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Gastronomy: A visual feast

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Felice Frankel grapples with a 20-kilogram cookbook.

Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking

Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet. The Cooking Lab: 2011. 2,438 pp. $625, £395

9780982761007

It took me 40 minutes to unpack Modernist Cuisine. The 6-volume, 2,400-page set of books by culinary experimenters Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet weighs more than 20 kilograms and arrives wrapped in clean white paper and encased in a clear plastic box, from which each of the five main volumes can be retrieved: History and Fundamentals; Techniques and Equipment; Animals and Plants; Ingredients and Preparations; and Plated-Dish Recipes. The sixth volume, Kitchen Manual, is a simpler spiral-bound handbook intended for use in the kitchen, containing some 1,500 recipes referred to in the larger volumes.

The care given to the packaging of this collection foreshadows the precision that went into its production. It is a masterwork filled with historical references and scientific explanations of why, for example, thickening liquids is important for taste, or why food browns during cooking. Nothing is left out, it seems. The pages are designed to form a monumental narrative and visual story, written and illustrated with passion and an obsession with getting it right. The authors' expertise blends science and cuisine: Myhrvold is a former physicist, Microsoft scientist and now entrepreneur with a lifelong interest in cooking (see page 575); Bilet and Young trained under innovative British chef Heston Blumenthal; and Young also holds degrees in mathematics and biochemistry.

A cutaway image from the Modernist Cuisine cookbook. Credit: R. M. SMITH/THE COOKING LAB

Photography is used to powerful effect. Myhrvold is a serious photographer, and he and Ryan Matthew Smith have created technically remarkable, often breathtaking and informative photographs. Some are purely decorative, such as their high-speed camera image of a bullet passing through six eggs. But the most innovative technique they have developed is the cutaway. To show what was happening inside food as it cooked, the team literally cut pots, woks and pans in half and cooked recipes in them. The cross-sectional images are laid out and annotated with scientific information, such as labels for zones of conduction, condensation and convection. Each image is a marvel.

I haven't yet tested the recipes. And I am not sure I will ever feel the urge to try the Edible Soap Bar with Honey Bubbles, for instance, or to replace my own fabulous pulled pork recipe (in which I cook an inexpensive cut for three hours with leeks, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, sugar, wine and vinegar, among other ingredients) with the sous vide version in Modernist Cuisine. This technique — in which ingredients are vacuum-sealed in a plastic bag before being cooked at low temperature in a water bath or combi oven — plays a major part in the set, and the authors go to great lengths to argue its value. I have tasted meats cooked this way, and am unconvinced that it is essential to home cooking. But I am willing to give the pasta marinara a shot. It calls for tomato water, which I was happy to discover could be produced with a simple wine filter (to separate the flavourful water from the pulp after first processing the tomatoes in a juicer) rather than with the preferred piece of kitchen equipment in Modernist Cuisine, the centrifuge.

The format of the recipes will also challenge most cooks. Because the authors consider that “volume measurements are not sufficiently accurate”, all ingredients, even liquids, are measured by weight in grams. One recipe, for example, calls for 100 g of wine — good luck with that. The amounts of ingredients are also presented in the baker's percentage system, in which the weight ratios of each are scaled to a reference ingredient. Having to weigh liquids and work with percentages will mystify most non-professional cooks, and will probably vex scientists who want to relax at the end of a long day in the lab.

So who is the audience for Modernist Cuisine? In its present form, the volumes will be bought by those who can afford their three-figure price tag and have time for slow, precise cooking — people who are already familiar with the chefs and cognoscenti mentioned in volume I: Blumenthal, Ferran Adrià and Harold McGee, among others. Purchasers will also need space to store the bulky set, and a table on which to rest the book to delve into its pages. The volumes are so heavy and large that they are difficult to hold open.

Modernist Cuisine is too important to be offered only to an elite audience. The stunning visual impact of the printed volumes supports the publisher's choice to produce the initial work on paper. Still, I hope the authors bring out the book in an electronic form, so that a larger audience can explore its many layers of information. Like a good meal, this remarkable effort needs to be shared.

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Correspondence to Felice Frankel.

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Frankel, F. Gastronomy: A visual feast. Nature 471, 574–575 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/471574a

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