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modernist cuisine

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From the San Francisco Chronicle

Modernist Cuisine

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.

Remarkable resume

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.

Myhrvold is unfazed.

“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.”

This kind of precision cooking is more in line with the mentality of pastry chefs than it is with savory chefs, who often pride themselves on being able to pull steak out of the pan based on intuition and touch.

“Pastry chefs bought into this notion of saying we have to measure things and be precise,” Myhrvold says. “They also bought into the notion that you can’t be a pastry chef without dealing with lots of little white powders. When you start using unconventional ingredients, like gellan or agar or methylcellulose, to a pastry chef it’s like, ‘OK, fine. I used to have 10 strange white powders. Now I have 20. So what?’ ”

Methylcellulose? What about the approach epitomized by Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters, who prefers minimal manipulation of natural ingredients?

“There’s no way I’m going to stand up for bad ingredients,” Myhrvold replies. “We love seasonal ingredients. It’s a false dichotomy to say that modern cooking is at odds with that, but some people want to have a great ingredient and no technique.

“I don’t think having a chef modify an ingredient is necessarily bad,” he says, listing bread, wine and cheese as examples of modified “natural” ingredients.

Then it was time for breakfast. Myhrvold plated his sous-vide scrambled eggs and pastrami, and the Food & Wine staff gathered around to taste. After a chorus of “yums” from the staff and pleas from our editor to sell his homemade pastrami retail, he made his way out the door, immersion blender in hand.

He was on his way to meet his mother for lunch at Chez Panisse.

“Modernist Cuisine,” by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Billet (The Cooking Lab, 2011; 2,438 pages in six volumes; $625).

Modernist cooking tips you can use at home

While you may not own an immersion circulator or ever put your potatoes in an ultrasound bath (even if the technique renders what “Modernist Cuisine” calls the ultimate fry), there are plenty of takeaways that you can implement in your kitchen right away – no high-tech gadgets required.

Here are some easy tips from the books. There are plenty more, but these should tide you over until affordable copies start circulating on eBay.

Fruits and vegetables

More efficient juicing: Freeze the fruit or vegetable as long as possible, then thaw before juicing. Long-term freezing with periodic freeze-thaw cycles will produce large ice crystals. These rupture the cells in the food, which helps break down the food even before it reaches the juicer.

Cold-shocking myth: Because of how heat is transferred from the core outward, shocking boiled vegetables in cold water doesn’t stop them from cooking.

Prevent dried beans from bursting: Use bottled water for cooking if your tap water is very hard.

Frying herbs in the microwave: Stretch plastic wrap over a plate, oil it, lay herbs on it in a single layer about 3/4-inch apart, brush again with oil and microwave 3-4 minutes at high power until crisp (4 minutes for parsley).

Meat and eggs

For creamy scrambled eggs: Discard one egg white to achieve the correct balance of fat to protein.

Safest way to thaw frozen foods: In an ice-water bath rather than in tepid water. This prevents the food’s outer layer from reaching the “danger zone” where bacteria breed, and, counterintuitively, doesn’t take much longer than thawing in tepid water.

Meat-searing myth: Searing doesn’t “seal in the juices”; it creates a delicious brown crust, but the juices seep out just the same. The sizzle when you put meat in the pan is the sound of juices dribbling out.

Letting meat rest: It has nothing to do with allowing moisture to redistribute in the meat. Resting meat allows proteins that have dissolved during cooking to thicken the natural juices as they cool, so liquid escapes more slowly when the meat is sliced.

Tender burgers: Do not mix liquids, starches or powdered seasonings into the ground meat. “Most additives bind the meat together,” “Modernist Cuisine” says. “Seasonings containing salt, for example, extract the meat protein myosin, which forms a strong, elastic gel when cooking.” For best results, form the meat into patties, then add seasoning.

Basic cooking tips

Pan-cooking meat: The most efficient way to cook meat on the stovetop is to flip it every 15-30 seconds instead of just once halfway through. This will cook the meat quicker and more evenly because of how heat is transferred through the protein.

Cooking stock quickly: Cut your stock components (vegetables, bones, etc.) into small pieces (above, right) to increase the surface area that comes into contact with the water. This speeds up the rate at which flavor is leached out.

Resurrecting stale bread: Bread becomes stale by absorbing moisture from the air, which makes the crust soggy and causes the starch on the inside of the bread to crystallize and harden. Store fresh bread in the freezer, and heat stale bread in the oven to melt starch crystals and drive out the water.

Kitchen tools

Wood is best: Choose wood cutting boards instead of plastic. Although plastic is easy to sanitize, cut wood naturally secretes antimicrobial compounds. To clean a wooden cutting board, scrub it with salt and rinse it with a 200-ppm bleach solution. Don’t soak wood overnight in bleach.

On burner size and pans: Expensive pans may or may not be better than inexpensive ones. What’s really important is that the burner size matches the bottom of the pan. This promotes even heat distribution.

Grilling

The fuel: Flavor differences come from a food’s drippings, not from the briquettes or hardwood charcoal cooking the food. Drippings seep out of the meat and fall onto the hot coals, burst into flame and coat the food with newly formed molecules which result in that unique grilled flavor and aroma.

Grilling thick pieces of meat: Sear the meat over the coals, shift the meat to one side of the grill and coals to the other, and cover, creating a makeshift oven. This will cook the meat through without burning the outside.

On wine

Wineglasses: The shape is not nearly as effective as people claim, so buy what you think looks pretty.

Hyper-decanting wine: Whiz wine in a blender for a minute, allow the froth to subside and serve. This oxygenates and releases gases.

- Sophie Brickman

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