'Modernist Cuisine at Home' Goes Digital
The cookbook is hitting iPads and iPhones
'Modernist Cuisine at Home' is now available in digital form.
Food geeks who want to be reading their 456-page Modernist Cuisine at Home cookbook all the time now have a way to do that: Nathan Myhrvold and his team have released their less-intimidating cookbook on a digital platform, designed for iPads and iPhones.
The Cooking Lab, in conjunction with Inkling, has released the original book with new digital-only features, including a recipe finder, yield converter (snazzy if you want to just make braised short ribs for one), videos, shopping links, and more.
An additional 260 recipes are also included, usually based on short variations in the print book, plus new photos and "pop tips" that disrupt the gorgeous photography but explain things like why you should pat food dry before putting it on the grill.
The digital cookbook is available for $79.99, a slight discount from its hardcover $115 price on Amazon. Now let's just see if Modernist Cuisine's $600, six-volume Art and Science of Cooking will be made available in the digital format.
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Modernist Cuisine At Home: Pea Butter
Recently, in a laboratory outside Seattle, I ate a piece of buttered toast that I will remember for the rest of my life. The bread itself was not extraordinary, but it was spread thickly with the brightest-green butter I’ve ever seen. It was not true butter, but rather an extract of pure green peas. Fresh peas are blended to a puree, then spun in a centrifuge at 13 times the force of gravity. The force separates the puree into three discrete layers: on the bottom, a bland puck of starch on the top, vibrant-colored, seductively sweet pea juice and separating the two, a thin layer of the pea’s natural fat, pea-green and unctuous.
As the first reviews began coming out from the 30 course dinners held by the Modernist Cuisine team, everyone mentioned the pea butter in particular. A pretty simple recipe, you take pureed peas and spin them in a centrifuge to extract the pea fat. I gave it a shot at my house, taking a can of peas, blending them, and spinning them for 30 minutes. Nothing good came of it and the layers did not seem to separate. I was stumped.
Luckily, I was able to talk with chefs Maxime Bilet and Anjana Shanker at the Modernist Cuisine book launch and they were able to clarify a few things for me:
That seems simple enough. So I went home and went at it.
Visualize Whirled Peas
The chefs recommended a bag of high quality organic peas. My local store had Kroger brand. Well, hey, I gotta start somewhere. I brought home a bag and threw them in the Vita-Mix for their first spin of the day. It ended up being a very bright green frozen powder. I put the pea dust into one of my centrifuge containers and filled the rest of the containers with water as counterweights.
When talking with Chef Shanker, I asked how powerful their centrifuge was that she used for the pea butter, and she said it was 10,000 g’s. So I had to calculate how long mine would spin at, since my centrifuge only goes to 1520 g’s. Since the relationship is linear it’s straightforward to figure out:
10000/1520 = 6.58
6.58 x 90 = 592 min.
592/60 = 9.9 hours
Ten hours in the centrifuge? Mm. I started around 3pm and didn’t feel like waiting until 1am to see the results. So I decided 5 hours was plenty.
She also mentioned that it was good that I had a refrigeration unit attached. The reason is two fold: 1) so the food doesn’t cook and 2) it keeps the pellet together, providing better separation. I checked my centrifuge temperature with and without the refrigeration unit. Without, the chamber got to 124F. With the unit turned on, it was at about 70F. So a significant difference to be sure.
And after five hours, I pulled out the peas and saw the results. Three separate layers: a pellet of pea meat, a thin layer of pea fat and a supernate of pea water.
One thing to note is look at the bottom of the container as compared to the photo of it prior to spinning. Five hours in the centrifuge completely distended and reshaped it. Luckily, it didn’t crack open.
I scraped off the fat and put it on a piece of bread. Pure bright pea flavor. It’s really, really good. The pea pellet and pea water were also striking in their own way as well.
I’m a little concerned about the wear and tear on the centrifuge since I will be needing to be spinning it for long periods of time to get their results, but it performed great for a five hour run. Cooking of all types teaches you patience, and in this case as in others, the wait is well worth it.
Modernist Bread Slices Into the Science of the Loaf
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Modernist's kitchen in Seattle, Washington. The Cooking Lab, LLC
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Not long after I finished college, I scored my first higher-end cooking job as an expediter and grill guy at a pan-Asian restaurant in San Francisco. It was the first place where I realized I was cooking food that I knew nothing about. Eventually, during my breaks and time off, Iɽ read books the chef handed to me, to help understand the method and history behind what I was doing.
Later, I came to love The Best Recipe by the editors of Cook's Illustrated, where their scientific-method style, testing recipes over and over to find the "best" one, appealed to me. I wasn't a science whiz, but if a team of chefs said it was the best way to do it, Iɽ do it that way until I had the confidence to do otherwise.
Read through some of the recipes, chapters, and volumes of Modernist Bread, the massive new tome from Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya, and you'll realize that there's a clear line, stretched across nearly two decades, between Best Recipe's style and Modernist's.
Out this week, Modernist Bread is the five-volume follow up to Myhrvold's five-volume Modernist Cuisine. This new collection lays out in encyclopedic fashion what, in the authors' minds, is the best way to make everything from white sandwich bread to pretzels to vollkornbrot. It is the deepest of deep dives. There are stunning photos, images of gluten made with scanning electron microscopes, history, discoveries, science, and at this point you're either amazed by the whole idea or went glassy-eyed in that last paragraph, vaguely wondering "Five books about bread?" before finding a suitable spot on the floor to take a nap.
There are discoveries of the authors' own as well as lesser-known discoveries of others that the book spotlights. Myths are debunked (spoiler: whole grain might not be as good for you as you think), new techniques are shared, equipment is recommended and, um, there's a photo of flour exploding.
Myhrvold, a former Microsoft exec who has a traveling wave reactor a stone's throw from the Modernist kitchen, is a king of the geeks and bread making, even more so than for the food in Modernist Cuisine, rewards the precision of an effort like this. For the book launch, I toured their kitchen, got an advance look at the work, and tried a few of the methods that jumped out at me in my own test kitchen.
I stood in Modernist's Seattle-area space, gaping in awe as Migoya showed me the merchandise: a centrifuge that's notably larger than my wash machine, a spray dryer, a homemade tandoor oven made from a 55-gallon drum ("Everything you need to make it from Home Depot for 300 bucks!" he said), and an ultra freezer set to -61 degrees Celsius.
There were also plenty of curios from the bread world: freeze-dried fermented dough, corn smut, and sourdough starters given in-house names like Levain James and Ryean Seacrust. My favorite item, though, was what was inside a home oven old enough that it appeared to be the only thing in the kitchen ready to make its one-way trip to the great scrap heap in the sky.
Opening the door of the oven, which Migoya referred to as a "Samsung whatever," revealed four cast-iron combo cookers—Dutch ovens with skillets for "lids" that allow each piece of the cooker to function as both top and bottom.
"This," said Migoya, gesturing at both the oven and the cookers, "is the answer to making good bread in your house."
His real fondness is for the Lodge Combo Cooker, which is "far and away" Migoya's preference. While their use has been praised before, notably in Tartine Bread, the latter simply notes the combo cooker in passing, while the Modernist team quantifies why it's best: Among other qualities, the skillet-like setup makes it easy to set dough into (this is especially useful for avoiding burns on the backs of hands if the cooker has been preheating in the stove), the enclosed environment promotes crust development by trapping steam inside, the cast iron is a superior heat conductor, and as opposed to the creamy white enamel that lines many Dutch ovens, and the black color is fantastic at transmitting heat by radiation.
Migoya also added two practical points: you can make stew in it, and unlike most enameled Dutch ovens which can cost a couple hundred dollars, this one costs $40 on Amazon ("free shipping on Prime!" he noted), which may make it my holiday gift of choice for friends.
If my car had the capacity to make the tires squeal, this would have been where that happened as I buzzed back to my office to try it out.
In my test kitchen, I opened Modernist Bread, where baker Jim Lahey's famous no-knead bread method is given prominent placement in several of the volumes, principally because it makes fantastic bread with a minimum of effort: mix the ingredients, let them ferment in a tub overnight, shape it into a ball the next morning, let it proof for an hour or two, then bake. Once you get the hang of it, it can be one of the most hands-off items in your baking repertoire.
The Modernist team also suggests doing the final proof of the dough right in the combo cooker instead of preheating it in the oven, which means less handling of the dough at surprisingly little cost to the crust.
With a lovely chewy, crisp crust, and amazing springy interior, my first loaf came out so surprisingly good that it gave me a boost of confidence. It looked like something Iɽ buy from an artisan baker for $10.
It gave me so much confidence that the next day, I blithely went on to bake a whole wheat loaf without realizing this should have been done using mostly bread flour and a bit of whole-wheat flour, which helps keep the loaf from becoming too dense. Nevertheless, it created a flattish loaf that tasted pretty darn good.
Later, I made a loaf with King Arthur Flour's renowned Sir Galahad flour (King Arthur's "flour of choice for artisan breads"), which helped create a bread that, with its crunchy crust, and an interior so pillowy and pleasingly moist that the word "juicy" came to mind. It was clearly one of the best breads I've ever made. The simplicity and perfection instantly earned it a place in my regular repertoire. At well under a buck per pound for the flour in the bulk section, it's also a ridiculously cheap loaf.
So who's to thank here? Modernist? Mr. Lahey? Someone else?
And with these little questions, we accidentally enter the thicket. The rule of thumb in the cookbook-writing world is that by tweaking a recipe a couple of times you can put it into your own cookbook. To be clear, Modernist Bread has done that. But write a monster book like this one, and it can shine more of a spotlight than when it originally came out. And it can rankle the hell out of people who think Modernist is taking more than its share of the limelight for a discovery that's already been made. (I first heard people airing this exact complaint at the Grain Gathering, an industry event I attended earlier this year.)
To its credit, Modernist's recipe for No Knead Lean Bread says "Adapted from Jim Lahey" next to the title, and there's both an explanation of the bread and a one-page bio of Lahey in volume four. The book also goes on to show examples of no-knead-style bread from baker Suzanne Dunaway in 1999 and a Pillsbury pamphlet from 1945.
Modernist Bread has made what it calls "modifications" to Lahey's technique, where it "found that doubling the yeast means the dough will be ready to bake within 8 hours, rather than the 14-20 hours suggested in the original recipe." This echoes a 2008 Mark Bittman story in The New York Times (which had already been hyping Lahey’s bread since late 2006) where he just dumped a whole packet of yeast in there and got it done in four hours.
Do they mean "found" as in "personally discovered" or "made a first-in-the-world discovery?" I find it distressing to need to parse the semantics this way in an encyclopedic work with so many important contributions.
On my Modernist kitchen tour, I also noticed breads sealed up in canning jars, an innovation that was the result of an accident. Migoya had misunderstood a blog post about panettone by baker Denis Dianin. Written in Italian, Migoya thought Dianin baked the Italian holiday treat in the jars with the lids on. It didn't, but Migoya went on to make several kinds of breads in sealed jars, everything from white sandwich bread to cinnamon rolls to Neapolitan pizzas, complete with sauce and cheese. He made them in both ovens and—get this—a pressure cooker.
The whole "canned bread" idea (like in home canning, you "can" in glass jars) was new to the Modernist team as their print deadline was nearing. But they went with it, and now they have canned bread in their kitchen that's several months old with an aroma that they call "concentrated" and "intoxicatingly good." Thanks to the heat of the cooking and the vacuum-sealed atmosphere within, they say it is mold and bacteria free, which means you could stick it on a shelf for a few months, then warm it in the oven on a cold day and have it for lunch.
I made some canned bread at home and the whole thing had a bit of a wild-west feel to it. I tried making the pizza, which was a fiasco because the jar size and baking temperature were incorrect in the book, which led to melted canning jar gaskets and something akin to tomato-cheese-dough flavored fruit leather dripping down the outsides of the jars that I still haven't been able to scrape clean. I mentioned this issue to the authors, and after a few further trials and some help from the Modernist team, I was able to make pizza that was tasty but, and I'm being generous here, aesthetically challenged enough that Iɽ need a while to develop my technique to get it to the point where Iɽ be willing to show it to anyone. (Future editions of the book will be changed to reflect the proper temperature, and corrections will be noted on the Modernist website.)
That said, the brioche was like striking gold. Since it's the same dough recipe for both the traditional and the canned method, I made both a loaf and two jars and they were outstanding. A few months from now, I'll pop a jar in the oven, get out the butter and get ready to breathe in those concentrated aromas.
Whether or not you think that canned bread is a discovery worth mentioning likely depends on whether or not you're into home canning in the first place. I will say that there's a canned baba au rhum recipe in Modernist Bread that has the potential to forever unseat fruit cake as a holiday gift.
‘Modernist’ Dishes for a Dinner Party
The dish got a further makeover by my friend Dave Wondrich, a cocktail historian and the drinks master of the party, who used spicy tomato water and gin to turn the celery into crisp and juicy bloody Marys.
Other than infusing the celery sticks, and a tense moment when my husband upended a bottle of Barolo into the blender to hyper-aerate it (a trick from the book that worked nicely on the very closed, tight wine), all of the modernist techniques happened earlier, offstage. By the time my guests arrived, the kitchen was clean, cool and (despite having seared three steaks and cooked fish) completely odorless.
“Other than the absence of that warm and welcoming, you’ve-spent-all-day-cooking aroma that permeates most dinner parties,” my friend Adam said, “if you hadn’t told us it was a modernist dinner party, I don’t think anyone would have noticed.”
Not everyone at the party agreed. Some complained that the food was almost too perfect, too easily wrought. The drama of the unexpected mishap, usually pulsing tangibly through a dinner party, was lamentably absent.
As my friend Anya put it: “We demand that perfection from a restaurant. But at home? Imperfection can be part of the charm. The anxiety and fear of failure is the human part of the parcel. Do you always want a seamless, perfect first date? A soufflé 100 percent guaranteed to rise?”
I could see her point. But then I remembered when I overcooked the lamb on Christmas Eve, and the time my oven caught fire when I was trying to broil salmon on not-soaked-enough cedar planks. So did I want perfection?
Guides to Top Pizza Destinations
We’ve included something new in Modernist Pizza that we’ve never done before in any of our other books: we devoted an entire chapter to our pizza travels and created a global travel guide. We wanted to illustrate pizza’s wonderful diversity and show the many ways in which it’s enjoyed across the world. That is why pizza required us to travel even more than our other books did—our team visited over 250 pizzerias to learn local styles from some of the world’s best pizzaioli. The chapter was created to serve as a travelogue of sorts and to help give the full picture of pizza.
When we started visiting pizzerias, we wondered whether the pizzaioli would actually talk to us. It turned out they were incredibly helpful, especially in Italy. They were very candid about sharing their knowledge and techniques and even helped us review parts of the book. We spoke to visionaries such as Tony Gemignani, Enzo Coccia, Franco Pepe, Chris Bianco, Laura Meyer, Carlo Sammarco, Dan Richer, Sarah Minnick, and many more covered in this book, who are tossing pizza into the modern era.
We couldn’t go to every well-reviewed pizzeria everywhere, so think of our guide as a curated selection. It consists of the best pizzerias across Italy and the United States, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo. After Naples, which was a must-see since it’s where pizza was invented, we looked to important first-generation pizza cities like New York. Following that, we checked out travel spots known for a particular style like Chicago or Detroit. We also included other areas like Rome and Portland, to paint a picture of the pizza scenes there.
Countless times during our research, we were asked where the best pizza can be found. (We aren’t shy about suggesting there are several pizzerias in Naples that would immediately deserve one, two, and even three Michelin stars.) Ultimately, we hope that our travel chapter will be a good starting point for mapping out your own pizza journey to help answer that question for yourself.
Microsoft's Former CTO Takes On Modernist Cuisine
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Whether he's searching for a malaria cure, a cloaking device, or the perfect french fry, Nathan Myhrvold pursues his goals with magnificent obsession.
Photo: Art Streiber
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The perfect french fry—golden brown, surpassingly crispy on the outside, with a light and fluffy interior that tastes intensely of potato—is not easy to cook.
Here's how most people do it at home: Cut some potatoes into fry shapes—classic 3 /8-inch batons—and toss them into 375-degree oil until they're golden brown. This is a mediocre fry. The center will be raw.
Here's how most restaurants do it: Dunk the potatoes in oil twice, once at 325 degrees for about four minutes until they're cooked through and then again at 375 degrees to brown them. This is a pretty great fry.
But let's get serious. The chef Heston Blumenthal—owner of the Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, England, holder of three Michelin stars—created what he calls triple-cooked chips. (He's English.) The raw batons are simmered in water until they almost fall apart and then placed on a wire rack inside a vacuum machine that pulls out the moisture. The batons then get the traditional double fry. You need an hour and a $2,000 vacuum chamber, but these are the best fries in the world. Or rather, they used to be.
The new contender was created by Nathan Myhrvold, the former CTO of Microsoft. Myhrvold cuts his potatoes into batons and rinses them to get rid of surface starch. Then he vacuum-seals them in a plastic bag, in one even layer, with water. He heats the bag to 212 degrees for 15 minutes, steaming the batons. Then he hits the bag with ultrasound to cavitate the water—45 minutes on each side. He reheats the bag in an oven to 212 degrees for five minutes, puts the hot fries on a rack in a vacuum chamber, and then blanches them in 338-degree oil for three minutes. When they're cool, Myhrvold deep-fries the potatoes in oil at 375 degrees until they're crisp, about three more minutes, and then drains them on paper towels. Total preparation time: two hours.
The result is amazing. The outside nearly shatters when you bite into it, yielding to a creamy center that's perfectly smooth. The key is the cavitation caused by the ultrasonic bath—it creates thousands of tiny fissures on the potato's surface, all of which become crunchy when it's fried. When Plato saw the shadow of a french fry on the wall of his cave, the guy standing behind him was snacking on these.
The recipe is one of 1,600 in Myhrvold's new cookbook, Modernist Cuisine. It's a big book—2,400 pages big. Six volumes big. Big like the original slipcase failed Amazon .com's shipping tests and had to be replaced with acrylic. Big like it weighs nearly 50 pounds and costs $625.
This is the way Myhrvold operates. After leaving Microsoft with all the money in the world, he started a company called, immodestly, Intellectual Ventures and turned his attention to busting some of the biggest problems in science and technology. And he dove into a few hobbies. Now most of us, if we were to get interested in cooking, might start to putter around the kitchen at home or do a little reading. Maybe weɽ take a class. Because cooking is primarily a craft, dominated by artisans—or artists, if that's how you view what a chef does. Every once in a while, a chemist drops in to take a look or heads for the world of industrial-scale food.
But Myhrvold—a theoretical physicist and computer scientist—has the lifestyle flexibility of a multimillionaire and the mental discipline of a world-class researcher. To him, cooking is about fundamental interactions in the material world: How heat enters food. How you mix two separate materials most effectively. How water molecules interact in a solution. You see a pork chop and some mashed potatoes he sees a mesh of proteins that coagulate at a specific temperature next to an emulsion of starch and fat. "Chefs think about what it's like to make food," Myhrvold says. "Being a scientist in the kitchen is about asking why something works, and how it works." To him, a kitchen is really just a laboratory that everyone has in their house. And when you have that attitude with that brain and those resources, well, you might not be the best cook in the world, but you just might put together the best cookbook.
If Modernist Cuisine lives up to Myhrvold's hopes when it's published this March, it'll be the definitive book about the science of cooking—the Principia of the kitchen. It's dense and beautiful and inspired, and even though Myhrvold assembled a team of 50 chefs, writers, photographers, designers, scientists, and editors to create it, the final product is in fact an eerily accurate recapitulation of how Nathan Myhrvold thinks.
Which is to say, the man thinks big about nearly everything. And he wants his french fries to be perfect.
Modernist Cuisine started with a problem.
In 2003, Myhrvold was building his dream house on the shore of Lake Washington outside Seattle, stocking it with esoteric kitchen equipment. One of the toys was a temperature-controlled water bath used for a technique known as sous vide, vacuum-sealing food in plastic bags and cooking it for a long time at relatively low temperatures. Done correctly, it lets a chef precisely control the temperature of the food, so the final product comes out perfect every time.
Myhrvold had come across the technique while studying cooking in France, but he needed information on how long to cook various foods and at what temperature.
And that was the problem. There wasn't any information.
For Myhrvold, that's not acceptable. He's a creature of knowledge talking to him is like taking a graduate seminar. Actually, it's like taking every graduate seminar at once. He bounces from topic to topic as if someone were clicking the remote control through 500 channels of really high-end BBC documentaries. Here's a lunchtime conversation, only slightly edited:
"Alaska has had more than 10 times the number of botulism cases of New York state. But its population is a few percent of New York state. It's because they eat a lot of crap up there. The most thermally diffusive thing that heat travels fastest in is diamond, by a big margin. Suppose you have a broiler with a bunch of separate rods. Turns out there's an optimal distance away from them to have the most even heat. And it's 44 percent of the distance between them, plus 5 millimeters. The big innovation in the 20th century wasn't in high-end food, it was in industrial food. Our Carolina barbecue sauces are very thin. We made them authentic thickness. But then we have a note that says 0.2 percent xanthan gum will give you something that clings to your meat and makes your shirt less dirty. Ba dum ba dum ba dum."
That's how Myhrvold cuts off a lot of his own sentences, with what sounds like a kettledrum sound effect for a cartoon somersault. It's not an ellipsis it's more like his brain has accelerated past the rest of the information. The proof is left as an exercise for the student.
After finding only a couple of articles and one book (in Spanish) about sous vide, Myhrvold posted a message on the high-end culinary discussion forum eGullet asking for sources, recipes, anything. "I sort of naively thought that sous vide was well understood," Myhrvold says. "You heard about people using it, so I figured they clearly must understand it. Well, I discovered that they didn't."
He was no stranger to kitchens. Growing up in Santa Monica, California, with his mother, a model and schoolteacher, Myhrvold started cooking at an early age, checking out cookbooks from the library and preparing elaborate Thanksgiving meals when he was 9. While at Microsoft, he moonlighted in the kitchen of a leading French restaurant in Seattle for nearly two years.
But he's primarily a scientist. Myhrvold has a master's degree in geophysics and space physics and another one in mathematical economics. He got his PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics from Princeton at 23 and did a postdoctoral fellowship with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge. He started a software company that Microsoft bought in 1986, founded Microsoft Research in 1991, and left the company as its CTO and chief strategist in 1999. He has hundreds of patents issued or pending. Oh, and he's also a photographer, a patron of paleontology research, and a world-champion barbecue chef. Seriously.
So Myhrvold the cook and Myhrvold the scientist went to work. Chicken and salmon and beef all got sous vided, with temperature probes inserted so Myhrvold could track how the heat moved through the food. He wrote a program using Mathematica to model the heat transfer through various shapes and sizes of food without actually having to cook. "I got kind of carried away," he says.
Almost a year and a half after asking his question on eGullet, Myhrvold answered it himself, posting the results of his experiments—charts that showed how long and at what temperature to cook a certain piece of food to get to a desired final temperature. Instantly, the thread became the definitive reference to sous vide.
By the time someone online suggested that he write a book based on the information, Myhrvold had already moved on to looking at food safety concerns raised by the low temperatures used in sous vide. He was even helping chefs convince food inspectors that the technique was safe. "From there I sort of decided, hey, why not do the whole thing?" Myhrvold says. "It made sense at the time."
The Intellectual Ventures lab, hard by a tennis practice facility and an auto-repair shop on the outskirts of Bellevue, Washington, isn't just easy to miss—it's almost as though it was scientifically designed to look as nondescript as possible. Inside the former Harley-Davidson garage, though, is 27,500 square feet of thinking space—as much a physical manifestation of Myhrvold's polymath mind as the cookbook is a literary and photographic one. Just inside the front door are the wet chemistry lab, the physics lab, the repair shop, and the laser testing rooms. A space farther back and to the right is crammed with computer-controlled milling machines that carve objects from metal or plastic with millimeter precision and a giant water-jet cutting table. It's hundreds of thousands of bucks worth of gear—a factory for fabricating anything a scientist might need.
Inside, dozens of PhDs work on a bevy of projects. One group is trying to perfect an idea that scientists have been hammering on since the 1950s—a traveling-wave nuclear reactor. It could, in theory, run for 50 to 100 years without needing to be refueled, primarily on uranium 238, which is a cheap, non-weaponizable byproduct of the uranium-enrichment process. The TerraPower project, as it's called, should yield a prototype reactor by 2020.
Then there's the Salter Sink, which is supposed to lessen the impact of hurricanes by funneling warm water from the ocean's surface into the colder water below. And there's the solution that the company has proposed to slow global warming: Pump sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to mirror the cooling effect caused by large volcanic eruptions. Al Gore told the authors of SuperFreakonomics that the plan was "nuts," but that's of little consequence to Myhrvold several Nobel laureates agree with him that the sulfur scheme might work.
Scientists at Intellectual Ventures have invented a new x-ray scanner that produces clearer images, surfaces that sterilize themselves, a portable freezer that keeps vaccines active without electricity, and even metamaterials that could reverse light, creating a cloaking device. But perhaps the flashiest creation from the lab is a bug zapper called the photonic fence, which Myhrvold unveiled at the TED Conference in 2010. It's a result of the company's ongoing work to eliminate malaria in response to a challenge from Myhrvold's old boss, Bill Gates. At a brainstorming session in 2008, someone suggested that lasers could kill mosquitoes before they could spread the disease—a kind of insect-world Star Wars laser-defense system.
The team pulled together parts from consumer electronics and eBay to develop a prototype—one that could even determine if a mosquito was male or female (only the females bite humans). The females would be blasted out of the sky the males would be left alone. It's a massively clever bit of engineering and coding—and the parts are cheap and getting cheaper. Like the other gadgets, it's so crazy that it just might work.
Malaria is the focus of a lot of effort at the lab. Across the street in the annex (a former interior-design showroom that still has some cabinet display models on the walls) is the company's supercomputer, built from 1,000 Xeon core processors, which mathematician Philip Eckhoff is using to model the spread and potential eradication of the disease.
Almost all of these inventions have one thing in common: Intellectual Ventures doesn't want to manufacture them. The company's business is making money from ideas, not from the products that the ideas could generate.
Myhrvold says that the company is trying to create a capital market for inventions, a market for intangible intellectual property like the one that grew around software in the 1980s. But Intellectual Ventures isn't just doing its own research and brainstorming leading to patents, it is also (much more controversially) buying up thousands of patents from outside inventors, which it then licenses to technology companies like Apple, Google, and Sony.
To Myhrvold, this is an elegant, scientifically minded hack of the patent system—where people can patent not only products but ideas. To intellectual property purists, though, that sort of behavior is called patent trolling—gathering the rights to ideas and then forcing companies to pay up when those ideas actually appear in the world and are about to be turned into usable technology. And indeed, in December, Intellectual Ventures filed three lawsuits claiming that nine companies were infringing some of its patents.
But the accusation of trolling has become increasingly frustrating to Myhrvold. "If you look at the list of people who have been called patent trolls," he says, "it's everyone who's ever filed a patent suit." He points out that his company applies for patents on 500 of its own inventions every year. And anyway, he says, the system is designed for this kind of transaction. "Some people think it's scandalous. 'Oh my gosh, they buy patents!' Well, yeah. And publishers buy books from writers," Myhrvold says. "I've never gotten it, except that there are people who have ideological—bordering on religious—ideas about intellectual property, most of which are in my view not very deeply thought through."
That's Myhrvold. On one hand, there's the fevered imagination and brainstorming, invention and science, the quest to change the world. But on the other hand, there's the aggressive businessman who isn't just around to create cool stuff—he's looking to make a ton of money, too.
Writing about sous vide led Myhrvold to think more deeply about how heat moves through different media (which is why Modernist Cuisine may well be the only cookbook ever published with a long disquisition on Fourier's law, the equation for calculating heat transfer). That led to food safety, and that led to a more general exploration of the microbiology of food. Myhrvold soon realized that his ambition for Modernist Cuisine had outstripped his ability to write it alone. "It's like writing software," he says. "If you want to do interesting software, you have to have a bunch of people do it, because the amount of software that one person can do isn't that interesting."
A chef would have built a kitchen Myhrvold built the Cooking Lab. He carved out a corner of the Intellectual Ventures lab and filled it with gear—not just stoves and ovens but industrial-grade homogenizers, freeze-driers, steam-heated ovens, and vacuum distillation machines. If Thomas Edison and Martha Stewart built a house, this is what the kitchen would look like.
And then, like the primary investigator in an academic laboratory, Myhrvold started hiring researchers. He began with Chris Young, a 34-year-old with degrees in math and biochemistry from the University of Washington and one of the plummest jobs in cooking, running the development kitchen at Blumenthal's Fat Duck. But in 2007, he was ready to come home. Five years in the town of Bray, 30 miles west of London, was enough for Young he was set to move to a job at a San Francisco Bay Area restaurant when he emailed Myhrvold, with whom he had corresponded about food science, to give him his new coordinates.
Three minutes later, a message from Myhrvold appeared on Young's screen. It had the subject line "Crazy Idea." The note was one line long: "Why don't you come work for me?"
Young signed up and brought in Maxime Bilet, a young chef he had worked with at the Fat Duck, to run the kitchen day to day. Wayt Gibbs, a former editor at Scientific American who works at Intellectual Ventures, was drafted to handle the editing, while photographer Ryan Matthew Smith joined the team after responding to a craigslist job posting.
Myhrvold then let them explore largely on their own. "Nathan creates a dynamic, free-thinking environment here," Young says. "This is a unique place to work. You'll be in the kitchen, and then someone like Neal Stephenson will wander by." So, for example, when the chefs were working on the part of the book focused on gels and thickeners, Myhrvold was having them concentrate on exotic hydrocolloids like agar or gellan. But then Bilet and the culinary team came to him with a suggestion. They wanted to add egg gels—custards, basically. "They're just as valid," Bilet told Myhrvold. "They're just as cool." Myhrvold gave them the green light, and the team hit their library of hundreds of food science books to see what people already knew about eggs and how they cook.
Then they started collecting data, cooking hundreds of batches of egg custard. Each time, they tweaked a variable—temperature, yolk-to-egg-white ratio, amount of liquids.
It took them two weeks, all for a deceptively simple chart. Temperatures are on one axis and the ratio of egg to liquid is on the other cross-reference the two and you can choose a texture, from a runny crè8me anglaise to a firm flan. "All that work and it condenses down into this one little teeny table," Myhrvold says. Of course, that table is an unprecedented master course in egg cookery. "It's really cool to be in an experimental kitchen like this," Young says. "If you need to, you can talk to an engineer or a physicist. We have access to all of their analytical tools, and if our equipment breaks, we have these PhDs here to help us fix it. It's just really eclectic."
Working next to all those other projects has required a few adjustments, however. One night, the cookbook team was in the kitchen late, testing new recipes. The photonic fence team was also working late, seeing if their tracking software could follow mosquitoes at long distances. They had put a box filled with bugs at the top of a set of stairs at one end of the 100-foot-long Cooking Lab and set up their laser at the other end. As the chefs stood at their stoves, the beams started flashing above them. "I guarantee that we are the only kitchen in the world that had lasers overhead," Young says. "They told me they were firing at a nonkilling intensity."
Lunch at the cooking lab: First comes raspberry gazpacho with piquillo peppers and macadamia nuts. Foie gras and horse mackerel are served with sous vide ponzu. Mushroom omelets are cooked in a steam oven, keeping them moist and tender. Comte cheese is turned into an aerated sponge with a vacuum machine and is served with hazelnut cakes. It's 12 courses overall, each one highlighting a different cutting-edge tool or technique.
When spot prawns and carotene butter show up—cook carrots in butter and then separate out the solids with a centrifuge—Myhrvold takes a bite, thinks for a moment, and then asks Bilet to hang on a second. "This is great, Max," Myhrvold says. "You know what I think it needs? It needs something crunchy."
"A little texture?" Bilet asks.
"Yeah. How about some freeze-dried carrot? Little chunks."
Bilet hesitates, looking at the dish. He seems dubious.
"Either that or something else crunchy," Myhrvold says. "Because it's fantastic but could use a texture element."
"We could do something with coconut," Bilet suggests. "To balance the carrot. Maybe a savory coconut tuile with freeze-dried prawn powder."
"That would do it," Myhrvold says. He goes back to eating.
Myhrvold is not a professional chef, but he's turned himself into a professional eater—thousands of hours of culinary training and meals at hundreds of the world's best restaurants. He's a scientific Falstaff, a rare combination of rationalist and sensualist. In fact, lunch at the lab would stand up to the food at some of the most avant-garde restaurants in the world. That's an abiding passion of Myhrvold's, right there in the title of the book. For him, there's nothing in the food world more exciting than the science-driven cooking he calls modernist.
Over the past two decades, a wave of chefs—Blumenthal, Grant Achatz of Chicago's Alinea, and Ferran Adrìa, whose restaurant El Bulli in Spain is considered one of the world's best—have looked beyond tradition for ways to manipulate their food. Adriè0 uses everything from industrial food additives to freeze-drying in the pursuit of otherworldly effects, like a soup that changes temperature in your mouth as you eat it. It's what some writers (though not the chefs themselves) called "molecular gastronomy," and a major thrust of Modernist Cuisine is to explain just what the hell is going on in these high-end kitchens. "There's a set of cooking techniques that go back 20-some years that are hugely interesting to people, very useful, poorly understood, and almost impossible to learn," Myhrvold says. "The best you can do is to go cook at a few restaurants that do this, and you come away with like 1 percent of it."
Until now, there's been no comprehensive reference. And the ingredients require a precision unfamiliar to many cooks. As Myhrvold observes, "It's a superbad idea to put a 'pinch' of xanthan gum in something." Modernist Cuisine sets out to explain and expand the chef's toolkit. "One of the wonderful things about the book is that it makes it clear what these things are good for, what they're not good for, what their strengths and weaknesses are," says Harold McGee, author of the seminal food science book On Food and Cooking. "I think it will go a long way toward demystifying and also expanding the number of people who can play with them and come up with new things."
That's a big change from cooking's artisanal roots. "You were taught how to make a hollandaise sauce, and you were never really taught why it works," says Thomas Keller, who runs Per Se in New York City and the French Laundry in Northern California and is generally considered the best chef in the US. "You were just taught how to make it, and you were taught how to fix it if it broke, and that was it." Myhrvold and his team want cooks to understand the science behind the technique. So Modernist Cuisine explains the avant-garde by emphasizing the most basic elements of cooking: heat and water.
Myhrvold has a favorite riddle: "If you have two steaks, one that's an inch thick, one that's 2 inches thick, how much longer does the thicker one need to cook?"
If you said the thicker steak takes twice as long, you're making the same mistake most cooks do. "It's four times as long. It goes roughly like the square," Myhrvold says. "How come cookbooks don't tell you that?" he asks, nearly bursting with indignation. The fundamental laws of heat, he figures, are the fundamental laws of cooking. "The physics of heat is diffusion," Myhrvold says. "So that's also the physics of drying things or of marination. They're all about diffusing things. The physics of heating things is also the physics of cooling things. It's the same basics over and over."
Then there's water. "Three things about water affect almost all of cooking," Myhrvold says. "First are the hydrogen bonds, which is why it has an incredibly high boiling point. Another is that it's a polar molecule, so that it dissolves a lot of things, and there are things that won't mix with it. And then there's how much energy it takes to heat water. That's why steaming food works that's why pressure cookers work."
This isn't like most writing about food science. McGee's science-minded On Food and Cooking is a de facto reference in every professional kitchen—and many amateur ones. McGee says he's a fan of Myhrvold's work the two men are friends, in fact. "I'm much more interested in the chemistry of flavor than Nathan is," McGee says. "That has to do with the diversity of compounds that you find in nature, how they get there, and how we detect them."
It's a polite sort of turf-carving, and Myhrvold is in just as much of a rush to establish his own. "In terms of broadly looking at food science and chemistry, and trying to explain it to a lay audience, Harold led the way," Myhrvold says. "But we have a physics-oriented book." Most cooks focus on the difference between filet mignon and rib eye. Myhrvold and his team want you to comprehend the whole cow. "If all you want to do is follow recipes, you don't need insights," he says. "If you want to do new things, you have to understand what the hell you're doing."
The ambition, the sheer bigness of Modernist Cuisine, does trigger the oh-come-on meter just a bit. Saying cooks need to understand the physics of diffusion is a little bit like saying a home woodworker needs to understand quantum mechanics. Sure, Planck's constant helps explain how nails go through maple, but calculating the one doesn't help you hammer the other.
Ironically, Modernist Cuisine will start tormenting UPS drivers with its bulk at the same time that the movement it celebrates—avant-garde, science-driven cooking—is waning. Ferran Adriè0 is closing El Bulli this year. Achatz is opening a new restaurant this spring that won't emphasize the techniques he helped popularize. "I think the book will have long-lasting importance in gastronomy," Achatz says. "But the particular style of cooking that it highlights might not. It's clear that the tide is turning. I don't think many chefs will continue to take the wholehearted scientific approach."
Nathan Myhrvold's method makes science of cooking
4 of 17 Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's former chief technology officer, has self-published a six volume cookbook, "Modernist Cuisine," which weighs thirty-nine pounds and retails for $625. He shares some of his techniques and philosophies as he cooks breakfast in the Chronicle test kitchen on Tuesday, April 19, 2011 in San Francisco, Calif., and talks about his cookbook. Russell Yip/The Chronicle Show More Show Less
5 of 17 Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's former chief technology officer, has self-published a six volume cookbook, "Modernist Cuisine," which weighs thirty-nine pounds and retails for $625. He shares some of his techniques and philosophies as he cooks breakfast in the Chronicle test kitchen on Tuesday, April 19, 2011 in San Francisco, Calif., and talks about his cookbook. Russell Yip/The Chronicle Show More Show Less
7 of 17 Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's former chief technology officer, has self-published a six volume cookbook, "Modernist Cuisine," which weighs thirty-nine pounds and retails for $625. He shares some of his techniques and philosophies as he cooks breakfast in the Chronicle test kitchen on Tuesday, April 19, 2011 in San Francisco, Calif., and talks about his cookbook. Russell Yip/The Chronicle Show More Show Less
8 of 17 Nathan Myhrvold poses with his self-published six volume cookbook, "Modernist Cuisine," on Tuesday, April 19, 2011 in San Francisco, Calif. Russell Yip/The Chronicle Show More Show Less
10 of 17 Eggs cook in plastic bags in a hot water bath on Tuesday, April 19, 2011 in San Francisco, Calif. Russell Yip/The Chronicle Show More Show Less
11 of 17 Eggs cook in plastic bags in a hot water bath on Tuesday, April 19, 2011 in San Francisco, Calif. Russell Yip/The Chronicle Show More Show Less
13 of 17 Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's former chief technology officer, has self-published a six volume cookbook, "Modernist Cuisine," which weighs thirty-nine pounds and retails for $625. He shares some of his techniques and philosophies as he cooks breakfast in the Chronicle test kitchen on Tuesday, April 19, 2011 in San Francisco, Calif., and talks about his cookbook. Russell Yip/The Chronicle Show More Show Less
14 of 17 Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's former chief technology officer, has self-published a six volume cookbook, "Modernist Cuisine," which weighs thirty-nine pounds and retails for $625. Russell Yip/The Chronicle Show More Show Less
16 of 17 A modernist look at boiling and preserving vegetables. Modernist Cuisine Show More Show Less
This is how Nathan Myhrvold scrambles his morning eggs:
He starts by putting an immersion circulator in a water bath and sets the temperature to 164 degrees the machine will regulate the temperature to a fraction of a degree.
As the water is heating up, he cuts a square of Gruyere into small dice, then takes another square and shaves it against a Microplane grater, to ensure melted cheese nuggets and fluffy melted wisps throughout the eggs.
He then whisks the cheese with two whole eggs and one egg yolk - what he's found to be the perfect ratio of fat to protein to achieve ultimate creaminess - pours the mess into a Ziploc bag and places the bag in the water bath. Then he takes a leisurely 15-minute shower as the eggs cook.
I ate those eggs. Without getting into details, they're the platonic ideal of cheesy scrambled eggs. Put a slice of Myhrvold's 72-hour short-rib pastrami next to them and serve it to a young Plato, and we might never have had his ideal, Academy, Dialogues, Republic . only a fat Greek man.
Myhrvold, author of "Modernist Cuisine" - the new six-volume, 2,400-page, 46-pound, spectacularly photographed book that retails for $625 and covers the history, science and technology of modern savory cooking - stopped by The Chronicle's test kitchen recently to cook breakfast and talk about his newest contribution to the world. He sported a beard, short-sleeved chef's jacket and boyish grin.
People call Myhrvold, the 51-year-old former Microsoft executive, a polymath - someone well versed in a wide range of subjects. But people also call James Franco a polymath.
We are dealing with an entirely different order of magnitude here. By the age of 23, Myhrvold had received a master's degree in mathematical economics and a doctorate in theoretical and mathematical physics from Princeton, after which he studied quantum field theory with renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. He was Microsoft's first chief technology officer, dabbles in paleontology and reducing global climate change, is an award-winning wildlife photographer, helped a team win the 1991 World Barbecue Championship and is currently the CEO of Intellectual Ventures, a privately held company that develops patents.
For the past five years, he has channeled part of his epic nerdiness into the culinary realm, writing - with chefs Chris Young and Maxime Billet, along with a team that totaled 48 - what is being hailed by chefs as perhaps the most important culinary book in our lifetime.
"Modernist Cuisine" touts the benefits of contemporary techniques that allow the precise regulation of temperature. These include sous-vide cooking - the process of vacuum-sealing food in a plastic bag, immersing it in water and, with the help of an immersion circulator, cooking it at exceedingly low temperatures to ultimate deliciousness. Other "Modernist Cuisine"-approved appliances include CVap and combi ovens that can steam, roast, poach, bake and broil all at once.
Steak without compromise
Consider the rib eye steak. Let's say you want it perfectly medium rare inside - 129 degrees - but crusty on the outside. Myhrvold's recipe calls for cooking the steak for an hour at 131 degrees in steam mode in the combi oven until the core temperature reaches 129. Then the steak is dried without humidity at three different temperatures for 25 minutes to prepare for the sear.
This sounds nuts to traditionalists on many levels, not least of which is cooking a steak at 131 degrees. Compare this to broiling it in the oven at temperatures closer to 500 degrees.
"The traditional method is to say, 'Use one approach and try to achieve two goals that are totally contradictory,' " Myhrvold says. "You can kind of balance them, but it's always a trade-off. The modern approach says screw that. Instead of trying to do this as one step, let's do it as two."
Of course, not too many cooks will splurge on an immersion circulator and vacuum machine, which run $800 to $1,000 or more, or a combi oven for $12,000, but Myhrvold likens those appliances to the microwave.
"Microwaves started off wildly expensive," he says, "and then they got popular and changed the way people reheat things. I think the same thing will happen for this kind of equipment. It will drop enormously in price."
Myhrvold delivers these kinds of statements with certitude, and who are we to argue? He has backed up his culinary claims with rigorous scientific tests, and when asked to explain them, does so clearly, never patronizing or getting frustrated.
Admittedly, he's been in the position of explaining his breakthroughs for most of his life to those of us not quite as bright - for those of us, say, whose first thought for how to eliminate global warming would not involve suspending sulfur-dioxide-emitting hoses 15 miles above the Earth.
Science over soul?
But where we might push back is on the emotional level: Many devoted cooks would say that modernist cooking takes some of the joy out of our favorite pastime. His egg scrambling is antiseptic - no smell of foaming butter, no sound when the egg hits the pan, no pride when the eggs come out great. There's just the lab-like whirring of a machine sitting on the counter and the guaranteed results of scientific precision.
"There are chefs who say this takes the skill out of it, or the soul out of it," he says. "And I say, 'I don't want to be a human thermostat.' This digital device can be a thermostat way better than I can, and I find no dishonor in that."
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