Skip to main content
Soft matter and liquids

Soft matter and liquids

Cooking up a storm

01 Dec 2011

Peter Barham reviews Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet

Shanghai soup dumplings made of gel
Yum yum

Over the last few years, interest in the science of cookery has blossomed. If you do an Internet search for “molecular gastronomy”, you will find close to a million pages devoted to the topic. The impact of science on restaurant kitchens – and, to a lesser extent, domestic ones – in the 21st century has been highly significant, and Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine is a book that clearly demonstrates the strength of this influence on restaurants worldwide.

I say that Modernist Cuisine is a book, but it is really much more: it is a true heavyweight tome, with more than 2400 pages split into six substantial volumes. Inside, Myhrvold and his co-authors, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, describe how science has brought cooking into the 21st century. They explain the techniques, equipment and ingredients of modernist cuisine, offer a wealth of complete recipes for whole dishes and include a full kitchen manual to enable any cook to develop their own ideas. The level of detail and care that have gone into the book’s preparation set it in a class of its own. Previous attempts to describe the production of food have never managed to demonstrate the depth of knowledge and insight on display here, which, when combined with a truly scholarly approach, make this the ultimate reference book for all chefs and aspiring cooks.

Art and science

The book’s authors are a distinguished group. Myhrvold was the first chief technology officer of Microsoft and the founder of its research division, Microsoft Research, but he left the firm in 1999 to pursue other interests, including his lifelong passion for food. My first contact with him came just over a year ago when he e-mailed me some questions concerning the use of liquid nitrogen to make ice cream; the fact that the ensuing months-long correspondence led to a single short paragraph in the final book indicates just how much careful research and attention to detail has gone into it.


Young, for his part, is a maths and biochemistry graduate of the University of Washington, whom I met when he was appointed as the first manager of the Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen (FDEK), part of Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant in Berkshire, UK. He subsequently oversaw the FDEK’s expansion to employ more than six full-time chefs, and also helped develop the recipes for the BBC TV series Heston Blumenthal: In Search of Perfection. The third author, Bilet, is a chef who worked at both the Fat Duck and other esteemed kitchens before joining Myhrvold’s cooking lab and working on this project.

In a short review such as this, it is impossible to do full justice to this work. All I can hope to do is give a flavour of its scope and describe a little of how it quietly and clearly embeds a scientific approach into the kitchen and the processes of modern cooking.

The basics

The level of detail given over to cooking techniques can be illustrated with a couple of examples. One of my own favourite cooking methods, especially for meat, is sous vide. In this method, the food is sealed (under vacuum) in a plastic bag and cooked for a set time at a given, constant temperature in a water bath – the exact same water baths used in physics, chemistry or materials-science laboratories. This way, the texture can be controlled so that the food can be prepared to near-perfection every time. Myhrvold et al. explain the sous vide processes in detail, describing why and how meat is kept tender – but more importantly, they also provide a very detailed set of tables giving the ideal cooking temperatures and times for just about any cut of meat you can imagine. I was particularly impressed to see that they include in these tables the time required at each temperature to pasteurize the meat being cooked.

When it comes to something as apparently simple as using a grill (which – confusingly for British readers – is termed “broiling” in the US), the authors really go to town, explaining the processes of heat transfer and providing excellent and clear instructions that should allow anyone to find the “sweet spot” in their own grill. This “sweet spot” is the area of the grill where the heat input to the food being cooked is more or less constant right across the food, and the book’s charts show readers how to find the region where the grill’s power does not vary by more than 10%.

Then there are the superb instructions for using an incredible range of polysaccharides, proteins and enzymes to produce food gels. Such gels can be hot or cold, stiff or flaccid, brittle or fluid, and can be used to prepare peas with the texture of caviar, mangos that look like fried eggs, or drinks that are hot and cold at the same time. These culinary uses of substances that are more often thought of as additives to mass-produced foodstuffs are what many people think of when they hear the words “molecular gastronomy”, and this has perhaps given the subject a bad name in some quarters. This is unfortunate, as those in the academic world who are involved with molecular gastronomy prefer to think of it as the pursuit of the science behind the question of what makes food delicious – or not.

In the work’s later volumes, readers will find recipes that use all these techniques and more for a vast array of dishes. These range from the apparently commonplace, such as chicken tikka masala (albeit a true gourmet version, cooked sous vide with the breast and thighs prepared at different temperatures), to the seemingly exotic such as “abalone and foie gras shabu-shabu with yuba and enoki”, which I will certainly be trying for myself as soon as I have the time.

But for me, the most important and useful parts of the book are when the authors explain how to get the very best out of the incredible array of equipment that is now available to use in the kitchen. Techniques of cooking at high or low pressures, the use of temperature-controlled baths, freeze-drying, and cooking in steam and combination ovens are all explained with remarkable clarity.


One of the most striking aspects of the book – and a clear illustration of the impact that science and scientists have had on modern cooking – comes in chapter 10, where the authors provide a list of the equipment they deem essential or useful in a properly equipped professional modernist kitchen. Of the top 10 items on the Must Have List, most are more familiar to physicists than they are to cooks. Who could imagine a kitchen without water baths (number 1 on the list); liquid nitrogen (2); vacuum pumps (7); magnetic stirrer/hotplates (9); centrifuges (9) and autoclaves (10)? Later, in the Handy Special Purpose Tools List, 8 out of 12 items come directly from the pages of scientific catalogues, including ultrasonic baths, rotary evaporators and vacuum ovens.

Although many readers will doubtless baulk at obtaining these various bits of kit, I found to my astonishment (and delight) that of the 53 items listed in the four tables of tools for the modern kitchen, I have at least 32. It is no wonder that I think this book will make my ideal Christmas present, and while my partner might feel it is too expensive, I should point out that it costs less per gram than good parmesan cheese.

  • Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet 2011 The Cooking Lab £395/$625hb 2438pp
Copyright © 2024 by IOP Publishing Ltd and individual contributors