Cooking Modernist Cuisine at Home, at Home

Let me just get the sous-vide machine warmed up...
Let me just get the sous-vide machine warmed up… Photo: Tyson Stole/Modernist Cuisine

When I think about “home cooking,” I picture the same things you probably do: meatloaf, spaghetti, maybe some mac & cheese with carrot sticks. As far back as I can remember, neither mom nor dad ever made short ribs that had been cooked sous-vide for 72 hours or salmon that was crisped with a blowtorch. Yet as its name implies, Modernist Cuisine at Home — the $140 diffusion brand to Modernist Cuisine’s six-volume, $625 tome — has different ideas about home cooking, ones that involve whipping siphons and 56˚(centigrade) water baths.

The original MC is famously thorough: It was the brainchild of a controversial billionaire former Microsoft executive; required years of research and planning (not to mention the building of an actual cooking laboratory outside Seattle) to assemble; and was expressely designed to appeal to only the most hardcore professional chefs. MCaH, meanwhile, looks and feels like a lighter version of the original, but promises to make the modernist cooking mentality more approachable to home cooks. The question is: Will a truly average home cook actually be able deal with the techno recipes in the book? The only way to find out was to give the book a trial run, one that needed a guinea pig who hadn’t gone to culinary school or spent a month staging at Alinea. Grub Street wanted me to be that guinea pig.

Not only had I not even heard of things like whey protein isolate or sous-vide machines, I barely had any kitchen equipment at all: My wife, Sarah, and I recently moved to Oakland after spending twelve years in Turner Falls, Massachusetts. Before we moved, we went through the process of drinking and eating our way through all of the things we didn’t want to haul across the country (do you know how hard it is to use up all of your tomato paste?). But now with the move behind us, we’re reversing the process and slowly building back up our liquor, food, and cooking-equipment collections. At the moment we have three plates, four cocktail coupes, and one pot.

I told Grub Street all of this. “Perfect,” they said.

I had access to a digital review copy, so I opened my laptop — even on a screen much smaller than the actual printed book, the photos still look fantastic — and started looking through. In keeping with the vibe of the first Modernist Cuisine, the recipes read more like experiments — lots of numbers and precise measurements (one of MC’s central practices is measuring everything in grams on a digital scale). The cooking instructions come in a spreadsheet rather than your traditional numbered steps. I counted at least fifteen pictures of white powder piled on a digital scale. As I browsed, I got the sense that I was about to do some really mind-blowing crazy shit with my food.

Salad’s cooler when the bowl is cut in half.Photo: Chris Hoover/Modernist Cuisine LLC

Gearing Up
The first thing I realized is that stocking one’s kitchen with modernity is a not-inexpensive endeavor. At a minimum you will need a pressure cooker, a whipping siphon, a cast iron skillet, a digital scale, a digital thermometer, and a blowtorch. You would be also well served with a sous-vide cooking setup (the most widely available of which costs like $400), a stand mixer, and a syringe with which to inject brine into meat. I am assuming you have a blender, a food processor, and a normal number of pots and pans, but if you don’t, you will need those as well.

Also, good luck finding a lot of this stuff anywhere other than the Internet. I went to a restaurant supply store in Oakland that is a massive warehouse where you can buy equipment that in most cases would be considered very specialized (e.g. a “high-volume continuous feed food processor” or a “Euro-style hot dog steamer with two toasting spikes”) but they did not stock a sous-vide setup or a 1L whipping siphon. They told me they could order both of those things, but this is just to make the point that even your most specialized kitchen stores do not have this stuff on hand. That goes double for ingredients you will need to find. Lots of them won’t be at the grocery store. I did find the one (and I mean one) store in San Francisco that specializes in molecular gastronomic gear, but to call it a store implies that you can just walk in a buy stuff. No, no: This place is open by appointment only and it’s on the fifth floor of an office building. It feels more like an art gallery than a culinary store. The owner refers to customers as “clients.” Because of the volume in which they sell ingredients I now have enough sodium citrate to last four thousand years.

If you are really prepared to go all in and stock up on gear, then this might not be such a hassle. If, like us, you decide to use your book-testing session to throw a party for a bunch of friends and only have a couple days to track things down, you’ll end up annoyed when the only whipping siphon available isn’t the right size.

Recipe 1: Bean Foam (Easy)
The first recipe we tested out was bean foam. If you know anything about molecular gastronomy, you probably know about foam. It is a technique where you take things that should not be sent through a whip cream gun and you send ‘em through. According to many food competition shows, foam is “so over,” but I had never had it, nor did I really know how to make it. Plus MCaH classifies foam as an “easy” recipe (though it does require a pressure cooker and a whip cream siphon, so maybe the book and I differ on our definitions of “easy.”)

The recipe is really two steps: pressure-cooking the beans and then “foaming the beans,” a great farting euphemism if ever there was one. We waited for people to arrive before the actual foaming because, as the book says, the foam itself is only stable for ten minutes. So after people arrived, I performed the remaining steps — pureeing, mixing with heavy cream, reheating to a precise 139˚ (Fahrenheit) — and put the mixture into my new, too-small whipping siphon.

I tipped the siphon upside over a deep bowl and fired foamy beans everywhere. There’s no other way to say this: It looked like diarrhea. I do not know how a restaurant would serve this without making everyone at the table laugh. We reluctantly tasted. “Whoa, it’s really good,” one of my friends said. “I really was not anticipating enjoying this.”

For me, the best part of this whole process was figuring out how to do a Whip-It off the siphon, something I’d never done before and which I’m sure was enhanced by the residual bean foam.

Recipe 2: Banana Cream Pie (Moderate)
From the name alone, this actually does sound like the kind of “home cooking” everyone thinks of. But that assumption is incorrect. There are three separate elements to make in addition to the crust, and the level of intricacy and interrelatedness of each element forced us to constantly double back on ourselves and spend as much time parsing as we did cooking.

I will not get into the peanut crust or the “pressure-infused coffee pastry cream” or the “frozen blowtorch-caramelized bananas,” but I will mention them just so you really get an idea of how many moving pieces are required to make this pie (yes you must first freeze the bananas before you blowtorch them).

Here is an actual exchange my friend and my wife had while discussing the “pressure-carmelized banana puree”: “Okay, we’ve made this [pointing to recipe] and in four hours we are going to strain it into a sauce pan and continue with step one. We are preheating a water bath, I think for cooking the eggs sous-vide. However, this says do step two and refrigerate for two hours, so why would we preheat a water bath two hours early for this?”

In the end, this recipe tasted like any banana cream pie, and gave no indication that planning it is like solving an advanced math problem. Anyone who voluntarily makes this pie more than once is a masochist.

Recipe 3: Oven-Fried Pizza (Advanced)
To make the pizza dough, we first had to make the Poolish. “Poolish is not a misspelling of polish or Polish,” MCaH helpfully tells us. “It is the French term for ‘prefermented dough sponge’.” Of course the French have a single word for prefermented dough sponge.

Poolish is sort of like a sourdough starter and needed to sit for 24 hours before we could use it in the dough. And then the dough itself also required 24 hours of sitting time before we could cook it. So we started making this pizza 48 hours before anyone came over for our party.

The dough lulls you into thinking this will actually be simple. But the pizza itself is cooked by dropping it in a cast-iron skillet filled with smoking hot oil and then thrown — smoking-hot skillet and all — into a 550˚ oven for about five minutes. The advanced-ness of this became apparent when I attempted to slide just-stretched pizza dough into the roaring-hot skillet. Scorching oil splattered out of the pan and the pizza itself folded and crumbled and started cooking fast. I attempted to unfold the dough while hot oil splattered and pelted my forearms. I managed to get it mostly flattened while my friend yelled at me to “get that pan in the oven! It’s cooking too fast!” Chaos.

We did that three times. I crumpled the pizza every time.

The pizza itself was fine, but like the banana cream pie, there was a nagging not-worth-it feeling. I can’t see myself just oven-frying up another pizza for dinner some evening, at least not until the oil burns on my arms heal.

Sous-vide steak.Photo: Melissa Lehuta/Modernist Cuisine LLC

All the Rest
We made more recipes: a steak that gets slow-cooked in the oven; a surprisingly good raspberry gazpacho that required me to MacGyver a sous-vide setup with a plastic baggie and a pot on the stove; and panna cotta, which was more straightforward than you might expect.

Everything we made was good, but “good” is a letdown from a project like this. The promise of this book isn’t goodness, it’s newness. Yet many of the recipes here turn out end products that resemble non-modernist things (pizza, pie, some foamy scrambled eggs), yet require way more work. This book is not actually for home cooks, and I don’t think the authors would disagree. It is for the obsessive cook who appreciates the science of molecular gastronomy and a sort of clinical experimentation very different from the free-wheeling casual cooking that most people actually do at home.

MCaH presents an orderly universe where measurement, precise timing, and chemically significant ingredients create replicable and nearly perfect dishes. But the home kitchen is, in a way, supposed to be a place where things break, ovens smoke, and pizza dough crumples. There’s charm in meatloaf, imperfections and all.

Matthew Latkiewicz writes about drinking and other subjects at You Will Not Believe. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Wired,, Boing Boing, and Gastronomica. Follow him on Twitter.

Cooking Modernist Cuisine at Home, at Home