I am not a fan of Cook's Illustrated. I don't harbor the same sort of passionate dislike I do for certain Food Network personalities, but the tone of many articles in the magazine irks me. Take the premise for a piece titled “Best Onion Soup.”
Most versions of this age-old recipe hide a mediocre broth under a crust of bread and a blanket of Gruyere. What is the secret to coaxing impressive flavor out of humble onions?
The idea is that Cook's Illustrated is going to save you from insipid soup by revisiting the classic recipe and fixing it. As a man who learned a lot about how to prepare food from cookbooks written when Cook's Illustrated's publisher Christopher Kimball was not even a glint in his father's eye, this offends me a little. It also offends me a bit as a man who grew up eating food cooked by my grandmother, who would have had access only to the kind of “age-old” recipe Cook's Illustrated tends to denigrate. That said, I will admit that the last time I looked at a Cook's Illustrated, it was because my wife was making some brownies from a recipe in the magazine. They were delicious.
Maybe that anecdote is evidence that my view of Cook's Illustrated is skewed. I don't know, but what got me thinking about the magazine is a cookbook I just checked out from my local branch of the New Orleans Public Library: Modernist Cuisine at Home by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet. The book is a distillation of the authors' earlier work, a five-volume, 2,400 page set that brings scientific techniques to the kitchen. It's not just a work about molecular gastronomy, though there are elements of that movement in the book; rather it's a fundamental examination of cooking and how modern equipment, ingredients and techniques have changed things. The five volumes tackle history and fundamentals, techniques and equipment, ingredients, preparations and recipes.
The only volume of that set I've spent any real time with is the second, which I also checked out from the library and which covers techniques and equipment. In keeping with the broad scope of the endeavor, the book starts with the most basic cooking methods – grilling over direct heat, boiling, steaming and the like. This transitions into a survey of modern cooking equipment. Most of this, as is the case with the chapter on cooking sous vide (in which food is cooked in a near vacuum in a water bath maintained at a precise temperature for set periods of time that can last up to 48 hours) is beyond the home cook. There are interesting sections on how to best use a pressure cooker and a microwave, but most amateurs are never going to be able to afford the high-pressure fryers and anti-griddles that are also discussed. Those were matters of intellectual, rather than practical, interest to me. Still, there was a lot in the volume that I found useful. In fact, what really hooked me on the book's whole approach was the section on stock.
I started making stock when I first started trying to cook seriously. I used a recipe from the Antoine's Cookbook, I believe. That was more than 20 years ago, and I've been at it ever since. There is almost never a time when I don't have at least a quart of chicken and/or veal stock in my freezer. When I get low, I start getting nervous. The problem, of course, is that stock takes a lot of time. Time is something in short supply for me these days.
I have made a lot of different types of stock, but the two most common have been chicken and veal. Chicken stock typically takes me a good six hours from start to finish; it's double that for veal stock. Most of that time is passive; the stock doesn't require constant attention. It's almost always been worth the effort, but when I read about a technique in Modernist Cuisine for making stock in a pressure cooker in a fraction of the time I'd previously spent, I was intrigued.
Long story short: I tried the recipe and it was amazing. The theory is that you cut everything, bones, vegetables and meat into small pieces. This allows for the more rapid extraction of flavor. Cooking the stock in a pressure cooker not only speeds the process, but it retains flavors that would otherwise be lost to evaporation. The result is a stock that is remarkably flavorful, if not quite as robust in texture as one cooked for three to four times longer.
I was surprised at the result of my first attempt. I spent a little over two hours on it, and it was delicious. It was not only more “meaty” than some of the stocks I'd made in the past, but there was a brightness to the flavor that I like quite a bit. I can't say it's better than the traditional method, but I can say I prefer it and that I'm now making stock in the pressure cooker on a regular basis.
You may be wondering how a man who started this column decrying Cook's Illustrated for daring to update the classics could possibly recommend a book like Modernist Cuisine at Home. Well, I'm not a complete hypocrite. There are some recipes in Modernist Cuisine at Home that I find overly complicated – the book calls for hollandaise, for example, to be cooked sous-vide. I accept that this makes the emulsion far less likely to break, but it still seems a bit even before you get to the suggestion that the sauce be served from a pressurized canister charged with nitrous oxide. The recipe for roast chicken is interesting, but it requires 29 hours to prepare, of which 24 is spent with a blanched, whole chicken un-covered in your refrigerator, waiting to be actually cooked. My wife doesn't like to watch me cut raw chicken to begin with. I'm pretty sure this is a recipe she would not appreciate.
All of that considered, Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Cuisine at Home are fascinating books that have taught me more than any cookbook I've read in a decade or more. I used to collect cookbooks. I have a hell of a lot of them. I typically page through them when I'm trying to decide what to cook, or to get an inspiration on how to combine a couple of seemingly disparate ingredients I have on hand. I have not actually learned much on the technical side of things from a cookbook in a long, long time. That's no longer something I can say.
Modernist Cuisine at Home is expensive; it lists for $140, though you can find it for about $20 cheaper if you look online. The five volume set goes for $625, with the same online discount holding true. The single-volume edition does lack a good bit of the detail that the larger set packs, but for the price, it's an incredibly valuable resource for any ambitious home cook. I do recommend buying a copy if you want to use it to cook for the holidays, because I'm going to be holding on to the copy I picked up at the library for a little while yet.