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755 of 768 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Holy Grail of the Foodie-at-Home-Chef, October 8, 2012
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This review is from: Modernist Cuisine at Home (Hardcover)
For those of you that don't want to read the silly-long review I wrote, scroll down to "BOTTOM LINE" for the important stuff.

I'll start with a disclaimer: Do not buy this book until you are familiar with the original "Modernist Cuisine." By that I do not mean you need to own that set first (quite the opposite, this is the stepping stone to the full set), but you should understand that it encompasses a style of cooking that can be crudely summarized as "cooking for scientists" or "how to make dinner in a laboratory." Once you know what you're getting into, decide if it's worth around $140 of your hard-earned cash.

Now, on to the good stuff. For those of you who salivated for a year, wishing you could justify buying "Modernist Cuisine" but knowing you wouldn't be able to use it to it's full potential (like me), your prayers have been answered! "Modernist Cuisine" made headlines (in the Food and Travel section) for:
1. Deconstructing the science of cooking rather than just listing recipes
2. Focusing on modern methods of preparing foods using tools such as combi ovens, sous vide setups, emulsifiers, etc
3. Including some rather stunning photography of the equipment and ingredients within

I am happy to say that all three are present in the "at Home" version. First, "Modernist Cuisine at Home" (MCAH hereafter) introduces a consolidated set of kitchen tools and gadgets that the home chef can reasonably afford. Don't have the funds for the laboratory-grade centrifuge featured in "Modernist Cuisine?" No problem. Not only does MCAH omit the prohibitively expensive tools from its recipes, but many of them are the same recipes found in the original, redone for the home cook. MCAH even goes as far as offering several options at varying price ranges for the equipment used within.

The same goes for the ingredients. MCAH mostly does away with the laundry list of exotic spices and chemicals featured in many "modernist" cookbooks and instead relies on ingredients you can find either at the local grocery store, or in reasonable quantities online. For the ingredients you are probably less familiar with (malic acid? agar agar?) there is a two-page spread detailing what each does, where it comes from, and what it costs. In many cases, the recipes will list alternatives if you choose not to add their recommendations to your shopping list.

Much like Modernist Cuisine, MCAH explains some of the science behind the various cooking techniques, but at a beginner's level. Each recipe includes a blurb about what's going on inside the pot (so to speak), and almost all of them include multiple variations at the end, allowing for a wide variety of options. This is especially useful for people new to the idea of sous vide cooking, as MCAH does a great job explaining exactly how it works, and how to make it work for you.

How has it taken me this long to get to the photography? Stunning, just as in "Modernist Cuisine". I don't know how they did it, but every picture is suitable for framing. Equipment has been dissected to yield amazing looking cross-sections used in explaining how the various tools function. And get this: included in the back are four prints from MCAH you can frame. I had no idea until they fell out while I was reading, but they are every bit as beautiful as the photos inside, and I dare say will look better on the walls of a kitchen than the usual crap paintings of grapes or farms or cows that people seem obligated to put up these days.

If it seem like I'm gushing, it's because I am. Any home cook who has jumped into sous vide cooking has probably experienced the frustration I have with cookbooks dedicated to the style. You have Douglas Baldwin's "Sous Vide for the Home Chef," which, while great for it's temperature charts (and the fact it came out before anything else was available) is too simple for anyone looking to expand their horizons into restaurant-quality preparations (French Laundry, anyone?). And on the other end of the spectrum is Thomas Keller's "Under Pressure," which, while exquisite in creativity and detail, is geared completely towards the restaurant chef (which he warns in the forward), both in scale and complexity. Even the original "Modernist Cuisine", while featuring more accessible recipes than "Under Pressure", still excluded the home cook from about half of it's contents due to equipment or ingredient limitations. MCAH is the first book that features sous vide in a way that the home cook can learn and excel at, while also creating dishes that will blow the guests away. Seriously, the stuff you can make from this book looks like it belongs on the set of Iron Chef.

BOTTOM LINE:

This is a "modern" (or Modernist) cookbook, so the recipes inside are going to be closer to what you'd find in a restaurant that uses an obscure adjective for it's title rather than what you'd see in your grandmother's kitchen. If the idea of cooking a beautiful cut of salmon in a Ziploc bag seems blasphemous, or using a digital scale instead of an elephant-shaped measuring cup is akin to high treason, you may not be ready to make the jump. But if you want to learn how modern cooking styles can produce amazing taste and presentation in your kitchen (while removing much of the uncertainty and variation that traditional high-heat methods entail), this is the book for you.

PROS:

- Currently the best book available for home sous vide setups
- Delicious recipes using accessible ingredients for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. Meat, Poultry, Fish and Veggies. Even has a few vegan options inside.
- Teaches the "why" of cooking, not just the "how"
- Stunning photography, and great step-by-step images for most of the recipes
- Comes with a separate water-resistant "kitchen manual" with every recipe inside so you can keep the gorgeous main-book away from the messiness of the kitchen.
- Comes with 4 prints you can frame in your home. Or not.
- Even though the recipes are designed using ingredient weights, approximate volume measurements are included
- Well constructed. You could easily beat an intruder to death with this book if you caught him stealing your sous vide setup
- Even has the bookmark ribbon you see in bibles, which fits, since this has become my new kitchen bible.

CONS:

- Though it says "at Home" in the title, your average kitchen will most likely lack some of the basic tools used in many of the recipes. At a minimum, you will need a digital scale, Sous Vide setup, a pressure cooker, and a whipped cream siphon. MCAH will help you in your quest to acquire those tools, but you should commit to expanding your kitchen arsenal if you plan to use this book to it's full potential.
- There are no calorie counts on these recipes, and in some cases if there were, it would take scientific notation to fit on the page. This is not a diet book, this is a book dedicated purely to creating the most delicious food possible at home. When you get to the page about deep-frying a hamburger, you'll understand what I mean.
- $140 (or whatever they charge now) isn't chump change, and for most people the new equipment will add to the cost.
- The sandwich on the cover does not actually levitate when you make it at home.
- Does not mow the lawn while you aren't using it.

Feel free to ask any questions in the comments. I am in no way affiliated with the producers of this book, though I would consider trading my first-born for a chance to work in their kitchen. Your Mileage May Vary.

EDIT - 6 Oct 2015: Three years later and I still love this book. I not own the full-fledged Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, but I'm always going back to this one. Take the leap!
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Showing 1-10 of 39 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 8, 2012 1:40:34 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 8, 2012 1:43:25 PM PDT
Seth,

Thanks for the very thorough review! I was hoping you could comment on some of the "delicious recipes" you mentioned? I'm curious as to which of them you've prepared from the book and they compare to other versions of those dishes that you've had? A common problem I've had whilst cooking from the original Modernist Cuisine was fairly dull recipes. Inspiring ideas? Yes. New techniques? Sure. Solid science and data? Definitely. But the recipes were often just average, with several below average and a few better, but nothing I'd probably make again.

Since this at home book is less heavy on the science and more recipe-driven than the original, I think it's important that reviewers note the results of the recipes after cooking them. For instance, I've made the buffalo sauce from Modernist Cuisine at Home (the recipe has been released as a sample), and while it was good, I honestly don't think it was any better than the classic butter and Frank's hot sauce mixture, but it was certainly much more time consuming and complicated. It took about 30 times longer to make than the classic buffalo sauce, but was no better (or worse), just different.

Also, considering the extremely high price, what do you think about the value? For example, since you mentioned him in your review, you can buy four of Thomas Keller's books, all of which are both beautiful and provide recipes with consistently incredible result, for significantly less than the price of Modernist Cuisine at Home. Can you comment on how you perceive the value of this one very expensive book vs. getting four (or more) other excellent books for the same price? Put another way, do you think the price is fair/it's worth it to get 450 pages of this book when you could get (for example) 1200+ pages of Thomas Keller's books for less?

Thanks again for the review and for offering to field questions!
Cheers!

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 8, 2012 3:58:09 PM PDT
Ryan,

I'll answer by paragraph, which should simplify things:

1. I've made the caramelized carrot soup, sous vide steak, sous vide salmon, and a couple variations on the custard/cream pies so far. I've got a few more lined up, but I'm waiting on some of the "unusual ingredients" to be shipped. To be honest, other than tomato soup, I've never made a soup that attempted to glorify a single taste or ingredient as the carrot soup did. I found it to be delicious, and I didn't even use the carotene butter. It was subtle in overall taste, but very, very much a carrot flavor. Great texture, and not hard at all to make. I understand why this was one of the more popular recipes from the original "Modernist Cuisine." For the steak and salmon, I was far less surprised, but that is mostly due to my experience with sous vide. If I go back to the first time I cooked a T-Bone sous vide (as I imagine MCAH will introduce many people to their first sous vide meals), I was amazed, as there is simply no other way a home cook can prepare a 2 inch thick steak with the same doneness top-to-bottom. As for the pie, well, it was delicious. Where MCAH differs from traditional cookbooks (regarding pie) is in the preparation of the custard, which uses sous vide and almost (I said almost, since you can technically overcook something sous vide) eliminates the biggest challenge with custards: over or undercooking. And again, many variations are offered, as well as broad instructions on creating any flavor infusions you can think of. I do not own Modernist Cuisine, so I can not drawn detailed comparisons, however most of the recipes in MCAH are general enough that you can easily adapt them to other applications (and in fact, most include a bit of guidance on how to modify them).

2. I haven't gotten around to the buffalo wings yet, though I plan to. I do however think they serve as a good example of what MCAH is, and what it isn't. You are not going to discover the tastiest buffalo wing (BW) sauce in the world in MCAH, in fact, in a food as common as the BW I suspect many people will already have a favorite sauce or style. But you will find 3 different ways (sous vide, korean battered, and skinless crispy) to make a crispy BW, as well as various sauce flavors designed to prevent the wings from getting soggy as they sit on the plate. To someone experienced in making BWs at home, this will not seems like a big deal, but to someone who is new to deep frying (and can't figure out why their wings come out with a soggy skin), it may be far more enlightening.

3. Like I said in my review, $140 is no joke, especially when you consider the cost of the various components you may need to buy. I will say that the product looks and feels appropriate for the price. Sturdy binding, no visible blemishes, and the included "washable, tear resistant kitchen manual" is a nice addition. Without it I'd have to run back and forth between my kitchen and dining room, since I wouldn't dream of putting such a pretty book on a potentially dirty kitchen counter. That doesn't change the price, though. I will say that the density of recipes, especially when you factor in all the variations offered, is higher than Keller's books. And as I said in my review, MCAH is written so that all but the greenest home chefs can play along, whereas Keller's (and most other "modernist" cookbooks) are written in the language of experienced commercial chefs. Since only one of Keller's books is geared towards the home cook, I would say MCAH will be of more value. But Keller may be an unfair example, since he cooks on a level of complexity beyond many seasoned chefs (and wannabes like me), and his books are only affordable when compared to MCAH! In the end, I'd recommend to anyone who can't afford to blow $140 on something unless they can use the hell out of it to look on the internet (both modernistcuisine.com and youtube) and see the types of recipes in MCAH before making the decision.

As with any how-to book, the more experienced the reader, the less cosmic the material will seem. If you're already an experienced chef (not necessarily by trade, but in practice), and especially if you already employ techniques like sous vide or chemical emulsions or other techniques being used by the "trendier" restaurants today, MCAH won't be earth shattering. If you're completely unable to put two pieces of bread around a slice of cheese without setting the smoke alarms off, MCAH may be a bit ambitious. But I'd say if you're perhaps familiar enough with a kitchen to keep yourself reasonably fed (ramen noodles and cocktail weenies do not count), drawn to cooking shows like Good Eats for it's more technical look at ingredients rather than just being a how-to for a daily recipe, and looking to incorporate new methods into your knowledge base so you can put a meal together that will impress your guests, then this book might be perfect for you.

And of course, I've talked too much again.

Seth

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 9, 2012 12:52:15 AM PDT
hello world says:
What if I own the larger Modernist Cuisine ? Do you think I would get anything additional from the At Home version ?

Thanks.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 9, 2012 10:56:30 AM PDT
Seth,

Thanks for your detailed response. I've been cooking sous vide for years now and am at least familiar with a number of modernist techniques. I think you summed it up best when you said that, for someone like me, "MCAH won't be earth shattering."

It seems more or less like "just" a recipe book if you're already familiar with sous vide cooking, pressure cooking, using sodium citrate to make meltable cheeses, etc. A recipe book I still very much want, to be sure, but, unfortunately because of my budget, probably not at the current price. And it is helpful to know that you say the recipe density is greater than, say, a Keller book.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 9, 2012 11:35:32 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 9, 2012 11:39:17 AM PDT
In response to "Hello World"

That depends. If you have no problem cooking from "Modernist Cuisine" based on the equipment and ingredient requirements, the MCAH will not be of much value to you.

If, however, you find "Modernist Cuisine" to be too complex for your skill level or you can't make many of the recipes due to the obscure ingredients and expensive equipment, MCAH is a much better option.

The assumption here is that you are interested in the style of cooking in "Modernist Cuisine". If you bought it and simply didn't like what you found inside, then MCAH will seem like more of the same.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 9, 2012 8:28:20 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 9, 2012 8:31:39 PM PDT
hello world says:
Thank you for your reply.

Two is on target: don't have the equipment (e.g., no S-V machine let alone a centrifuge) and many of the procedures are very involved. But I found M-C fascinating. I would like to try some of the methods if they required less specialized/expensive equipment.

I should add though that I like a steak with a "temperature gradient." I had a meal once at Per Se in NYC and I did not like the SV meat dish because I didn't care for the texture.

Posted on Oct 14, 2012 4:12:10 PM PDT
D. Frazier says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 14, 2012 4:28:03 PM PDT
Grammar Police,

I'm sorry (not really) that I didn't discuss the price enough. I mentioned it twice, and to be honest, it was largely irrelevant to me, though I recognized many people will not agree. But who reads a review to learn the price?! It's on the item description, and its either too high or too low for the buyer. Personally, I found it to be worth $140, meaning I in no way think it an "insultingly high price." If your passion for savings is so heated, then just write your own review.

Posted on Nov 2, 2012 6:24:47 PM PDT
Bobnie says:
We live in the mountains of Colorado... about 10,000 feet above sea level and have found difficulty using standard recipes designed for much lower elevations, particularly in cooking times and temperatures. Do they address this in the book or am I just on my own to experiment and have problems?
Bobnie

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 2, 2012 9:02:18 PM PDT
It is mentioned, though not to the extend that each recipe has information for high altitude cooking.

Many of the recipes are designed for Sous Vide, so altitude should not play a huge role. I'm guessing the pressure cooker stuff will be affected, but I believe you can get higher-psi cookers to deal with that change.
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