These days, Nathan Myhrvold, 59, mostly makes food, but it wasn’t always that way. The polymath studied four different fields of physics and collaborated with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge before founding a software startup that was bought by Microsoft, where Myhrvold spent 13 years as Bill Gates’s CTO.
Myhrvold is listed as a coauthor on over 800 patents. His newest creation is Modernist Cuisine, the most scientifically exhaustive cookbook company ever. Myhrvold’s titles — Modernist Cuisine, Modernist Cuisine at Home, Modernist Bread and the forthcoming Modernist Pizza — represent the height of research in their respective categories.
“We’re the guys who bake bread in a waffle iron just to see what happens,” Myhrvold says. “We can’t get by accepting what’s already been done wholesale.”
From a blow torch to a custom-built 3-D pizza scanner, here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the gear that goes into the most cutting-edge recipe research on the planet.
Outfitted with everything from rotary evaporators to soft-serve ice cream dispensers, Myhrvold calls Modernist Cuisine’s Bellevue, Washington Cooking Lab “a culinary wonderland.”
“I think we were one of the first organizations to seriously experiment with this tool back in the day. It’s good for applying a gentle, consistent heat — to make tough or delicate meat tender and whatnot. Nowadays, if I’m making a spot prawn pizza, I’m not going to put the prawns in the oven, I’m going to cook them sous-vide.”
“Traditional cooking picks a single technique [then] tries to compromise elsewhere. To cook a steak where the outside is brown and appetizing and the inside is done perfectly, you’re better off in almost all cases cooking the inside one way — a sous-vide, a combi-oven — and separately cooking the outside.”
“Wine fridges are great for fermenting sourdough bread. You could proof bread in a refrigerator, but it’s too cold and takes too long to develop. We did extensive testing and determined [the best temperature to be] fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit, which is a wonderful coincidence.”
“My absolute favorite heat source for cooking in a pan. Boiling water, cooking in a sauté pan, frying food — nothing beats induction. The way induction works, you wind up making the pan hot, but not the room hot. You can also control it more precisely than with a gas or electric stove.”
Left: Myrhvold loves pizza so much Modernist Cuisine is writing an entire book about it (no publish date has been set). Right: “If you think electric knives are only for Thanksgiving dinner, you’re woefully misinformed,” Myhrvold said.
“If you follow a recipe and it says to thicken something by boiling it down on the stove, what you’re concentrating is going to taste cooked. Raw flavors taste radically different than cooked flavors, and rotary evaporators let us concentrate those.”
“I would never use one of these to slice a turkey but they’re fantastic for slicing bread. Reason being, you typically cut bread with a serrated knife, which is basically a saw. You have to move the saw back and forth perfectly or else you get an inconsistent cut. With an electric knife, one stroke and you’re done.”
3-D Pizza Scanner
“There are different ingredients and techniques that increase or decrease the volume of a loaf of bread or puffiness of a pizza. But how do you measure that directly? How do you tell that objectively? By god, we made a scanner. It’s accurate to a small fraction of a cubic millimeter.”
“If you’re on the hot line at a steakhouse, training involves 200 steaks or so — after that, maybe you won’t need a thermometer to track temperature. No amount of regular practice, pressing on the meat with your thumb or whatever else, will make you capable of gauging temperature. Honestly, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t use one.”