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Modernist Cuisine's Nathan Myhrvold on Culinary Myth-Busting, Bacon, and Barbecue

Photo: Modernist Cuisine

Yesterday, Modernist Cuisine author Nathan Myhrvold talked to us the epic scale and print format of his megacookbook. Today, it's on to the food: Myhrvold busts some culinary myths, stands up for bacon, and talks about the techniques that are worth the price of his book.

You were talking about how much original research is in the book — what things did you discover while doing this research that were the most striking?
Well the complete tally is a long list. You know, in the food safety chapter, we spent a ton of time understanding the FDA regulations. We found a couple of outlying errors that were things we think are quite misleading in the FDA food code. We found an even larger set of errors in food safety as it is commonly taught to chefs. It's just rife with errors. That was interesting and surprising to us.

Anything controversial?
We spent a bunch of time talking about what food is really good for you, what food isn't really good for you using the latest scientific and statistical analysis. And that's going to be quite surprising for folks, because a lot of the things that are popularly assumed to be bad for you, like saturated fats, there is essentially little or no evidence that it is bad for you in the way people say. We might get a little bit of controversy in the book because we're basically standing up for bacon. When people call a dish a heart attack on a plate or a cardiologist's worst nightmare, most of the reasons they are saying that don't have any kind of truth to them. And that can be surprising to folks.

What about in terms of cooking?
We have a completely different way of brining meat than most people use. We've invented a technique we call equilibrium brining. Most brining starts with a really concentrated salt solution and then you soak the food in that for awhile, and that makes the outside way too salty, except the inside isn't salty enough. So then you soak it in water for hours to try to leach salt out. And it's all very inexact. So we came up with a way where you can basically do foolproof brining. Use a much lower salt concentration and you let it sit for a longer period of time.

We came up with a ton of interesting new techniques for things. We have a technique for doing fat rendering, for example. It's a little thing, but you render it in a pressure cooker with a little bit of baking soda. And that create this amazing roasted fat level because the alkali nature of the baking soda helps promote the Maillard reaction. We have a similar thing for making caramelized vegetable soups. Which is really one of the simplest things in the book. Which is kind of cool.

I know you've done competition barbecue. Any discoveries there?
We have a technique for what's called the "stall" in barbecue. So if you search for "barbecue temperature stall," you'll get like thousands of hits of people coming up with this phenomenon. And if you take a brisket, or a whole pork shoulder and you put it in a barbecue, the temperature will rise for a little while, and then it'll stall for many hours. And it'll start coming back up again after that. And tons of explanations over the years as to what's happening and we've found they're basically all wrong. We found out what actually is right, which is that it's due to evaporation. You're essentially drying or desiccating the meat. And so that explains the long standing history.

Did you discover anything that contradicts commonly held cooking beliefs?
There's really no reason to cook things in the confit style. You immerse food in fat, cook it at a low temperature in fat. There's actually nothing magical about putting it in fat, you could cook it without the fat and get exactly the same result. Which is deeply surprising.

Chefs always look at me like I'm crazy when I tell them this and say you know I don't agree with you there. You don't get to agree or disagree! It's science! Try it, I think you'll have the same results I did. But because you have this opinion about it, this is not something where opinion matters, what matters is experiment.

I can imagine that's hard to get people to believe. Any other myths busted?
If you're cooking food and you plunge it into ice water to stop the cooking, it doesn't stop the cooking. It makes essentially no difference. It turns out to be that heat moves through the food at particular rates depending on the food and the temperature, and when you plunge it into ice water, it doesn't travel faster.

You know, not too many years ago Galileo proved that heavier objects don't fall faster. And prior to Galileo, everyone sort of assumed that heavy object fell faster. Well, Galileo tried it and turns out they don't fall faster. By the same token, plunging food into cold water doesn't make it cool, well it does make the thing cool faster, but if you expect this wave of cold — the core of the food will maintain the same temperature to a tiny fraction of a degree. And it'll do the same thing if you put it out on the counter or put it in tepid water than if you put it in ice water. Those are all examples of things where we discovered them and it was really original research.

Time to make a tough choice: what's your favorite recipe in the book?
That's like asking someone which of their kids they love most. The striped omelette is one that I have enormous enthusiasm for. It's an incredibly simple recipe. It has no fancy ingredients. Sort of has no fancy equipment, depends on how well you control your temperature. But that is just an utterly fantastic recipe. We have a recipe for pastrami in the book. We also have some recipes for sous vide cooked barbecue. There's quite a few really interesting dishes.

You mentioned there were some things in the book that would make the price worth it to professional chefs.
I've read a tremendous amount of food science books, so for example we found a cool thing an Italian food scientist had published. You can make truffles last much longer if you put them in a CO2 atmosphere. So if you just take one of those seltzer bottles and you put CO2 into like a Tupperware the truffles will last weeks longer and they'll be more fragrant. Now that alone justifies the price of my book for anyone who uses truffles.

Now I didn't discover it in terms of research but I found the guy who did and we have a two-page spread that talks all about it. And I will say there are dozens of things like that where we took known techniques, but they were very obscure, and now we're teaching them to the world. Techniques that in my view are worth the whole price of the book. Maybe not for every buyer? But there is a buyer for whom that is true. And if we packed twenty of those things in there, I'm hoping people find them and that they'd agree.

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