10 Signs You're In a Modernist Kitchen

Today, Yahoo Food celebrates the modernists—those chefs, researchers, and big thinkers pushing culinary boundaries and exploring new ways of cooking and using ingredients. What they do is part science, part art, and, seemingly, part magic. Here, we go behind the scenes at the Cooking Lab of Modernist Cuisine (MC) in Bellevue, Washington.

Th organization is a test kitchen, think tank, and publishing house dedicated to perfecting modernist techniques and recipes. Founded by Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer of Microsoft, MC announced itself in a bold way in 2011 with the publication of the six-volume, 2,438-page, $625 Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. (For those interested but looking to spend less, there’s the Modernist Cuisine at Home app for $80 and lots of free information on modernistcuisine.com.)

Yahoo Food visited MC headquarters to see what makes a modernist kitchen different from a traditional one. The answer? Everything. See for yourself in the video above. Curious about the equipment featured? Check out the primer below, prepared  for Yahoo Food by Caren Palevitz at Modernist Cuisine.

1. Rotary Evaporator: At first glance, rotary evaporators look like Rube Goldberg machines, complex contraptions overdesigned to execute simple tasks. But every flask, valve, and column of this vacuum distillation system serves a specific purpose. All together, they remove and save certain substances in concentrated forms. Chefs use “rotovaps” to extract essences, intensify flavors, and concentrate liquids, similar to how spirits are made.

A whipping siphon being put to use. 

2. Whipping Siphon: Designed for aerating high-fat cream, whipping siphons can make foam out of any liquid thick enough to hold bubbles. Inside the siphon, high pressure forces gas to be released from a cartridge and dissolve into the liquid. The foam party begins when the liquid is propelled out of the nozzle. The rapid drop in pressure causes most of the dissolved gas to emerge, creating bubbles that expand into a foam. Siphons are great for making fresh soda, speeding up marinating, infusing fruit with a flavorful juice, or topping a dish with foam for flavor and textural contrast.

3. Pantry of White Powders: Modernist ingredients: They’re full of syllables, and are often misidentified as the byproducts of misguided science experiments. In reality, many are derived from naturally occurring ingredients and have been used for decades. Tiny amounts of these ingredients have big impacts: They can transform starches into sugars, turn gels into liquids, stabilize emulsions, and create foams.

4. Chamber Vacuum Sealer: Vacuum sealers aren’t just efficient ways of closing plastic bags. They’re indispensable tools for professional kitchens that utilize sous vide cooking, and they also allow chefs to engage in culinary “deception.” Techniques such as pressure impregnation, vacuum-assisted compression, and vacuum-assisted aeration manipulate flavors and textures of porous food—apples suddenly taste like curry, watermelon takes on the deep hue of rare meat. 

One of the Modernist Cuisine lab’s many blowtorches. 

5. Blowtorch: In culinary settings, blowtorches are most commonly associated with caramelizing crème brûlée. But torches also happen to be great tools for searing meat and seafood, bursting bubbles on foamy liquids, peeling shells off soft- and hard-boiled eggs, and, of course, impressing dinner guests. Powered by jets of hot gas, these tools blast food directly with a flame that’s roughly 1900°C (3400°F).

6. Combi Oven: Combi ovens give chefs the power of choice. They can cook with ambient air, injected steam, or both in combination. It’s the culinary equivalent of an all-in-one printer—these ovens can proof, thaw, hold, roast, bake, steam, poach, and even double as really big water baths for sous vide cooking. 

7. Rotor Stator Homogenizer: Looks are deceiving: This is not a milkshake mixer! Unlike a traditional blender, rotor stator homogenizers involve a precision-built stationary structure called a stator. As the rotor rapidly spins, it forces liquids through a narrow space, in turn creating a force that essentially smashes particles into super-smooth emulsions and impossibly fine purées, such as black truffle concentrate. 

Frozen peas were put through a centrifuge to make this dish. 

8. Centrifuge: If you’ve ever spent time at a county fair, it’s possible you’ve subjected yourself to a ride on The Gravitron. It’s essentially a giant centrifuge, designed to quickly spin people so they feel a centrifugal force equivalent to three times the force of gravity. The centrifuges you find in modernist kitchens subject food to accelerations up to 30,000 times as strong as Earth’s gravity, causing particles suspended in the liquid to segregate by density. The force transforms liquids into layers: emulsions are pulled apart, liquids are clarified, and solids are separated. In a centrifuge, ordinary frozen peas are whirled into vibrantly hued layers of fat, starch, and transparent juice—the fat can then be used as an incredibly creamy butter and the juice, as a clear broth.   

9. Immersion Circulator and Water Bath (a.k.a. Sous Vide Setup): Critics of sous vide cooking often claim that it’s soulless cooking. That argument is far from the truth—the technique demonstrates an appreciation for both the ingredient and the results. The precise temperature control involved allows you to consistently cook food to an even doneness. Sealed bags create a humid environment that effectively braises food, so ingredients cooked this way are often noticeably juicier. Beef ribs become melt-in-your mouth tender. Eggs develop a delicate custard-like texture, blossoming as they poach. 

10. Liquid Nitrogen: Do you need heat to cook? Most cooking involves adding heat to food, but we also can cook by doing the opposite. Heat causes chemical reactions that alter the color, taste, and texture of food—dropping the temperature of food alters the same qualities, particularly texture. In its liquid state, nitrogen produces extremely low temperatures that cause heat to flow rapidly out of anything immersed in it. Modernist cooks have learned to use liquid nitrogen to create many unexpected food textures such as cryo-seared pork roast that’s succulent on the inside, yet perfectly crispy on the outside, and ultra-smooth ice creams that get their creamy texture from small ice crystals.       

More on the modernists: 
The blogger behind Orangette.com enjoys a modernist meal
Chef Massimo Bottura feeds Jimmy Kimmel some modernist treats
Get to the know the Gelinaz, a collection of modernist chefs from around the world

Curious what a modernist meal looks like? Check out the 16-course lunch prepared by the Modernist Cuisine team in honor of cutting-edge Italian chef Massimo Bottura