Thoughts on Modernist Cuisine

First off, sorry for the lack of cooking posts this week. I’ve been away from home on an exciting project… I hope to get caught up soon with some Restaurant reviews, and dining experiences from my recent travels and hopefully a few new recipes too… next week will be a busy blogging week. In the mean time, I thought I’d share some random thoughts that I had at 30,000 feet above somewhere in Arizona… enjoy!

There’s been a lot of media lately about modernist cooking and Modernist Cuisine. If you haven’t figured out by reading the blog I am a big fan of new cooking techniques and re-interpretations of dishes. But I thought I’d share some of my kitchen philosophy.

So critics of the modernist movement say that we are ruining food with the addition of “chemicals”… ALL cooking is chemistry, ALL food is composed of chemical compounds. Modernist cooking is the victim of bad marketing. This is both good and bad. In 1869 sodium bicarbonate was packed into small metal cans by Harvard professor Eden Horsford. You probably have sodium bicarbonate in your pantry right now, knowledgeable bakers will know that sodium bicarbonate is more commonly known as baking powder.

Think about the name “baking powder”… “what’s in a name? A rose by another name would smell as sweet?” baking powder speaks specifically to the main use, but nothing to what the main purpose is. It inherently limits the applications of the product. Try adding a small pinch of “baking powder” to onions the next time you are caramelizing them for a soup or to top a burger… You’ll notice that they brown quicker and become darker… Perhaps we should call it “baking and browning powder”…

The modernist movement has tried to get around these limiting names by calling ingredients what exactly what they are. Sodium alginate. Calcium lactate gluconate. Sodium hexametaphosphate. These names are scientifically respected and present no limits to what the ingredient can be used for… However, it’s horrible branding. Ferran Adria is trying to help get past this with his texturas line of products by branding some of these ingredients with friendlier names like Algin, Gluco, and even “fizzy”. The problem with this is that these new names often create some confusion when new cooks are learning how each of these ingredients work. hopefully, as Modernist Cuisine hits the shelves, more people will become more familiar with these ingredients and their minds will open to this new wave of cooking.

Some say that modernists show no restraint… And that these new ingredients should be integrated into dishes ONLY to improve classic preparations. I agree with them. And I don’t. On one hand, this is a valid argument. It’s like Chip Foose’s thoughts on rebuilding a classic car: if you can look at the car and tell the modifications that have been made, then the modifications are too bold. When Foose remakes a classic car, the modifications are subtle and elegant. This is like thickening a gravy with a bit of Xanthan gum… If used in small amounts, Xanthan offers tasteless thickening powers that will not clump up, and does not need to cool out like a cornstarch slurry or butter/flour thickener.

But there are times I don’t want restraint… The same way that we love to go to an auto show and look at a BMW concept car or an engineering marvel like a Pagani Zonda. There are times when I want to see the craziest transformation of a product that Wylie Dufresne can do with meat glue. I want to eat “noodles” constructed of shrimp and transglutaminase. Jose Andres re-constructs a strawberry by mixing strawberry puree with gelatin and a bit of cream, aerating it with an iSi canister, dusting it in freeze dried strawberry powder and freezing it I liquid nitrogen. The result is a froze. Strawberry that is creamy on the I side. There’s a place for this type of no limits cooking… Andres says that he loves a bowl of strawberries with fresh cream… Sometimes. Other times, he is re-inventing the perceptions of ingredients and food.

The common thread in modernist cooking… Really ALL cooking, is that it needs to taste good. Taste is subjective, but you should be able to consider the intent. Maybe it’s not perfect for YOUR pallet, but is the intent of the dish well executed. Think of it the same way you might not like a particular dish that is prepared exclusively with ‘traditional’ techniques.

In summary, modernist techniques can make a classic dish better, it can reinvent a classic, or it can create inedible concoctions. That is the nature of new discovery. The first piece of meat that cave man cooked on fire was probably badly burnt and tasted like crap… As he learned more about fire and heat the food got better. Modernist cooking is still in a developmental phase, particularly for the home cook. Not many people have the funding that Nathan Myrvold has to create a food lab in their homes, but the more we learn and the more the home cook experiments, the better our results will be. When we try new dishes we must do so with an open mind. Jeffery Stiengarten says to eat everything… More than once. Try it prepared by different cooks before you make a decision if you like a particular dish or style of cooking.

If we don’t taste with an open mind, cooking and out palettes will never evolve and grow. People like XXX who completely denounce Modernist methods are helping to restrict the progression of food and cooking. They are the people that said Rock and Roll was the devils music, the reason that Carmina Buranna were buried for centuries because the harmonies and melodies were unholy. In the end, the closed minded tasters will fall by the wayside, but in the mean time, YOU can get in the Internet, do a bit of research, order some specialty pantry items and experiment and Learn. Your food and cooking will grow as you create new dishes and reinvent classics. Good luck! Let me know how your results go.

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