We're going out on a fact-check limb, but it's probably a pretty safe assumption that reader demographics for Cook's Country magazine are a bit different than for those who pick up $625 copies of Modernist Cuisine. And yet two new cookbooks from America's Test Kitchen founder Chris Kimball and Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft executive who turned his eye for technology into Modernist Cuisine, are remarkably similar when you dig beyond those glossy covers.
Fine, maybe “somewhat similar” is a more apt description. But The Science of Good Cooking and Modernist Cuisine at Home are rooted in the same kitchen concepts, if not the same end products: Understanding the cause and effect of cooking techniques will make for the best sous vide meatloaf (Myhrvold) or classic apple pie (Kimball).
Which you'll prefer depends on whether you're more of a casual Sunday night supper sort or a centrifuge-obsessed weekend cooking warrior. First up: The Science of Good Cooking (check back for the review of Myhrvold's latest book).
In The Science of Good Cooking, the idea is to take “50 basic cooking concepts,” perfect them and translate them to everyday recipes. Things like why salty marinades work well and “starch makes cheese melt nicely,” promises the book's press release. “And don't worry, there is no molecular gastronomy, liquid nitrogen or fancy equipment involved,” we are assured.
The book has a grown-up Alton Brown feel with its science book-style illustrations of pectin molecules in dried beans breaking down as they cook. There are also plenty of practical test-kitchen tips here, as we've come to expect from America's Test Kitchen staff over the years. Frustrated that your black beans always burst out of their skins when you cook them? Take a look at the photo comparisons of bean cooking methods. Those that are perfectly cooked were brined overnight and then simmered with additional salt; the dried beans that were soaked in just water and cooked without salt burst into a mushy mess. Handy sidebars, like why you shouldn't toast peppercorns, also are scattered about, as in this peppercorn reminder:
While tasters noted that the flavor of the toasted pepper was smokier, it lacked the pungency of untoasted pepper. This is because pepper's piquancy comes from a volatile molecule called piperine. When pepper is heated, piperine is converted to less pungent molecules (called isomers). Without piperine, pepper has no bite, and without bite, pepper has no purpose.
The focus here is on perfecting everyday recipes (the subtitle is Master 50 Simple Concepts to Enjoy a Lifetime of Success in the Kitchen), so you'll find dishes like the “best beef stew” in a chapter titled “Glutamates, Nucleotides Add Meaty Flavor” (anchovies, soy sauce and other umami flavor catalysts) and an asparagus-ham frittata to illustrate “Carryover Cooking at Work” — residual heat that continues to cook creamy dishes when you take them out of the oven.
Yes, all are techniques that you've likely read about in Cook's Illustrated over the years. Only here, they morph into a handy 400-recipe weeknight reference guide to answer your pressing sugar-cookie questions in that “Double Leavening at Work” chapter (Why does a recipe call for both baking powder and baking soda?). Find an old bottle of pure vanilla extract hiding behind the spice rack? Don't toss it, say the book's editors. The high alcohol content means that bottle should “last indefinitely if stored in a sealed container away from heat and light.” Time to raid your grandmother's cupboards.
If you're a sugar-cookie perfectionist, but one who stops just shy of filling them with sous vide lemon curd, this is the book for you. More intrigued by the idea of making “foamed” lemon curd that involves citric acid and nitrous oxide? Check back for our review of Modernist Cuisine at Home.
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