When Modernist Cuisine came out in 2011, Michael Ruhlman wrote a mixed review of it for the New York Times. He was daunted by the task, and for good reason. The 5-volume set had more than 2,000 pages and as much science in it as it had recipes. On his website, Ruhlman wrote a post about his anxiety over doing an adequate review. He said: "One of the reasons the review stoked so much anxiety in me is that there’s so much in this book, it will take years before we know how revolutionary, or not, this book is; years before the treasure trove of information that’s in here filters through the professional cooking world and then down into all kitchens generally and we can know what sticks and what doesn’t."
Ruhlman's review seemed to lean toward the book being a bit too unwieldy and esoteric to have any real, practical influence on the food world, and on home cooking in particular. He thought it relied too much on geeky gadgetry and that, with its emphasis on extreme processing (never mind how that's defined), it was antithetical to the natural/sustainable/organic food movement.
So now, going on 6 years since its publication, what kind of influence has modernist cooking--both the book and the popular movement it started--had on the food scene? Most importantly, how has it influenced the home cook--and does it have anything to offer in the way of ease, convenience, and an enhanced kitchen experience for the home chef?
Let's find out.
What Is Modernist Cuisine?
Modernist cuisine, also known as molecular gastronomy, has been around for at least a few decades. It began in the 1990s with chefs like Ferran Adria (considered the founder of modernist cooking) in Spain and Heston Blumenthal in England. These chefs were interested in how they could manipulate food in delightful, surprising ways. Whenever you hear a chef on the Food Network talk about "deconstructing" a well-known dish, know that the idea has its roots here, in the modernist cuisine movement.
Nathan Myrhvold, a literal rocket scientist who has worked with the likes of Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates, came along in the 2000s. He became interested in sous vide cooking as an avocation, but found that there were very few guidelines available on how to do it. He decided to write his own, and the result, after 5 years, a food laboratory, and a number of collaborations, was the James-Beard-award-winning Modernist Cuisine--the definitive work not only on sous vide cooking, but also on the entire movement.
Thus, Myhrvold was not the inventor of modernist food. But he was the one who documented it, making it possible for the ideas to take hold, disseminate, and filter into the food industry and down to the home cook.
Modernistcuisine.com lists 10 principles of modernist cuisine. I'm not going to repeat them all here (you can click the link if you want to read them), but at the end, this is how they summarize the list:
"These points boil down to two key principles: always strive to produce the most delicious, technically exquisite food, and always apply analytical thinking and creativity to constantly advance the face of cuisine."
I would define modernist cuisine as using food science to create food art. Modernist chefs use their knowledge of chemistry, physics, and laboratory tools to push the boundaries of what's known and expected. It's food-as-art in the extreme.
This may not sound practical for the home chef, and it's true; many parts of it are not. But I've learned so much from modernist cooking, and it has revolutionized not only how I cook, but how I think about cooking.
I like to compare it to fashion: the percentage of people who wear the esoteric creations on runway models is extremely tiny. But those principles filter down into virtually every aspect of the clothing industry. They influence what's sold in every clothing outlet in the world. Even though most of us have just a vague idea what runway fashion influenced the clothes we buy, those clothes wouldn't exist if there hadn't been one.
Like fashion, many recent trends in cooking have been influenced by the modernist cuisine movement. Things you'd never heard of 5 years ago are becoming commonplace. You may not be making toast foam for dinner or striped omelets for breakfast, but your cooking has almost certainly been affected by many of the principles of modernist cuisine. Most importantly, these principles include an emphasis on understanding the science of food and cooking, and the pursuit of knowledge and understanding in the kitchen.
How Can Modernist Cuisine Improve Home Cooking?
We know that modernist cooking can help you become a more knowledgeable, more creative chef. But is there anything about it that can help the home chef in practical ways? Can it make your food taste better? Can it make your life in the kitchen easier? Can it make cooking more fun?
I believe the answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes, whether you're looking for a weekend project or just want to get an easy dinner on the table.
What modernist cuisine offers falls, I think, into two major categories: 1) principles and 2) tools.
As with fashion--as well as music, art, movies, etc.--what filters down to popular culture is what is the most intriguing to people. And what makes food and cooking intriguing, at least for the home chef, are techniques that make cooking easier, more delicious, and--if you're lucky--more fun.
Modernist cuisine principles are straightforward (even if the methodology sometimes isn't): using science and critical thinking to understand food and improve cooking skills. Cooking is the closest most of us get to doing chemistry on a regular basis. It follows that the better we understand the science of cooking, the better cooks we'll be. This plays out in a number of ways.
(As an aside, Modernist Cuisine is not the only movement to apply science to cooking. Books like Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking has had a great influence, too, as has geeky Food Network chef Alton Brown and websites like Serious Eats and Chowhound, to name just a few.)
Modernist Cooking Provides Greater Flexibility
Knowledge is power. With its emphasis on understanding and using science in your cooking, modernist cuisine gives you power. When you understand the why of something, you can make better decisions. You can choose to follow a recipe exactly because you know doing so will produce the best results. Or, you can choose to deviate from a recipe because you know it will work in a particular situation.
When you understand the logic behind something, you can make it your own. You can change cooking times and methods; you can swap out leavening agents, thickeners, and flavors; you can experiment with creative abandon. Recipes are made to be broken--but you break them most successfully by understanding their underlying principles.
Is this a "modernist" principle? Maybe not completely--all good cooks do this to some extent. But the modernist emphasis on the science of food and cooking takes it to a new level.
Modernist Techniques Can Improve Flavors and Textures
Modernist cuisine applies science to understand how cooking alters food. (And this alone is reason enough to read Modernist Cuisine--it's fascinating stuff!) In doing so, it offers up insight and clarity into the entire process of food preparation. When these details are understood in a logical way, a number of avenues to better-tasting food open up before you.
One example is using "modernist" thickeners like xanthan gum (buy it here) or carrageenan (buy it here) to thicken sauces and gravies. (I put modernist in quotation marks because most of these thickeners are not modernist; they've been around for a long time.) Why is this better? Well, the principle is that because you use such a tiny amount to thicken, the result is a gravy or sauce that's going to have a much purer flavor than one diluted by flour or starch. And understanding that principle allows you to make more informed decisions about how you choose to thicken your gravies and sauces; xantham gum may not work everywhere, but where it does work, it can make a phenomenal difference.
If you consider yourself more of a right brain than a left brain person (as many cooks do), this may all sound like it takes the creativity out of cooking. Quite the opposite is true, though: a logical approach allows for more creativity, not less. All cooks have to learn basic skills (e.g., knife work, stock-making, sauces) before they can become great chefs. With its emphasis on continuous learning and understanding, modernist cooking is just a more comprehensive approach to this same necessity.
Modernist Cooking Techniques Can Make Old Favorites Taste Better
You may be able to make chicken wings or spaghetti sauce in your sleep. But if you're open to new methods, some of the standards of the American kitchen can be improved upon, and in many instances made easier.
This is particularly true of the recipes in Modernist Cooking at Home, which uses the techniques of the original volumes but with tools and methods easily within reach of the home cook. It still uses food science to achieve superb results, and it explains the science well, if not quite as thoroughly as the original book. From chicken soup to sous vide steak to cream pies, you can learn some really neat ways to apply the principles of modernist cooking to old favorites.
Modernist Cooking Has Raised People's Awareness About the Science of Food
This is probably the biggest influence modernist cooking has had. You can see it everywhere, from Food Network shows to blogs to newspaper articles. Cooking is no longer just about "hey, I found this great recipe." It's about process, history, health, and lifestyle. Food has become a way to understand ourselves and our culture, and a way to express ourselves. Perhaps it always has been--but modernist cuisine has made us all more aware of this.
Interestingly, modernist cooking has taken this idea in two seemingly opposite directions. On the one hand, modernist cuisine is seen as the epitome of processed food. And yes, modernist food can be highly processed, mostly in the sense that it's very manipulated by the chef--but also in the sense that it uses "food science" ingredients: agar agar (buy it here), sodium citrate (buy it here), xanthan gum.
Many people object to modernist methods and ingredients without really understanding them, though. For example, much modernist food is simply re-imagined (e.g., deconstructed), which is a form of processing that doesn't add questionable ingredients. And the modernist ingredients used to alter foods are not unhealthy--they are simply unknown, and thus often misunderstood. They aren't like the preservatives and food dyes found in highly processed packaged foods. In general, the processing that occurs in modernist cooking is solely for the purpose of improving the flavor, texture, or appearance of the food (and sometimes all three at once).
The other direction of modernist cuisine has been toward organic, locally-sourced food. This did not start out as a way to save the planet as it is largely seen today. Rather, it began as a way for professional chefs to work with small, artisan producers to ensure the freshest, most delicious food possible: meat, produce, dairy, even foraged delicacies like mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, and ramps (to name just a few). Modernist cooking has always emphasized the importance of stellar ingredients. The movement toward organic food is an offshoot of that.
The upshot is that because of the influence of modernist cuisine, people are more aware of food sourcing. No, not all chefs who care about quality ingredients are modernist, but modernist cuisine has been largely responsible for bringing these ideas to the general public--again, because of its emphasis on knowledge and science-based cooking methods. Because of the modernist movement--and, of course, the Myhrvold books--cooks have developed a heightened awareness about the role of both fresh, quality ingredients and processed foods in their kitchens--and about how these can both be used to create healthy, tasty food.
Modernist Cooking Has Ushered in New Tools and Created New Uses for Old Tools
Modernist cuisine has brought new tools to the home chef. These tools can make cooking faster, easier and tastier. Modernist cuisine has also developed new uses for old kitchen workhorses such as the pressure cooker.
Not every modernist tool is going to work in a home kitchen. But this is no reason to write off the whole movement! The tools that work are truly genius. Here, we list the most significant ones.
Sous Vide Immersion Circulator
The sous vide immersion circulator is in the process of changing the landscape of American home cooking. Because food cooked sous vide doesn't need constant monitoring, it "frees the cook from the tyranny of the clock," as Nathan Myhrvold says in this article. I would add that it also frees the cook from the tyranny of the cooktop, oven, grill, and slow cooker. That is to say, when you put meat in the sous vide bath to cook, you can get back to it to finish the meal when you want to. Your meat is ready when you are. So if you get caught up helping your kids with homework or doing laundry or chatting with your neighbor, no problem! Your chicken breasts aren't going to burn, or even dry out. In fact, they're going to be as juicy and tender at three hours of cooking as they are at one hour.
Not only that, but cleanup is easier--one pan at the most, depending on how you brown the meat (no pan at all if you grill!). Plus, you have all sorts of fun options with sous vide that you don't have with other cooking methods, including 72-hour short ribs and the most perfect made-at-home steak imaginable. So sous vide not only makes life in the kitchen easier, it ups your creativity game without adding more effort. Sous vide creme brulee, sous vide yogurt, sous vide vegetables...there are a lot of ways to use this amazing tool than just proteins.
You can also use sous vide to defrost quickly. If you have nothing but frozen meat in the house, don't despair--and don't use that microwave, either. An immersion circulator can defrost just about any chunk of meat in less than an hour, and it will produce perfect results every time (no microwave burns!). If you want to cook the meat in the sous vide as well, you've just gone from freezer-to-table with very few steps in between. It's really quite brilliant (especially if you season your meat before freezing!).
For more on sous vide cooking, see our article on why sous vide cooking is so great.
I was never much of a pressure cooker user until I read Modernist Cuisine. Now I do all sorts of things with it, and it does make kitchen life easier in a lot of ways, as well as more delicious! Pressure cooked stock, for example, is so good and so easy that I would never go back to the old way again. I also use the pressure cooker for caramelizing vegetables and making braised meats (like carnitas) in a fraction of the time it takes in the oven--and with juicier, more flavorful results. And when you add in simple and elegant recipes like garlic confit, plus all of the traditional uses of a pressure cooker (such as making beans), you can see that a pressure cooker is a valuable kitchen tool.
For fans of the pressure cooker, a lot of this may be old news. But for me, it was revolutionary. If you doubt this, try just one recipe: caramelized carrot soup. (It's one of the recipes that converted me.) This soup is unbelievably delicious, and there is really no other way to get this perfect caramelization on the carrots other than with a pressure cooker. You can use this technique on all kinds of fruits and vegetables for delicious results. Most recently, I used it for pumpkin pie.
Vacuum sealing goes hand-in-glove with sous vide: food needs to be in plastic bags to cook properly in a water bath (with a few exceptions). Now granted, you can use ziplocs and remove air using the "water displacement method." But do you have any idea how much money you can save by using a vacuum sealer for food storage? Food can keep up to 5 times as long, and there is zero freezer burn. A vacuum sealer will pay for itself in less than a year just in the food you don't throw out due to spoilage.
Not only that, but you can use vacuum sealers to marinate food, to re-seal wines and vinegars (with the proper accessories), to prevent cut avocados and apples from browning, to reduce storage space of dry goods; the list goes on. I bought my vacuum sealer for use with my sous vide, but I have found dozens of valuable uses for it.
(For more info, read our article Why Every Kitchen Needs a Food Vacuum Sealer.)
Even if you only make whipped cream once or twice a year. a whipping siphon is worth the money. It makes delicious whipped cream that will last for weeks in the refrigerator (the blanket of nitrogen aerosol agent protects the cream from spoiling). But there are a lot of other modernist applications for the whipping siphon that are easy and wonderful ways to up your cooking game.
From carbonated fruit (yes, you read that right) to the lightest tempura batter you've ever tasted, your whipping siphon can help you create simple, amazing dishes.
Best of all? The whipping siphon is fun.
If you've been to any appliance stores recently, you may have been surprised to see a number of ovens with steam capabilities. These aren't esoteric brands; these are ovens being sold to the general public and offered in the "affordable luxury brand" lines like Bosch and Jenn-Air. It seems that steam ovens are the big new thing in home kitchen appliances.
I've no doubt these appliances have gained popularity in recent years because of the many recipes in Modernist Cuisine that use a Rational Combi oven. These combi ovens are beyond the affordability of most people, with prices starting above $10,000. But a steam oven built into a conventional oven (or a countertop steam oven) can do many of the same things.
Steam ovens are incredibly versatile. You can use them to bake, grill, braise, poach, and steam. They make an excellent proofing oven for bread-making. The steam allows for perfectly reheated leftovers and perfectly cooked vegetables. It makes healthy cooking options easy. It's also a very fast way to cook. It almost makes your microwave obsolete.
Had I not read about combi ovens in Modernist Cuisine, as well as the long section in Book 2 on how a conventional oven actually works (which is, essentially, by dehydrating food) I would not have made the connection. But as soon as I saw these ovens in the appliance store, I knew that this trend, too, was a filtering down of the ideas from this book. And, that this idea is highly usable and applicable to the home cook!
Not all modernist cuisine tools and techniques are useful or helpful to the home cook. But even if you never buy a sous vide circulator or whipping siphon, you can still benefit from the philosophy of modernist cuisine, which is that science and critical thinking skills will improve and simplify your cooking. Whether you want cooking to be easier, more creative, more fun, or some combination of all of these, modernist cuisine can help.