Hydrocolloids. Reverse spherification. Sous vide. The terminology alone could turn you off. Then there's the tech: low-temperature ovens, iSi whippers, vacuum sealers. Stuff that sounds like it belongs more in a lab than a kitchen, and way outside your price range. Intimidated yet? I am. But whether you like it or not, modernist cuisine (better, though less accurately, known as molecular gastronomy) is here to stay. Truth is, it's a lot less intimidating and weird than you think. And there's nothing stopping you from bringing it to the home kitchen.
Figuring Out Modernist Cuisine
Modernist cuisine is about more than making spherical packets of olive juice and strange deep-fryable gels. At its core, it's about using scientific methods and techniques to improve and enrich the way we cook. It's about getting the perfect doneness from a steak every time. About making the flavor of vegetables as intense as possible. About taking the ingredients you have and applying some tools to make them even better.
Sure, modernist cuisine engages in novelty for its own sake with its trompe l'oeil faux-eggs and evanescent foams. But so does a chocolate-covered ice cream sandwich, which is no less delicious for its "because I can" attitude (and for the record, much harder to make than a foam). But these novelties are just the tip of the iceberg.
More than anything else, chefs today are using modernist techniques to make classical cooking even better. Batters are carbonated to fry up more crisp, steaks are cooked sous vide to ensure perfect doneness, and pan sauces are enriched with xanthan gum for that perfect light-but-rich texture.
Classical Cooking with a Twist
"My chicken looks like a piece of chicken," says Tony Maws, the chef who applies modernist techniques at his celebrated Boston restaurant Craigie on Main. "But there's a lot of different ways to get it to the plate." Maws's cooking is season-driven and ingredient-focused. It doesn't betray any of the special gadgets or lab-ordered powders that go into making it, which is exactly how he wants it.
"You're always going to have people on the extreme," chefs like Grant Achatz and Wiley Dufresne, who are in the business of breaking culinary boundaries. But modernist cuisine isn't just a movement of culinary daredevils, and Maws insists that it's as much about perfecting the fare we all know and love: a crispier fried chicken or a more luscious creamed spinach.
Regardless of what type of food you're making, "who doesn't want their food to be as delicious as it can possibly be?"
Bringing It Home
To put these ideas to the test, I set out to start building my own modernist pantry. It's all well and good to hear about these techniques improving classical cooking, but I wanted to see what a clumsy cook whose style leans more 19th than 21st century could do without breaking the bank.
Sourcing ingredients was a bit of a challenge, even in New York City. And reliable, trustworthy recipes take some digging to find, with some experimentation to master. But none of my supplies cost more than my more exotic spices. And as Maws says, "if you're already used to measuring, it's not a big leap to spend $30 for a certain type of scale" (in this case, one that measures to the tenth of a gram).
My ingredients assembled, I had a room full of toys and no one to play with. But the more I read and the more I experimented, a world of possibilities opened up.
Does your sauce have the perfect flavor, but is too thin? You can reduce it more, but that may disrupt the balance of flavors. Or you can blend in a scant pinch of xanthan gum and instantly achieve a texture more velvety than cornstarch and more pure in flavor than a roux.
I've long loved my duck of paradise recipe, which calls for rubbing a spice rub below the skin of duck breasts so it doesn't burn against a hot skillet. The flavor's dead-on, but since the skin is mostly separated from the meat, the breast has an awkward flap. The application of a small amount of transglutaminase (a substance also known as meat glue) with the rub seals the skin and meat back together. You get a breast perfectly seasoned throughout without any evidence of "surgery."
Then there were the novelty techniques, fun but decidedly delicious. A little sodium alginate and calcium chloride is all you need to turn fruit juice or syrup into caviar-like spheres that burst in the mouth. I've enjoyed them as a textural element in cocktails as well as gems of flavor in a coconut-based dessert soup.
By whisking olive oil with tapioca maltodextrin (a modified starch just like cornstarch), I created a melt-in-your-mouth powder that provides all the flavor of olive oil with an extra sumptuousness that elevates rich dishes like grilled lobster tail. The same technique creates a crack-like white chocolate powder that's just begging to be added to a bowl of cereal. These foods were unlike anything I'd eaten before, and they were downright inspiring. Most importantly they tasted wonderful, and I can't wait to explore their uses more fully.
Taking Science to Task
These techniques demand practice and attention to detail—I didn't carry a 1 and wound up with a cilantro paste I'm currently using to patch cracks in the wall—but are no more complicated than layering flavors in a braise or baking a stellar batch of cookies. Whether they were practical solutions to technical problems or new ways of using an ingredient, they produced deliciously down-to-earth results—a far cry from the [post-]modern self indulgence I was expecting.
Whether we like it or not, these techniques are part of our new culinary world. Modified starches and gums have been added to packaged foods for decades, and while it's easy to harp on food "stuffed full of chemicals," it's intellectually lazy.
"Natural" ingredients like flour, cheese, and butter are just as processed as xanthan gum and gellan. And beyond that, there's nothing wrong with adding something to good food to make it even better.
Sure, not everyone can afford the $500 Sous Vide Supreme but a) you can hack it for 20 bucks, and b) the same was true of microwaves a few short decades ago. The tools and techniques chefs are using today will trickle down into home kitchens over time. They aren't threats to home cooking; they're an optimistic promise to make our kitchens a more exciting place.
These are the conclusions from a brief and decidedly limited flirtation with modernist cuisine—one I certainly hope to take further. So how about you, Serious Eaters? How have you brought modernist cuisine into your kitchen?
Here are some of the resources I used to learn more about modernist ingredients and techniques.
Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myhrvohd, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet. Yes, it costs over $500. And yes, I borrowed it from the Serious Eats bookshelf. But it's the single most comprehensive book on the subject, and reading it feels something like discovering a book of magic. Innumerable charts make building recipes relatively easy. If you can borrow this from anyone or are willing to pony up for your own copy, do.
Ideas in Food by Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot. The authors of the wonderful blog offer a concise but playful introduction to thinking about food through a creative and scientific lens. There are practical instructions and recipes for specific ingredients like xanthan gum and versawhip.
Alinea at Home is Carol Blymire's cook-the-book project for the Alinea cookbook. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and though she doesn't print recipes from the book, it was a great source of inspiration.
The EGullet Forums are where Nathan Myhrvold began his own journey into modernist cuisine years ago, and they remain a gathering of dedicated professionals and amateurs alike for discussing ideas, sharing recipes, and troubleshooting problems.
Some retailers have responded to increased public interest and now stock some modernist ingredients like maltodextrin and lecithin. In New York City, Kalustyan's and The Brooklyn Kitchen have small but affordably-priced collections of ingredients, mostly hydrocolloids (thickeners). The high-end web store L'Epicerie has an expansive collection available for mail order.
About the author: Max Falkowitz writes Serious Eats' weekly Spice Hunting column and co-writes the ice cream recipe series Scooped. He's a proud native of Queens, New York, will do just about anything for a good cup of tea, and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries. You can follow his exotic spice- and ice cream-based ramblings on Twitter.