A feature for the Financial Times on sous vide cookery and Modernist Cuisine
In front of me is perhaps the most impractical cookbook I’ve ever used. Modernist Cuisine at Home is a vast, expensively photographed, thuddingly self-important tome, with an RRP of £100. It’s the smaller, domestic version of an even more ambitious, six-volume work called Modernist Cuisine, which has 2,438 pages, weighs 20kg and costs just under £400. Conceived by Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive who left the company at 40 to devote himself to gastronomy, the retiring headings of Modernist Cuisine at Home include “The 10 Principles of Modernist Cuisine”, which include the dictum: “Cuisine is a creative art in which the chef and diner are in dialogue.”
Comparing the creations of Heston Blumenthal to those of Joyce, Picasso and Le Corbusier, Myhrvold celebrates chefs who are “always at the forefront, pushing the boundaries of food and cooking”. Many of the book’s dishes – Thai soup, braised short ribs, mussels marinière, pizza margherita – sound familiar. But its ingredients, which include xantham gum, soy lecithin, malic acid, diastatic malt powder, N-Zorbit and Insta Cure #1, are not. They read almost as a reaction against the producer-led, rustic cookery that has characterised home cooking on both sides of the Atlantic for the last 20 years.
Central to this alleged movement is sous vide or “under vacuum” – a cooking technique where you seal food in a vacuum pouch, then put it in a water bath so it cooks at a constant temperature – sometimes for hours or days at a time. Typically, when you sear a steak, the outside of the meat will be well done, and the middle will be about right. In theory, a sous vide steak should always be cooked perfectly because it has been heated to the ideal temperature throughout. Nor should it overcook, unless that temperature is raised. When it’s time to eat, the bag is snipped open and the meat briefly seared in a pan to take on some colour.
Sous vide emerged in fancy French kitchens in the 1970s, and gradually caught on elsewhere. Ferran Adrià made extensive early use of sous vide during the 1990s at El Bulli, and he and other “molecular” chefs such as Blumenthal have helped spread it to more ordinary professional kitchens. It’s now in a number of British gastropubs.