High Tech Meets High Art in 'Modernist Cuisine'

Former Microsoft CTO and modern-day Renaissance man Nathan Myhrvold is focusing on a new passion: high-tech cooking. Myhrvold discusses recipes from the new mega cookbook, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. Think hamburgers dipped in liquid nitrogen, french fries cooked with ultrasound, and pea butter whirled in a centrifuge.

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IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Fire up those grills, it's the Fourth of July weekend. Chances are you'll be flipping burgers or barbecuing over an open flame. But if you really want to wow your grilling guests, how about cooking those burgers with a little bit of liquid nitrogen?

That's what our next guest suggests. He's also advising frenching your fries with an ultrasound machine, whipping up some pea butter in a centrifuge. Let's just say these aren't your grandma's recipes, and neither is this cookbook.

It's six volumes, 2,400 pages. It's not cheap, about $625. It's called "Modernistic Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking." But then again, the chef and the cookbook author is no Food Channel flash-in-the-pan either. Nathan Myhrvold is the former and first chief technology officer of Microsoft. He's the founder of, and CEO of Intellectual Ventures. He's also spent the last several years working on the biggest cookbook you'll probably ever see: 40 pounds.

And if you're a geek like me who also likes to cook - and I do enjoy that, and I enjoy learning all the intricate details about the food and cooking, you know, even the physics of the pots and the pans - this book might just be for you.

Nathan Myhrvold joins us from KUOW in Seattle. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: Well, thank you.

FLATOW: Thank you. We're also offering folks to see some photos from the book, to visit our arts website at sciencefriday.com/arts. Let's start with your idea for writing this book. Why after such a long career in science and technology you decided to write a cookbook?

MYHRVOLD: Well, I've always loved food, even before I loved science and technology. When I was nine, I told my mother I was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner, and amazingly enough, she let me. I went to the library, got all these books.

I do better now than I did then, but it got me hooked on the whole thing. At one point I actually took a leave of absence from Microsoft to go to a chef school in France. So it's been sort of a life-long obsession.

FLATOW: Yeah. What is modernist cuisine as compared to what we think of cuisine?

MYHRVOLD: So a few years ago I realized that over the course of the last, say, 10 years, with roots going back further, a number of chefs and food scientists around the world had made some amazing discoveries. They'd created brand-new techniques. They had new insights as to how cooking worked. And there really was a new style of cuisine that was out there.

But it was something that was very hard to learn because unless you actually worked - you know, for example, this restaurant in Spain called El Bulli or one in Chicago called Alinea or in the U.K. called the Fat Duck, unless you, like, worked at one of those restaurants or maybe all of those restaurants, you couldn't really learn those techniques very well. And--

FLATOW: 1-800-989 - let me just give our phone numbers because I'm sure people are going to want to talk to you. 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Talking with Nathan Myhrvold, author of "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking."

And so this new type of cooking is only done in a very few restaurants around the world.

MYHRVOLD: The most extreme forms of it are only done in a few restaurants around the world. In addition to chefs, food scientists and others had developed a lot of interesting insights so that we actually would know how cooking works more than ever before, but again, that knowledge had not really made it out to all the people that might be interested in it.

FLATOW: And there's a lot of mythology, right, involved in cooking?

MYHRVOLD: A lot of - you know, people love telling a story, and so lots of things in cooking have a story as to why it works, but that story hasn't been verified by scientific investigation. Harold McGee wrote a book, first in the '80s and then a new edition more recently, that explored some of those myths.

We take on a broader set of them to try to explain, well, here's really how cooking works. We also decided to try to show people how it works by having dramatic photographs that show you what happens in the processes in your food while it's cooking.

FLATOW: And I know that you have even cut open some of the cooking utensils to show us how the food is cooked and what the pots and pans, how they work.

MYHRVOLD: Yeah, so we hit on this idea of the cut-away photo that will show you the magic view inside your food. So we cut microwave ovens in half or pots or pans of food, everything.

FLATOW: How did you do that?

MYHRVOLD: Mostly with a saw.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MYHRVOLD: You know, everyone who sees the photos thinks that there's some great trick.

FLATOW: Like a laser beam like in James Bond or something like that.

MYHRVOLD: Oh, we have a laser cutter in our laboratory. We did use it for some things. And we have something called an abrasive water jet, and we have a wire EDM machine. And one way or another, though, the main trick is you just cut things in half.

And the second trick is you've got to be willing to make a hell of a mess. So we have a picture of a barbecue, sort of a Weber-style barbecue that has been cut in half with hamburgers on the grill and the hamburgers are cut in half. And people look at that, and they say: Well, how did you get that up there? If you put a piece of glass in front, it would be too hot with the coals. And the answer is, there's no glass.

And as a result, the coals kept falling off, and there was a guy sitting underneath it with tongs that would keep, like, putting it back up there. So you make a hell of a mess, but for the photo, it only has to look good for a thousandth of a second.

FLATOW: Right, right, that's cool. A lot of people are going to be grilling this weekend. Now, you have an unusual grilling technique. Tell us about that. Flipping burgers, how do you suggest we cook them?

MYHRVOLD: Well, the main issue with grilling is you're cooking with super-high heat over a charcoal or a gas grill. And if your food is thick, like a thick steak, for example, or a thick burger or a piece of chicken, you run the risk of either burning the outside while the inside is still raw or overcooking it.

So the way we approach it is we tend to pre-cook the foods to get the interior cooked, and we typically use a method called sous-vide. However, any way of cooking the inside at low temperature lets you have control over that, and then we use the grill just to finish it and put a nice charred crust on it and get a lot of those wonderful grilled flavors.

FLATOW: And tell us about sous-vide.

MYHRVOLD: So sous-vide is a cooking technique which originated in France, that's why it's a French name, although interestingly enough, in doing the research for the book, we discovered that the first restaurant in the world that served sous-vide to paying customers was the Holiday Inn in Greenville, South Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MYHRVOLD: Who knew?

FLATOW: Was that by necessity, or something went wrong or discovery or what?

MYHRVOLD: It's an interesting story. A hospital, a set of hospitals in that area, had started a sous-vide project. They were copying or working off of a Swedish hospital system that had done it, and they were trying to do this for all of their cafeteria food. So three hospitals wanted to share one cafeteria.

And in sous-vide, what you do is you take the food, you typically seal it in a container, usually that's a vacuum-sealed plastic bag, but in fact a Mason jar also works, and then you cook it at low temperature, usually in a water bath or a steam oven.

And a water bath is something that looks like a slow-cooker, full of water.

FLATOW: Yeah, like a Crock-Pot?

MYHRVOLD: Like a Crock-Pot except it has a much more accurate digital thermostat. And so if you set it to, say, 130 degrees, it will keep that water 130 degrees plus or minus a tenth of a degree. So it's very accurate.

And that's why we like it, because - for example, when I cook burgers, what I do is I form the patties - and actually we have a whole technique for that - but I form the patties, I put them in a Ziploc bag, I don't even vacuum seal it, but I then dunk the Ziploc bag into this water bath at 130 degrees.

FLATOW: For how long?

MYHRVOLD: About 30 minutes. It depends on the thickness of the burger. And at that point, the burger is cooked all the way through, perfectly medium-rare. Now, at that stage you could put it on the grill. You could take a blow-torch, believe it or not, and sear the outside.

Our favorite method, though, is to take that burger and then dunk it into liquid nitrogen.

FLATOW: Of course you happen to have that hanging around the house, right?

MYHRVOLD: You don't?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MYHRVOLD: So nitrogen is 78 percent of the air around us. So of course it's omnipresent. It's everywhere. If you make nitrogen cold enough, it becomes a clear liquid. It actually looks just like water. But it's 321 degrees below zero. So it's really cold.

And we take the cooked burger, and we plunge it into liquid nitrogen for about 30 seconds, and what does that is it super-chills and slightly freezes the first millimeter or so of the outside of the burger. It doesn't penetrate very far at all.

But that's important because our next step is we take the burger and we put it into a deep-fryer with very hot fry oil. And what that does is that browns and crisps the outside of the burger.

And we've tried torches, and we like them. We've tried grills. We've tried a hot pan. The best way to get a crust on that burger is a deep-fryer because a hamburger has all of these little nooks and crannies and crenulations on the outside, and putting it in a deep-fryer gets - reaches into those crannies and makes them all be really brown.

Putting it in the liquid nitrogen first, though, creates a little cold buffer, and that allows the outside to still get super-brown and crisp, but it prevents the inside from overcooking.

FLATOW: That sounds - so your burger never sees the grill.

MYHRVOLD: Our burger never sees the grill, that's right. Now, you could plunge it in liquid nitrogen and put over a very hot grill, and that also will work. It doesn't get quite as crispy, although you get some of the great grilling flavors.

FLATOW: So this is guaranteed success of the best burger, you're saying?

MYHRVOLD: Well, you know, we have this philosophy that fancy cooking techniques don't only have to be applied to fancy food. If you really care about the ultimate burger - we go through a whole procedure in the book to say here's how our idea of the ultimate burger is built. We make the bun from scratch. We tell you how to - a special way of preparing the tomato and the lettuce and how to make your own ketchup.

Now, some people say, well, God, I don't want to go to all that trouble for a burger. I say, well, that's fine, but if you really honor the burger as a foodstuff, why not look at the ultimate expression of it, which for us is this burger. Now, for somebody else - I had someone try one, and they said, you know, well, you know, I like my burger more greasy. I said, well, okay, that's your idea and perfectly valid, but that's not mine.

FLATOW: We're honoring the burger with Nathan Myhrvold, who is a former and first chief technology officer at Microsoft. He has an incredible new book. It's called "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking." It's 2,400 pages, six volumes, and it's a little bit more than you'll buy your average cookbook. It's over $600, about 625 bucks.

And - but it's got everything you wanted to know about the science. And I'm such a geek about cooking and stuff, I've certainly enjoyed looking at the cross-sections of things and how they work. We'll get into taking your questions, 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break. You can also tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. And go to our website at sciencefriday.com, and go to our arts section on the website, sciencefriday.com/arts, and you can actually see a few chapters, a few pages of the book there. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Nathan Myhrvold, author of this new book, "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking." You can get a flavor, so to speak, of the cookbook on our website, at sciencefriday.com/arts, and see some interesting pictures in there from the book.

Let's go to the phones because there are a lot of folks with questions. Let's go to Glen(ph) in Columbus. Hi, Glen

GLEN: Hi, I hope this has some general interest for people who have different kinds of cooking pots. I was hiking on the Appalachian Trail last summer, and I started off with an aluminum pot, and I took a corn-based spaghetti noodle, there was no wheat in it, and it turned to sort of a mushy glop.

And then I switched to a stainless steel pot later on, thin, very thin stainless steel, and the noodles cooked up fine. Is there something in the - was that just my personal experience, or could there be something scientific behind that?

FLATOW: Nathan?

MYHRVOLD: Well, I can't think of what would cause a noodle to be different between those pots. Aluminum pots that aren't - that don't have the surface treated by something called anodization, an anodized pot, will discolor with certain kinds of food that are very acid or very alkaline.

And as a result, an aluminum pot isn't recommended for all things. Some aluminum pots, like those by Calphelon and other brands, are anodized, and those are fine. So there are some known things with aluminum pots because the food reacts with the pot but not one that I can think of involving a noodle.

FLATOW: All right, well, that will remain a mystery. Let's talk a little bit more about holiday cooking. A lot of barbecuing going on this week, and I mean barbecue in the sense of the food itself, as they say in the South, Southern barbecue.

And a lot of barbecue cooks talk about the barbecue stall.

MYHRVOLD: Yes, this is one of the great mysteries of - in the barbecue world there's something call the stall. When you cook a large piece of meat like a pork shoulder or a beef brisket, and you watch the temperature go up, you'll see the temperature rise and rise and rise, and then at a certain point it stalls out, it stops rising. And it'll stay plateaued for a period of hours - two hours, even four hours in some cases - and then it will rise again.

And if you look on the Internet, you'll will find that there are literally thousands of page with people arguing about the stall, presenting one theory or another theory, and so as part of the research for the book, we decided to say let's figure out what the barbecue stall is about.

FLATOW: And?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MYHRVOLD: So the dominant theory, if you looked on the Internet, would be that the stall is caused by collagen, which is in connective tissue in meat, converting into gelatin. And that is a process that occurs in tough meat. That's why cooking tough meat for a long time makes it tender.

That's why tough cuts, when cooked for a long time, create a sort of a silky, gelatinous texture in the sauce. In fact, the sauce has a lot of gelatin in it. And if you let the beef stew sit in the refrigerator overnight, it'll gel up because in fact it's got a lot of gelatin in it.

However, I realized that the amount of energy it takes to break the collagen molecules and convert them into gelatin was tiny compared to the amount of energy that could actually keep this brisket from rising in temperature. So we discovered that, in fact, the reason for the stall is evaporative cooling.

Now, we all know that when you sweat, you do that to cool off. You know, if you get out of a swimming pool and there's a little bit of a breeze, boy, you feel it right away because the - you feel this evaporation because when water evaporates, it carries an enormous amount of energy with it, and that cools you off. And that's why sweating works.

FLATOW: Sure, you step out of the shower, you're cool. The evaporation (unintelligible)

MYHRVOLD: So the amount that you - of evaporation that occurs depends on the relative humidity. When the relative humidity is 100 percent, it can't evaporate at all, and so we know that when there's a very hot, humid day, we feel it because that sweat process just doesn't work so well anymore.

So when you put - a piece of meat is roughly 75 percent water, and when you put that into a barbecue or an oven with some hot air, that hot air has very low relative humidity. And what happens is the - basically the evaporation starts.

Now, the way you measure evaporation is by - with something called a wet bulb thermometer. And a wet bulb thermometer is kind of what it says. It's a thermometer where there's a little sock, actually a little fabric sock, dipped into some water that keeps the bulb of the thermometer wet.

And at 100 percent humidity, it can't evaporate. So it's the same temperature. But at a lower humidity, you'll find that that wet bulb thermometer is a lower temperature. That's what's behind this barbecue stall.

So we did a series of experiments where we'd take a brisket, cut it in half, seal up one so that it couldn't evaporate at all, take its brother piece and leave it open and put it in a barbecue or an oven and cook it, and of course there's collagen in both. So the conversion of collagen would happen identically. And in every experiment, the one that was sealed up had no stall. The one that was not sealed stalled, and it stalled for a period of time because it was drying out.

Here's the funniest part. In the lore of barbecue, people - during this stall, they are afraid that the thing is going to dry out more, so they usually slather it with more sauce. Now, the trouble with slathering it with sauce is the sauce is wet. And so fundamentally what you're doing is you're saying I'm going to try to make my brisket get hotter, but I'm running a hose on it. And of course that wouldn't be a very good way to get it - keep it - get hotter, would it?

And so the reason that this stall continues for a very long period of time is that people are continually putting more liquid on the outside.

FLATOW: So it's better to just seal it up and avoid the stall.

MYHRVOLD: So there are some barbecue chefs that do that. They wrap their brisket in foil. That's - some people call that the Texas crutch, and they think that that's not the right way to do it. But in fact it's a perfectly sensible way to do it.

We take a more radical approach. We smoke our brisket or shoulder or other barbecue and then cook it sous-vide, because when we cook it sous-vide, we can control the temperature with exquisite precision, and we don't dry it out at all because we have it all sealed up.

FLATOW: So it goes back into the oven to finish or just for the crusty outside, or are you going to nitrogen again?

MYHRVOLD: At the very end, you can put it back in the oven, you can use a torch. Again, our favorite technique is liquid nitrogen and a deep-fryer. So we actually do this with ribs. We'll cook pork ribs at 140 degrees for 48 hours. Now, in barbecue there's a motto called low and slow. And our motto is lower and slower. So normally barbecue, you're doing 190 degrees for maybe six hours for a slab of ribs. We do 140 degrees for 48 hours.

FLATOW: Wow.

MYHRVOLD: Now, you can smoke them before you put it in the sous-vide, or you can actually smoke it after the sous-vide process, but either way, you've got something that's got the smoke - and usually we smoke it for about an hour. The point of smoking is to infuse the meat with smoke flavor, but it actually doesn't get more flavorful if you do it for six hours because there's sort of a point of diminishing returns. There's only so much smoke flavor the meat's going to absorb.

FLATOW: Well, we're running out of time. I just want to tell my listeners if they want to have more tips like this - you really want to know the techniques, the geekery, the why, the new kinds of ways of cooking, then you want to get Nathan Myhrvold's book "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking." Is it available everywhere now, Nathan? People were saying they had some trouble getting it.

MYHRVOLD: Well, it was - we sold out the first printing. So we ordered a second printing. But the boats from China started docking last week. So we're expecting it to be - you can pre-order it lots of places, but it should be in stock within a few weeks.

FLATOW: Well, thank you very much for these tips; they're great - I mean, I learned a lot about cooking, and I want to wish you a happy and safe Fourth of July weekend yourself. Thanks for coming down.

MYHRVOLD: Okay, you, too.

FLATOW: Take care.

MYHRVOLD: Thank you.

FLATOW: Nathan Myhrvold is the CEO of Intellectual Ventures and author of "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking."

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