Top critical review
181 people found this helpful
Incomplete, not "scientific," not ready for the home cook
on August 1, 2011
This review isn't directed at professional chefs with large budgets. If they want to know the latest techniques at the coolest restaurants, this book seems to be a reasonable intro.
However, this book claims to be more than a review of the latest fads in restaurant technique: it claims to be a "scientific" approach to cooking, and it presents itself as a rather encyclopedic guide that has numerous insights even for the home cook.
Let me first address the "scientific" issue. Previous standards for popular "scientific" culinary guides have been set by Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking" and some other lesser titles. Aside from the descriptions of "modern" techniques, the scientific material in this book isn't a significant improvement over McGee's book, so first buy McGee's book for 1/20th of the price or so, and then maybe consider this book.
What this book does have is lots of photos, many of which are awesome and even "artistic." This makes a great coffee-table book. But only a fraction of the photos that take up so much space in this book are actually useful. Sure, it's fun to look at a grill or pan or souffle sliced down the middle. But rarely does it seem to actually add to our knowledge about what is going on. This is clear when you realize that few photos are actually accompanied by detailed explanation in the text. After dozens of photos of souffles cut down the middle, I can reasonably conclude that there are air bubbles in them that expand when heat is applied. But I already knew that. Hundreds of pages of pretty pictures and wasted ink -- for little "scientific" purpose. Occasionally, you see a comparison of photos showing variations of technique or the results of bad technique, but usually it's just a bright beautiful photo of a perfect dish. Again, great for a coffee table book. If you like that, buy this book.
Once the "wow" factor of the photos wears off, you're left with the rest of the content in the text of this book. And it is fairly disappointing. For the moment, let's set aside the bad proofreading and multitude of obvious errors in scientific understanding that have been pointed out in some previous reviews.
A "scientific" approach to a cookbook should have a few basic things: (1) empirical testing, (2) data, (3) sources for previously known information so readers can check facts, (4) discussion of methods and results. What does this book give us?
(1) Empirical testing is rarely performed. Where are the double-blind taste tests? We take the author's and chefs' word that these techniques and recipes are better than anything else, for the most part. (As I will mention below, the evidence that is reported in the wine chapter shows the problem with this.) (2) Data is only presented haphazardly, and rarely are we given sources for it. (3) Sources are rarely provided for any general discussion sections, so we just have to take the word of the author when he provides some scientific explanation that most people who haven't studied food science would know. Worse, even if this information is correct, the reader is stuck with however much detail is provided -- for some topics, that means pages of information on some minor detail, but in other cases, a summary of a few sentences might review a vast area of traditional cuisine or technique. If sources were provided, readers could evaluate the claims made and perhaps learn more about a topic if they wanted to. (4) As mentioned, discussion is uneven. Rarely is the actual value or improvement in flavor or quality by a novel technique addressed in any detail. In most cases, we just take the author's word for it.
This is NOT a "scientific" approach to cooking, in the normal sense of the word "science." It is mostly a collection of novel techniques whose worth isn't evaluated, combined with badly sourced and uneven synopses of food science knowledge. The occasional paragraph of new insight is completely buried in a morass of useless (but very pretty) photos, rehashed bits of often poorly explained old knowledge, and speculations concerning the techniques in vogue at a few top restaurants.
At a minimum, one would hope that this book would be able to separate cooking "lore" from scientific facts. Unfortunately, even that isn't always true. Take the section on wine for example. I commend the author for putting in results of recent scientific studies using blind taste tests that basically show that the most educated palates generally aren't able consistently to make basic distinctions in wine tastings. Ratings of judges in wine contests are so inconsistent that they are equivalent to picking winners out of a hat. (Don't blame me or my comment for this; it's all explained in this book, which for once actually cites some sources.)
If this is so, all of the stuff we think we know about what makes great wine comes under question. Yet, the wine chapter opens with some 30 pages laying out all the traditional lore about terroir, etc. to supposedly answer the question "What makes a great wine?" Why? If this is a scientific approach, shouldn't we interrogate those traditional theories in light of the new studies that show wine-tasting to be far more inexact than most people believe?
Ah, but the inclusion of all these old wine legends is a hint to what this book is really about: the promulgation of a certain kind of pretentious culinary culture. That's why there are large sections on wine and coffee, but none on beer or tea. The latter are not as closely associated with the highest levels of haute cuisine, while the former topics are the traditional haunts of loads of culinary nonsense spouted out by self-proclaimed "experts" who value expense over fact. The deliberate inclusion of a few hints at "low-brow" cuisine (e.g., the infamous hamburger discussion) only serves to highlight the deficiencies of the rest of the volumes. (For a book that breaks down cuisine into such broad categories as "foams" and "emulsions," why not some chapters on "alcohol" and "caffeine"?)
I'm not arguing for populism here. I have greatly enjoyed most of the fine dining and haute cuisine experiences I have had. But I would never confuse such experiences with "science," as this book seems to.
Despite the flaws, the book is not terrible. (Hence my 3-star rating.) But it is a poorly-digested first pass at a very incomplete vision. It is not ready for the home cook mainly because it completely ignores vast sections of traditional cuisine, even ones that are still very much a part of "modernist" styles.
Here I speak, for example, about baking and pastry. If there is a place where scientific knowledge and study has been done and further development is warranted, it is clearly in baking, where some precision techniques (weighing, exact temperature control, even pH measurements in sourdoughs etc.) have been in use for much longer than in most cooking.
Yet there is almost nothing in these five volumes about baking, aside from a few specific dishes (like souffles). Almost all of the subtle craft of the pastry chef should, according to the author's classification, be contained in a few sections in Volume 4, the advanced technique book on foams, gels, etc. Most baking, according to the author's categories, should fall under "foams."
But there are only two cake recipes, one of which actually is cooked in a microwave. (I wish I were kidding.) Bread only appears in a few very brief discussions. Perhaps this could be made up for with better information in the rest of Volume 4's discussions. But despite all of the fancy business of gels, emulsions, etc., little is added to traditional knowledge. For example, in the "thickeners" discussion, except for a list of more exotic and more processed thickeners that home cooks are unlikely to encounter or need, I learn about as much from this book about the science of starches as I do in a few short pages of McGee's book.
I've mostly listed criticism focused on one volume out of necessity in a short review, but this applies to this collection as a whole. It is not scientific, and the coverage is incredibly uneven for such a massive and expensive undertaking.
In sum, there are only two reasons to buy this book. (1) You want a really expensive and unique coffee-table book with lots of beautiful pictures, or (2) you're a professional chef with the resources to buy lots of unusual and expensive equipment (centrifuges, etc.) and ingredients to generate examples of the ultra-modern techniques included here.
If you're a home cook or a chef without such resources, there's no reason to buy into the hype for this book. For a fraction of the cost, you can stock up on a library of better-organized and better-researched books on the science of food that cover 97% of what you'd find in this book. If you want to experiment with the few ultra-modern techniques that might be affordable already or in the next few years, like sous vide, there are books focused specifically on sous vide already... again, at a fraction of the cost.
In a decade or so, some of the advanced techniques in this book will undoubtedly become more mainstream and affordable. Others will disappear or only be practiced at a few kitchens. By that point, there will be a number of other books on the techniques that have become mainstream, and they will surely not cost anywhere near as much as this book. Until then, for most people this is merely an uneven and incomplete, but very pretty, picture book.
A better title for this book would be "Modernist Cuisine: (An Incomplete Tour of) the Photography and Technology of Cooking (in Fancy Restaurants)."
EDIT -- A LITTLE SCIENCE CAN BE DANGEROUS
One section which I did not mention in my original review deserves special attention.
The food safety discussions in volume one should be read with some caution. I have to commend the authors for pointing out the ridiculous nature of many FDA guidelines, which have led to many overcooked pork roasts and chickens for no scientific reason.
But this book's decision to propose amended "scientific" guidelines has its flaws as well. The most glaring issue is the dependence on Salmonella death curves as the sole indicator of food safety during cooking. As the authors explore earlier, there are many types of microorganisms, and while some simply die, others can leave behind toxins. Most of these toxins can be destroyed at relatively low temperatures, but others won't be destroyed until temperatures approach boiling or even higher, sometimes for extended periods of time.
The book's recommendations to simply follow Salmonella death curves (based on data from two recent scientific articles) shows the problem with a little science. What if someone decided to roast a turkey with an oven at 140F (for days), believing (per the book's tables) that as long as the turkey was above 125F for five hours or so, everything should be fine? The FDA's recommendations to roast meats at 350F or so are overly cautious, but in this era of experimentation with low cooking temperatures, I've definitely come across many recipes for sous vide "pot roast" cooked for over 24 hours, as well as turkeys roasted below 200F for more than a day. Chances are that if one is reasonable with roasting (even, say, at 180F or so as an oven temp), the time in the high growth bacteria zone is unlikely to cause problems. But stuff a turkey and roast it for a couple days in a 140F oven, and the results could be dangerous or even fatal. How is the experimentalist cook to know that such an exercise is out of bounds in a world where it's normal to cook a vacuum-sealed roast for a day or two at 140F or lower, as long as it ends up at the right temperature at the end? (Of course, in sous vide, the roast will come to equilibrium much faster than in roasting, negating the problem of a long time in the high-growth zone.)
The responsible thing to do in this case would be to give additional scientific citations where the growth rates of other bacteria that produce persistent toxins have been studied.
And this is not the only problem in the food safety section. For example, the book advocates leaving leftovers out to cool for a few hours before refrigerating (following common amateur kitchen lore). While it's true that this is energy-efficient and doesn't strain the refrigerator, it's certainly not the safest course, particularly if you follow the book's recommendations and cover the food to avoid contamination. Yes, covering avoids contamination, but it also slows the cooling rate significantly, and with a large vat of chili or something, you are going to require an ice bath or something else to get the temperature down fast enough. Without using an ice or cold water bath, a safe course would be to break up a pot into small containers and refrigerate immediately. (To be fair, the book does describe these methods too, but only after implying it is safe in most cases to leave your food on the counter for up to four hours to cool.)
The book even justifies its advice by saying that hot food will heat up your refrigerator -- implying that you introduce safety concerns to other food in the fridge. A few years ago, I actually tested this theory myself by putting a large pot of very hot soup directly in the fridge and measuring surface temperatures of other items in the fridge with an infrared thermometer every half hour or so. Even in the cheap old refrigerator I was using, the only food outside of the pot that got above 40F was something sitting next to the pot and almost touching it -- everything else, even on the same shelf, stayed within a couple degrees of the 36F or so that my fridge was normally on average. I suppose if you had an old icebox with no air circulation whatsoever inside or some sort of novel energy-efficient fridge that doesn't maintain temperature properly, you might be careful about where you put hot foods, but otherwise, it's generally safer to get foods refrigerated as soon as possible -- particularly things that could grow spores and toxins, such as rice. If you have hot food in a large enough quantity that would strain your fridge, it's usually necessary to use a cold water bath or something to get it down to a reasonable temperature, rather than just leaving it on your counter.
If you couple these two errors together -- allowing a very long time for food to heat up during cooking and potentially develop a lot of dangerous toxins and spores, and then leave your food out on the counter for 4 hours to cool the leftovers, you could end up with food that is literally teeming with toxins and dangerous microbes. This could only happen under certain conditions with certain foods, but the problems with these recommendations are not insignificant.
There are many other concerns about safety recommendations in the book too, but hopefully these couple cases illustrate that scientific coverage in this book is indeed spotty -- and, when it comes to food safety, one should probably check any recommendation offered here against other sources. Just because the FDA's recommendations are ridiculous and nonsensical doesn't mean that one can come up with a whole new set of food safety guidelines just by reading a few scientific articles, as the authors seem to think.