cuisine has received–not just in sales, which are a lot faster than we initially expected, but also in the rapid growth of a community of cooks who have joined us here on, on the MC-related threads at eGullet, on Facebook and Twitter, and elsewhere online. We’ve received lots of terrific suggestions from readers about ways in which we could enhance the website and better support them as they explore the recipes and techniques suggested by Modernist Cuisine and other Modernist cookbooks. Today we’re excited to announce the launch of a bunch of these new features, with even more to come soon.

Check out the freshly minted Cooking with MC area of the website for:

  • Getting Started with the Recipes, which suggests recipes you might tackle first in Modernist Cuisine, whether you are just starting out as a cook, want to try using modern ingredients, or are looking for a real culinary challenge;
  • a Modernist Gear Guide for cooks who are looking to outfit their kitchens with some new tools like those covered in the book;
  • a Recipe Library that allows you to quickly find all the recipes that the MC team has published here so far–a collection that will grow over time as we periodically release new recipes and step-by-step guides to Modernist techniques;
  • a remarkably useful Recipe Finder that includes a complete list of all 1,500 or so recipes in the Kitchen Manual and allows you to instantly hone in on those that use any ingredient, tool, or technique that you choose;
  • a full Index to the Kitchen Manual, which is the addition most requested by readers and is supplied in PDF form so that you can print it out and keep it with your set;
  • a Keyword Search (technically, a concordance) that searches the full text of the book for any term you enter and displays each page number on which it appears, along with some surrounding words for context.

All of these new features are free. But to get the most out of them, and to gain access to the Cooks Forum and Reader Gallery that we’re currently constructing and expect to open soon, please register as a member of the site. Registered members can choose to receive new recipes by email before they appear on the website. If you have a copy of the book, be sure when you create your account to provide information about where and when you purchased your book, and then answer a validation question to gain Confirmed Owner status, which qualifies you for exclusive offers.

We hope you enjoy all of these new features, and we look forward to your comments and suggestions.

The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, Part 3

Arriving at Our Style

[See part one of this series for rec­ol­lec­tions by pho­tog­ra­pher Ryan Matthew Smith about how he came to join the MC team, and part two for his account of the lessons he learned about shooting food.Ed.]

One question people ask me again and again is: “Why did you choose to shoot most of the images for Modernist Cuisine on a solid black or white background?” There is no simple answer to this. Five main factors drove us toward this approach as the best solution for our design.

  • Efficiency
    MC is a really big book, it is heavily illustrated, and we had just a couple of years to complete the photography. So every day I had to complete a huge volume of shots (we took some 147,000 during the course of the project). Having a solid, consistent background kept the shooting moving along quickly. We had to light just the subject, not an entire set, so we didn’t have to spend a lot of time setting up lighting.
The solid black also allows for maximum contrast for certain subjects
  • Consistency
    One of the design challenges for a multi-volume work like Modernist Cuisine is the need to unify the diverse parts of the book with a common visual language. For a book of such wide scope with so many photos, common type styles and illustrative elements aren’t really sufficient, the images need to all share some common “look” so that readers never turn the page and suddenly feel like they have dropped into a different book. By using a small number of backgrounds, we hoped that photos spanning a wide range of subjects would nevertheless share a family resemblance.
Especially nice for liquids, a solid backlight can really bring out the fine details of a splash
  • Flexibility
    Many chapters in Modernist Cuisine are chock-full of complex layouts, in which half a dozen or more art and text elements must fit on the page in a clear and attractive way. These jigsaw puzzles are a lot easier for the designer to solve when the photos have a solid background that matches the page. Photos in which the subject extends to the edges of the frame, what photographers call “full bleed”, images effectively limit design options to devoting most or all of the page to a single photo or segregating the images in boxes. Photos on solid white or black backgrounds, in contrast, can float around text blocks and run smoothly off the page.
When filling a spread with annotations, a solid background helped keep captions easy to read
  • Isolation
    Throughout the book, but especially in the many step-by-step photo sequences, we tried to maximize the clarity and impact of the photographs by emphasizing the foreground subject. We found that with the background blank, the reader’s eye is naturally drawn to the focal point of the image, which makes the step-by-step instructions much easier to follow.
Keeping the viewer looking at the intended focal point is key for step-by-step photographs
  • Style
    I have always preferred a minimalist approach to photography. I like the subject to stand alone as the center of attention. Solid backgrounds thus resonated with my personal aesthetic.
One of my personal favorites from Modernist Cuisine

Of course, every design choice has its trade-offs. Our initial attempts to shoot on white paper and black velvet left some subjects looking like they were floating in space. We fixed this problem by changing shooting surfaces to white or black glass. The glass throws up subtle reflections that ground the subjects.


That solution brought its own challenges, however. The reflections were often too strong, sometimes even mirror-like in intensity. So we simply toned down the reflections in Photoshop by using gradients and soft paintbrushes.

A subtle reflection helps provide a sense of ground