Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: Modernist Cuisine at Home

Modernist Cuisine at Home is a cookbook. As such, it shouldn't be read end-to-end, but should be reviewed for the recipes it contains. However, it's more than a cookbook, since it's also an advocate for a different approach towards cooking, which is ideally suited for engineers and other folks (mostly men) who have little patience for acquiring skills associated with traditional cooking. I am just such a person, so the Modernist approach does have great appeal to me.

As far as I can see, modernist cooking has a few principles:

  • Use of modern technology. This includes pressure cookers, sous vide machines, and blow torches
  • Accurate temperature control. This could mean water baths, or simply an oven safe probe stuck into the thickest part of the meat.
  • An emphasis on time efficiency. Minimum prep time, and "fire and forget" formulas.
I, on the other hand, was looking for the following:
  • Minimum skill required, as well as prep effort. I can barely flip an egg over to make eggs over-easy. Anything more is just too much.
  • Precise prescriptions. "A dash of baking soda" means nothing to me. I'd rather hear, "10g of baking soda."
To my mind, Modernist Cuisine at Home meets a lot of this criteria. Much has been made about sous vide, but I didn't have a sous vide set up, so I first tried the other recipes that were easy:
  • Slow Baked Chicken with Onions (page 242). The first time I did this the results were amazing. The prep work is weird, using brine injectors and slicing onions thinly, but my wife (who usually hates chicken) liked it a lot so I tried again. The second time was a disaster. I had to throw it away. The inconsistency of the oven made me willing to buy a Sous Vide setup.
  • Pressure Cooked Lamb Shank (page 234). The first time I did it the results were good, but marred by my pressure cooker being not up to spec. I splurged, upgrading to a $30 Presto pressure cooker, and the second time I made it it was nothing short of incredible. The meat just peeled off the bone when I lifted the bone up, and the resulting lamb curry tasted great. In fact, the store-bought sauce did not do the meat justice.
  • Carrot Soup (page 178). Since my visits to Rosenlaui began, I've admired their soups. Since I had a pressure cooker now, I could use their recipe to see if I could emulate the creamy soups that Rosenlaui did. The resulting texture is nothing short of amazing. It's quite a bit of work, since you have to pressure cook the carrots, then blend them, and then add carrot juice. This is eliminating the final step. But the soup is incredibly smooth and generally good stuff. I liked it a lot, but Xiaoqin is in general not a fan of Western style soups, so I guess I won't be making this again.
All this convinced me that I should experiment with sous vide for a more consistent experience. It took a bit to figure out what to buy, so I'll list it here, in case you want to try it yourself:
  • Sous Vide Supreme Demi. You don't need anything bigger, so don't waste your time with the other stuff. I didn't opt for a circulating bath heater, because the resulting decor would not please my wife. If you're single and cheap, try a manual rice cooker or crockpot and the DorkFood temperature controller.
  • Iwatani Torch Burner. It burns butane cartridges you can easily get at Ranch 99. Easy on, easy off, and it doesn't look like industrial equipment.
  • Seal-a-Meal Vacuum Sealer. If all you do is short recipes you can use zip-loc bags. You can also buy a package including the Sous Vide Supreme sealer, but the difference between reviews of this unit and reviews of the Sous Vide Supreme unit is huge, so I recommend buying this one.
With this, I experimented with the following receipes:
  • Sous Vide Salmon (page 276). OMG. This is melt-in-your-mouth type salmon. I couldn't believe how good this was. Xiaoqin doesn't like cooked Salmon, but she found this acceptable. I'm going to have to try cod one of these days.
  • Sous Vide Chicken (page 244). You know how baked chicken always tastes dry? The reason the Slow Baked chicken receipe works is because you inject the chicken with enough brine so it doesn't dry out. Well, by cooking sous vide, you don't have to do that and the results are amazing. Xiaoqin doesn't usually like chicken, but she liked this one so much she complained I didn't eat enough. Bowen doesn't usually eat meat, and he ate a third of a piece of chicken thigh by himself. This blew my mind.
  • Sous Vide Prime Rib (page 194). This was relatively disappointing. Not because the result was bad, but because we'd had high hopes after the last two sous vide dishes. I didn't follow the instructions enough, and left the meat in the machine for 3+ hours instead of the recommended 50 minutes, because I read some other instructions on the internet. On the one hand, it was my loss, but on the other hand, it demonstrates the value of the book: the book's recipes so far out perform the internet, which is unusual.
  • Sous Vide Duck Confit (pages 245-246). This was the most ambitious recipe that I tried from the book. It took about 18 hours of brining the duck legs in the refrigerator, and then about 27 hours in the Sous Vide machine. But it was excellent and better than some duck confit I've had in France! If you'd told me a year ago that I'd be able to make duck confit this good, I wouldn't have believed you.
I'm not much of a foodie, and have eaten at Michelin 2-star restaurants that I considered terrible compared to say, Kabab & Curry's. I've also eaten at Google's cafetaria during the good years (2005-2007), and could taste the difference when I returned to Mountain View in 2008 after a stint in Europe. I would say that this book has revolutionized my approach and expectations for home cooking, and I cannot imagine not using the sous vide approach for meats cooked home if I can help it. I justified my purchase of my above set up based on the idea that I could easily return it to Amazon if I didn't like it. Well, I'm not going to return those machines. Furthermore, when I first heard about the 72 hour short-rib sous vide recipes, I thought, "3 days to cook dinner? That's ridiculous." I will now admit that my thoughts about the matter now are: "how could I do without my sous vide machine for 3 days?!!"

I will now pay this book the greatest compliment I can: before I return this book to the library, I will either buy my own copy of Modernist Cuisine at Home, or the entire $530 6-volume set of Modernist Cuisine. Highly recommended. If you haven't tried it out, try it. If you're local and want to try it, talk to me and we'll work something out. And if you're an engineer who hates cooking and can't do anything right in the kitchen, you need this book.

Update: My 4-month retrospective.
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