In front of me is perhaps the most impractical cookbook I’ve ever used. Modernist Cuisine at Home is a vast, expensively photographed, thuddingly self-important tome, with an RRP of £100. It’s the smaller, domestic version of an even more ambitious, six-volume work called Modernist Cuisine, which has 2,438 pages, weighs 20kg and costs just under £400. Conceived by Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive who left the company at 40 to devote himself to gastronomy, the retiring headings of Modernist Cuisine at Home include “The 10 Principles of Modernist Cuisine”, which include the dictum: “Cuisine is a creative art in which the chef and diner are in dialogue.”
Comparing the creations of Heston Blumenthal to those of Joyce, Picasso and Le Corbusier, Myhrvold celebrates chefs who are “always at the forefront, pushing the boundaries of food and cooking”. Many of the book’s dishes – Thai soup, braised short ribs, mussels marinière, pizza margherita – sound familiar. But its ingredients, which include xantham gum, soy lecithin, malic acid, diastatic malt powder, N-Zorbit and Insta Cure #1, are not. They read almost as a reaction against the producer-led, rustic cookery that has characterised home cooking on both sides of the Atlantic for the last 20 years.
Central to this alleged movement is sous vide or “under vacuum” – a cooking technique where you seal food in a vacuum pouch, then put it in a water bath so it cooks at a constant temperature – sometimes for hours or days at a time. Typically, when you sear a steak, the outside of the meat will be well done, and the middle will be about right. In theory, a sous vide steak should always be cooked perfectly because it has been heated to the ideal temperature throughout. Nor should it overcook, unless that temperature is raised. When it’s time to eat, the bag is snipped open and the meat briefly seared in a pan to take on some colour.
Sous vide emerged in fancy French kitchens in the 1970s, and gradually caught on elsewhere. Ferran Adrià made extensive early use of sous vide during the 1990s at El Bulli, and he and other “molecular” chefs such as Blumenthal have helped spread it to more ordinary professional kitchens. It’s now in a number of British gastropubs.
And, slowly but increasingly, in the home. The first domestic sous vide machine launched in 2010, and John Lewis says sales were up 35 per cent last year.
But while the basics of sous vide are simple, the method still seems daunting to many people, not least because its cheerleaders are precisely those chefs whose food looks the most difficult to recreate at home.
Armed with copies of Modernist Cuisine at Home and Heston Blumenthal’s At Home, I attempted three sous vide recipes in a SousVide Supreme: steak and “fragrant salmon” from Modernist Cuisine, and Blumenthal’s rack of lamb. The machine is easy to use: plug it in, fill it up with water and set the temperature. It beeps when it’s ready for cooking.
The steak was bloodily delicious: a drop of olive oil in the plastic pouch, an hour in the water at 56C, a quick searing in butter when it came out and a bit of salt, with no need to rest the meat. Rack of lamb can be difficult to time correctly on a normal cooker: this one was perfect, its natural flavour having had time to develop over an hour in the bath.
The salmon was less impressive. I had duly brined the fish in a solution of sugar and salt for 24 hours before cooking it in the machine for around half an hour. I don’t know whether it was the brining or the cooking that made it so mushy, but the flesh disintegrated into fishy pap on the tongue. (I should add, for the sake of fairness, that the photographer who tried it pronounced it some of the best salmon he remembered eating.)
Overall, then, a pretty successful experience – but this idiot-proof cooking has its detractors. Michel Roux Jr says he’s “saddened by chefs who only know vacuum pouches and water baths. You take them out of that environment and they just cannot cook – it’s shocking. I’ve seen restaurants cooking potatoes in a bag. Why on earth would you do that?”
The principles of sous vide cookery are indeed simple, and strangely at odds with the austere chemicals and complicated scaling methods of Modernist Cuisine at Home. Though it partly stemmed from a rarefied gastronomic movement, sous vide could eventually prove to be a useful addition to many ordinary British households. As more of us discover the technique, cheaper machines should come to market. And that means fewer of us will eat overcooked meat.