To Err Is Human

The second printing of Modernist Cuisine started rolling off the presses at the end of March. Customers will start receiving the first books from that new print run in July. Our current order is 25,000 copies. We hope that satisfies demand, but we were wrong once before, and we may be wrong again. We are monitoring the situation and will order more books if it seems warranted.

In our original plan, we thought that the 6,000 copies of the first printing would give us some time and extra eyes to find any typographical errors. We had many copy editors and proofreaders to help us pore over the book, but after the nth reading, you become blind to any further errors. Ultimately, the way that remaining errors in a book are found is by readers.

Unfortunately, the enormous demand for MC and the unexpected delays in shipping the books to customers meant that we had very little time, with very few readers, to find errors. By the time we had to send our final files to press for the second print run, fewer than 2,000 copies were in customers’ hands.

I posted on eGullet that I was interested in finding errors. We received several responses from Chris Amirault, Chris Hennes, and others in the thread, “Cooking with Modernist Cuisine.” These responses were very helpful.

But then we started getting emails from Larry Lofthouse. Like so many people I’ve met on eGullet, I don’t know much about him personally. What I do know is that Larry is an error-finding machine—he started sending me an email almost every hour with mistakes he had found. Some weren’t really errors, but just appeared so. Others were cosmetic issues or wording changes that are a judgment call, but some were real, honest-to-goodness goofs. Frankly, I’m embarrassed by some of them, but I’m glad they were found.

Finding errors caused a dilemma. The second printing was just about to start; we had a couple days at most to make the final changes. So I emailed Larry to let him know about our situation. He went into high gear, as did the whole MC team. We worked night and day and wound up scrubbing the entirety of MC. Then we corrected and reproofed everything Larry and the others had found and (just barely) made our press deadline.

Larry did all of this work because it seemed to him like the right thing to do. He never asked for anything in return, but we are so grateful that we’re giving him a copy of the second printing, and we have invited him and a guest over for dinner at the lab later in April. Thousands of people will have a better experience with MC due to Larry’s efforts.

That’s not to say that we have now corrected every last error, however. Indeed, in the days since the presses started running again, we, Larry, and other readers have identified a few more mistakes. If and when we undertake a third printing, we’ll correct those, too.

In the meantime, we are making available here a list of corrections and clarifications for the first printing. We’ll update this list whenever new goofs are spotted. It’s available in PDF format as well, in case you want to print it out or have a handy searchable version on your computer. If you spot a mistake in your copy that isn’t already mentioned here, please send it in.

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.

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.