He’s a former chief technology officer at Microsoft who’s shifted his attention to the kitchen. Earlier this year, Nathan Myhrvold published “Modernist Cuisine” – a six-volume, 2,400-page set of books about the science of cooking. We talk to Myhrvold about what he calls the “aesthetics and intellectual underpinnings of gastronomy,” which include physics, chemistry, microbiology, nutrition, mechanical engineering and most importantly, good food.


  • Nathan Myhrvold Author, "Modernist Cuisine: The Science and Art of Cooking" (The Cooking Lab, 2011); Co-Founder, Intellectual Ventures; Former Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft

Images from “Modernist Cuisine

Related Video

Cookbook author (and geek) Nathan Myhrvold talks about his magisterial work, “Modernist Cuisine” during this 2011 TEDtalk – and shares the secret of its cool photographic illustrations, which show cross-sections of food in the very act of being cooked.


  • 13:06:45

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's food Wednesday. There's more than one way to build a perfect hamburger. Ask any random person and you're likely to get a personal recommendation for the right meat, the right seasoning, the right temperature for the grill. But ask Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer at Microsoft, and you'll get a recipe that calls for vertically aligned grain, vacuum pressed tomatoes and a smidge of liquid nitrogen.

  • 13:07:30

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's a modernist approach to the kitchen that he says represents a culinary revolution, a collision of cutting edge science and contemporary art, a craft so complex that it requires a 2,400 page volume to be truly appreciated. Joining us to explore the science behind the kitchen is Nathan Myhrvold. He is one of the authors of "Modernist Cuisine: The Science and Art of Cooking."

  • 13:07:55

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's former chief technology officer at Microsoft and he's the founder of Intellectual Ventures, where he's currently the chief executive officer. He joins us from studios in Seattle, Wash. Nathan Myhrvold, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:11

    MR. NATHAN MYHRVOLDWell, thank you for having me.

  • 13:08:12

    NNAMDISome people pick up hobbies in retirement. They get more serious about their baking, they take a cooking class or two. You retired from your job as the chief technology officer at Microsoft when you were just 40 and you became active in online communities about one of your other passions, the kitchen. You were already a champion on the barbeque circuit. You'd been trained in culinary school.

  • 13:08:35

    NNAMDIBut at some point, your passion for kitchen techniques snowballed into a mission to write the world's authoritative volume on the science of cuisine. What pulled you down this rabbit hole?

  • 13:08:49

    MYHRVOLDWell, I've always been interested in food and cooking my whole life. When I was nine years old, I announced to my mother I was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner, went up to the library and checked out all these books and by God, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner.

  • 13:09:05

    NNAMDIAt nine years old.

  • 13:09:05

    MYHRVOLDSo isn't that -- at nine years old, yeah. I do a better job now than I did then. But, you know, that really got me hooked on cooking. And from that point onward, I was -- been a serious amateur cook my whole life.

  • 13:09:20

    NNAMDIIt's my understanding that a heating technique called sous vide was what pulled you into this modernist...

  • 13:09:27


  • 13:09:28

    NNAMDI...world. What is sous vide?

  • 13:09:30

    MYHRVOLDSo sous vide is a technique that was developed in France. That's why the name is French, it means without air, cooking in a vacuum. It's a technique that was developed to originally for hospital food, actually, but now has broadened out to be used in most of the highest end restaurants in the world, where you seal food into a jar or into a plastic bag, usually under a vacuum although that's not that important. Then you cook it at very low temperature for a long period of time. And this allows you to get very good control over the temperature in the food and to control the texture.

  • 13:10:12

    NNAMDISous vide is the name of that technique. We're lucky in Washington because we get to claim, oh, like Jose Andres as our own. He's a chef who's learned so much about science through his kitchens, at places like minibar in Jaleo. But now he's asked to teach classes at places like MIT. But you came to the culinary world from the scientific world, what kind of cook were you when you worked for Microsoft? What was your daily approach to food like?

  • 13:10:37

    MYHRVOLDWell, you know, food is something that's both an art, but it's a necessity. And when I worked at Microsoft, I didn't have that much time to do elaborate cooking. I would on the weekends, but not on a daily basis so I was -- I just -- I love food and so I would try lots of different methods. And when I found this sous vide technique, I realized it was an area that I could understand very well because of my background in science and technology, but at the same time it had a lot to offer for cooks.

  • 13:11:07

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation on Food Wednesday. We're talking with Nathan Myhrvold. He is one of the authors of "Modernist Cuisine: The Science and Art of Cooking." He's a former chief technology officer at Microsoft and the founder of Intellectual Ventures where he's currently the chief executive officer. What kind of thought do you put into the science behind your food when you make a meal in your kitchen? Call us at 800-433-8850. Has cooking ever inspired you to learn more science?

  • 13:11:36

    NNAMDIYou can go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to kojo@wamu.org. Nathan, you started when you were nine years old, cooking entire family dinners. But at what point in your life did you realize that your two passions, science and cooking, overlapped quite a bit?

  • 13:11:56

    MYHRVOLDWell, that was after I retired from Microsoft. I was doing some more cooking. I'd gotten a lot of -- I bought some sous vide equipment to experiment with it. And I realized that chefs around the world had developed lots of new techniques of which sous vide was only one example. But they were very hard to learn. And I knew they were hard to learn because I was trying to learn them myself. But the information was scattered, often people would know what to do, but didn't know scientifically why it would actually work.

  • 13:12:24

    MYHRVOLDAnd I decided that, in fact, both science was relevant and that there'd be a real contribution to be made if you could pull all this information together from around the world into one definitive cookbook so you could learn it more easily.

  • 13:12:39

    NNAMDIWe'll get to that in a second. But I mentioned and read that you were once part of a championship barbequing team and that you came up with a special pasta recipe on the very day of the competition. Barbeque is like a kind of every-man kind of food. What is it about something like barbeque that appeals to you?

  • 13:12:59

    MYHRVOLDSo barbeque is an example of what I call a cult food, where there are people who are obsessed by it and will spend their whole lives trying to perfect it.

  • 13:13:10


  • 13:13:10

    MYHRVOLDChili is also that way. You know, in Europe, there's many cult foods like that that have become very famous in that they're now considered some of the most high end foods in the world. But barbeque is still sort of a low end phenomenon, yet I think it's just as deserving of that kind of attention. So -- anyway, yeah, once upon time, I read about this guy who had a fantastic barbeque cooker. He'd won the world championship before. His name's John Willingham.

  • 13:13:39

    MYHRVOLDAnd I wrote to him and after a long series of back and forths, he eventually sold me a cooker. But I still couldn't do it as well as he did, so then I went down to Memphis to get some training and ultimately I wound up being on a -- in some barbeque competitions with him. And we did very well, although most of that is up to him. On one contest, there was a pasta dish that was a special category. It was because Memphis is the sister city of Modena in Italy.

  • 13:14:10

    MYHRVOLDAnd -- so I did come up with a pasta recipe on the fly because pasta is not normally part of the barbeque ovra (sp?) . It's not something that's normally there. So the rest of the barbeque guys are like, what are we going to do? So the new guy, me, got to work on it and we actually did very well with that dish. We took first place.

  • 13:14:29

    NNAMDICame up with it on the same day of the competition. Now, before we get into what's inside this massive sprawling book -- it's 2,400 pages or 2,438 pages, I think. It weighs about...

  • 13:14:39


  • 13:14:40

    NNAMDI...46 pounds. Let's talk about the philosophy behind it. You have bypassed one catch phrase for the science of cooking, molecular gastronomy for "Modernist Cuisine." How do you define "Modernist Cuisine?"

  • 13:14:54

    MYHRVOLDWell, in the 20th century, there were a number of modernist movements. We're familiar with modernist art. So most cities have a museum of modern art and the artists there are referred to as modernist or modernist architecture. Cooking really didn't have its modernist phase like those other art forms did. I argue, until now. And the -- in the sort of the -- starting in the '80s, but really picked up steam in the '90s and the last decade, chefs around the world started doing things that are in a philosophical sense, very closely related to the modernist trends and other aesthetic artists.

  • 13:15:37

    NNAMDISo you make the argument that the modernist movement in cuisine is every bit as definitive as impressionism in 19th century France?

  • 13:15:47

    MYHRVOLDYes, that's right. You know, in -- for a bunch of reasons, which some of which I can guess at, some of which I must say I don't understand entirely. All of the people who are revitalizing art, like the -- starting with the impressionists, them moving forward, or philosophy or literature or architecture or photography, those folks all sat down to very normal food. The same kind of avant-gardism, a key element of modern art is the idea of the avant-garde, that there are a bunch of artists out doing crazy new art that shocks the rest of the world.

  • 13:16:26

    MYHRVOLDAnd people don't quite understand, yet, ultimately is accepted. And that is what's been going on in cooking. There have been avant-garde chefs that are cooking in ways that are a dramatic break from the past. Others cook in a style which is -- got more continuity with the past, but the techniques they use are brand new. And so I call that set -- collection of things, modernism, in cooking and "Modernist Cuisine."

  • 13:16:54

    NNAMDIThe chefs you partnered with on this project, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, both were schooled at the Fat Duck. That's an English restaurant that's famous for pushing the scientific boundaries of the kitchen. Why did you seek them out? And as an eater, how would you describe the experience of eating at a place like the Fat Duck?

  • 13:17:15

    MYHRVOLDSo, yeah, I wanted to do a very comprehensive book. And it turned out actually to be much larger. I thought it was going to be 800 pages to begin with and it turned out to be 2,400. But either way, I realized I couldn't do it alone and so I recruited a team of people because this really had to be a team effort. And so I had met Chris at the Fat Duck, Max had also worked there. Now, the experience of eating at a place like the Fat Duck is very different then going to a conventional restaurant.

  • 13:17:49

    MYHRVOLDYou typically just get the tasting menu. There's kind of no point ordering, oh, I want this and I want that, because you don't know what it's going to look like or be like at all. And some of the dishes come and they're very traditional. Some of the dishes come and they're not like food from this planet. You think, you know, have I stumbled into the Star Wars commissary? Or, you know, I'm on Star Trek because you'll have things that seem to be impossible.

  • 13:18:18

    MYHRVOLDHeston Blumenthal, the chef at the Fat Duck, for example, serves a flaming sorbet as a dessert. Now, how do you make a sorbet catch fire? How do you prevent the fire from melting the sorbet? Well, it turns out there's ways you can do all of that. And part of the point of a dish like that is to surprise and delight you. And chefs have surprised and delighted us for generations. You know, the dish Baked Alaska which has something which is baked, but still has some cold ice cream inside.

  • 13:18:50

    MYHRVOLDOr dishes like that would play on a surprise. But chefs like Heston or Jose Andres in Washington, D.C. or Ferran Adria, a great chef in Spain, they use surprise and unusual features to create an experience that is both a way to eat and, you know, the food tastes good, but it also is an intellectual exercise. It's something that shocks you. It's something that startles you. And it's something that makes you reflect on your assumptions, coming into the meal.

  • 13:19:23

    NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Matt in Baltimore, Md. Matt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:19:28

    MATTOh, thanks, Kojo. I have a two part question for Nathan. Number one Nathan, did you write your book with the intention that it would be -- people would use it or mainly use it for entertainment? And the second part of my question is, on another NPR show, Intellectual Ventures was described as a predatory company and filed frivolous patent lawsuits against smaller companies. I wondered if you want to touch on that because you didn't have a chance to defend yourself in that other story. Thank you.

  • 13:19:53

    NNAMDIThat's an issue I was going to get to later. Thank you for bringing it up, Matt. And I will get to it later, but in terms of the first question. The purpose of doing the book.

  • 13:20:01

    MYHRVOLDOkay. So for the first question. We absolutely meant the book to be used. Now the book includes both reference information, stuff about science, about the history of cooking. It also has 1500 recipes. And one of the volumes we call The Kitchen Manual. It reprints recipes from the rest of the book on a spiral bound book format, which is smaller on waterproof washable paper. So it's absolutely meant to be taken in the kitchen. And if you spill on it, you can wipe it off and wash it.

  • 13:20:35

    NNAMDIIt took you three years to put this together. What was the vision your team had for the project when you started?

  • 13:20:40

    MYHRVOLDSo the vision was simple. We wanted to take this collection of techniques and ideas that chefs had developed around the world of, of course, the last 20 years and pull them all together in one place. That was sort of mission number one. Mission number two is we also wanted to tell you why it works. Not just do this, do this, do this, but here's some insights as to scientifically why that technique actually works. 'Cause if I can manage to give you that insight it puts you in a much better position to understand what's going on and maybe to innovate in your own way.

  • 13:21:15

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Ann who said, "When I was in first and second grade, we learned how to cook in science class. It was the '70s and we often had to convert metric measurements to ounces and cups. Additionally, we learned how food can change and how a cucumber becomes a pickle. I plan on teaching my own son the same way," says Ann. "The Wall Street Journal wrote that to call 'Modernist Cuisine' a cookbook is akin to calling Ulysses by James Joyce a story. This is heady stuff here. You proudly say that this is the only cookbook in the world with partial differential equations in it. What was the audience? Who was the audience you had in mind when you started going this big and this, well, (sounds like) kiekie?"

  • 13:21:59

    MYHRVOLDWell, you know, I like to say the book is for people who are both passionate and curious about food. If you're not passionate about food, I don't have much of a proposition for you 'cause this book is all about food in all its glories. And if you're not curious about it, if you just want to say, look, I want to know three things that'll make me, you know, turn out a slightly better dinner tonight in 30 minutes, that -- I can't offer you that in this book.

  • 13:22:28

    MYHRVOLDBut if you're curious about how food works, how science effects the kitchen, if you're curious about how great chefs cook, whether you're going to cook them or not -- frankly, I think a number of people who buy the book are going to buy the book 'cause they want to learn from it more than they want to actually reproduce all of the recipes, although, of course, you can. So that's the audience really, is people that are passionate and curious. But, you know, another way to answer the question is we wrote the book that we wanted somebody else to have written for us. And they didn't so we had to roll up our sleeves and write it.

  • 13:23:02

    NNAMDIBefore we talk about -- more about some of the recipes inside the book. Let's talk to someone who apparently has a copy of the book. Here is Sarah in Washington, D.C. Sarah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:23:14

    SARAHOh, great. Thanks for having me, Kojo. I have a copy of the book and it's absolutely beautiful. And when we got it, my husband actually threw his back out picking up all of the books.

  • 13:23:25

    NNAMDIForty-six pounds, baby.

  • 13:23:26

    SARAHYes. My question was how can we get access to some of these chemicals and unusual ingredients that you have for a lot of your recipes to create these modernist dishes?

  • 13:23:40

    MYHRVOLDSo quite a few of them are available in -- essentially in the American supermarket. So we, as an example, use a thickener called Xanthan gum. That's available in every Safeway and A&P store that I've been in because people use it as a substitute when they're making gluten-free stuff. So that's quite widely available.

  • 13:24:04

    MYHRVOLDYou know, we use something called sodium citrate. That's a form of citric acid. Turns out, that's in almost every store because it's called sour salt and it's used in Passover. So it's used in fish on Jewish cooking. So the majority of the things like that in the book are actually more available than you'd think.

  • 13:24:24

    NNAMDIBut how does Sarah get her hands on a homogenizer or a centrifuge jar or liquid nitrogen?

  • 13:24:30

    MYHRVOLDWell, so for some of the things you have to be pretty hardcore to get them. You know, liquid nitrogen is available in every city in the United States, you know, at least of a certain size. It's used in medical supplies, it's used in welding. So there's -- and it turns out liquid nitrogen costs less than bottled water, believe it or not. So you can actually get liquid nitrogen almost anywhere. Now, it's an unusual thing and you do have to take a few safety precautions with it. But we argue that it's actually no more unsafe than lots of other things in the kitchen. You know, the kitchen is full of stuff that you can cut yourself with or burn yourself with.

  • 13:25:11

    MYHRVOLDNow, the other great source though, whether it's equipment or it's ingredients, is the internet. On the internet, you can buy essentially anything.

  • 13:25:20


  • 13:25:21

    SARAHOkay, thank you.

  • 13:25:22

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We do have to take a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. If you haven't called, the number's 800-433-8850. What would it take for you to be like Sarah to throw down, oh, $600 for a single cookbook? 800-433-8850. How do you feel about restaurants that are pushing the boundaries of culinary science? Is there something to be said for kitchens that take the keep-it-simple approach or not? 800-433-8850, or go to our website kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:27:42

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Nathan Myhrvold. He is one of the authors of "Modernist Cuisine: The Science and Art of Cooking." He's a former chief technology officer at Microsoft and the founder of Intellectual Ventures where he's currently the chief executive officer. We're talking about the book "Modernist Cuisine." Let's now take a dive into the book, which includes thousands of recipes.

  • 13:28:05

    NNAMDISo can we start with talking about a kind of food most people understand, a hamburger? But your approach to the hamburger takes, oh, 30 hours for a piece of meat that never sees the grill and requires liquid smoke. What's your secret to a great burger?

  • 13:28:21

    MYHRVOLDWell, I think, first of all, everyone has their own idea of what the perfect burger is. We set out to say, let's make our version of the perfect burger because we think any dish deserves to be taken -- has the potential anyway to be taken to the utmost level. Now, if you want a really cheap quick burger, that's perfectly fine. But if you love burgers, why not try to make the ultimate perfect burger? And that's what we set out to do.

  • 13:28:47

    MYHRVOLDAnd the reason it takes the 30 hours is because the dough has to proof and various things like that. You're not sitting there actually working for 30 hours, but to make that burger we prepare the dough. We get a specific mix of meat to grind. There's a specific technique for how you grind the meat and cook it and so forth. And each of those specific steps has a specific effect that we think improves the burger. But ultimately, everyone has to decide for themselves what their perfect burger is.

  • 13:29:19

    NNAMDIYour burger never actually sees the grill at all, does it?

  • 13:29:22

    MYHRVOLDSo, you know, we've -- you can of course grill it but the ultimate technique for cooking it, we found, was to cook it sous vide first. We put it in an unsealed sous vide bag. It's important not to seal it because that can compress the meat too much and make it a little bit rubbery. And then we cook it 'til it's perfectly medium-rare all the way through, sous vide, which takes about 20, 30 minutes.

  • 13:29:46

    MYHRVOLDBut you wanna have a brown crust on your burger, at least we do.

  • 13:29:50


  • 13:29:51

    MYHRVOLDAnd we tried a lot of ways of doing that. And our favorite way is to take the burger that we've cooked medium-rare in the sous vide, plunge it into liquid nitrogen for 30 seconds. Now, liquid nitrogen is about 321 degrees below zero. It's really cold.

  • 13:30:06

    NNAMDIGood grief.

  • 13:30:07

    MYHRVOLDThen we take it from the liquid nitrogen -- directly out of the liquid nitrogen and into a deep fryer, where we have the fry oil at about 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Right at the very top temperature you can have before the oil catches fire actually. And what that does is the cold from the liquid nitrogen freezes a fraction of a millimeter and then makes very cold, another maybe millimeter or two into the meat. And that creates a buffer zone that means the meat won't overcook.

  • 13:30:42

    MYHRVOLDSo then when I put it into the fry oil it's so hot it browns a crust on the outside, but it does so without overcooking the burger itself because we wanted as much of the meat to be either medium-rare or crust. We didn't want to have a thick gray band of overcooked meat, which you get in lots of other cooking techniques.

  • 13:31:06

    NNAMDIAnd that allows the outside to still get super brown and crisp without overcooking the inside. And what you end up with is your version of the perfect burger.

  • 13:31:15

    MYHRVOLDYes. Now, the other thing that's interesting is because you put it into the deep fat fryer, the oil penetrates and, you know, the edges of a burger are rough. And if you cook that rough burger in a pan you only tend to brown the tops of the rough parts. Whereas if you put it -- you submerge it in the hot oil you brown all the way in all the nooks and crannies and crenulations and so it makes a much crisper, crunchier burger, while at the same time the inside is moist and juicy.

  • 13:31:47

    NNAMDIOnto the telephones again. Here is Leeann in Washington, D.C. Leeann, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:31:53

    LEEANNHi Kojo. A big fan. I am a veterinarian in D.C. I'm certified in food therapy for animals so I have some philosophical issues with this approach to cooking. One of which is in traditional Chinese medicine we believe that food should harmonize. They should be cooked together, multiple ingredients in one pot, slow cooking like a crock pot. And that way we find that the foods are more bio available, more therapeutic. And also we feel that -- or like-minded vets like myself, that foods shouldn't be stored or cooked in plastics. Some of the ingredients and techniques described today just sound like they could be adding residue's potential toxins.

  • 13:32:38

    NNAMDIWell, I'm so glad you raised that question because a great deal of this book has to do with science. So, Nathan Myhrvold, I'd like to hear how you respond to Leeann's concerns.

  • 13:32:49

    MYHRVOLDOkay. Well, I guess, on the first part about cooking things for a long period of time, we do -- there's many recipes we do that are like that and for some things that's fantastic. For making a spaghetti Bolognaise sauce, if you cook it for a long time in a slow cooker, or I would do it sous vide, but amounts to the same idea of many ingredients, you're right, it's great. But there's a lot of other great kinds of food that I wouldn't cook that way. You know, I wouldn't put my steak and salad together in a slow cooker and expect that it would come out very good.

  • 13:33:23

    MYHRVOLDAnd so across the breadth of different cooking techniques and across the whole variety of things we do embrace slow cooking and those slow mixtures but we also do other stuff. In terms of the plastics and so forth, there are some kinds of plastics -- unfortunately some kinds that are commonly used -- where there is some legitimate concern for residues being left. We recommend strongly in the book you don't use those. That, in fact, you use other kinds of plastics which have been very extensively tested. And so far people haven't found that there's any residue problem at all.

  • 13:33:59

    MYHRVOLDAlso I'll point out that those kinds of plastics are pretty hard to avoid in the modern economy. Almost every kind of food is wrapped in it at some point or another. And obviously not literally everything but most meats and most vegetables have some kind of wrap. The plastic you want to avoid is PVCs, poly vinyl chlorides, which are used in some cheap plastic wraps and some cheap bags. Polyethylenes and others are way more safe and they've been shown to be heat stable.

  • 13:34:36

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Leeann. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. Has cooking ever inspired you to learn more about science? What kind of thought do you put into the science behind your food when you make a meal in your kitchen? 800-433-8850. Our guest is Nathan Myhrvold. He is one of the authors of "Modernist Cuisine: The Science and Art of Cooking."

  • 13:34:57

    NNAMDIYou write a bit about the kitchen materials that most casual chefs do have access to, the most rudimentary pots and pans. But you also use science to explain that subtle differences in the shape or the color of a pan can change a cooking temperature by a swing of 30 something degrees. How does that work?

  • 13:35:18

    MYHRVOLDSo the processes that go on when you're cooking are actually quite complicated and there's a lot of factors. If you are braising something in the oven, as typically you put a pan with some water and food in it and you put it in the oven at say 300 degrees, the actual temperature that the water and therefore the food experience depends on many things. It depends on the humidity in the oven. It depends on the evaporation rate and that actually is governed by the shape of the pan. If you had a very tall pan that doesn't have very much surface area for water at the top, you'll wind up with a different temperature than if you poured just a half inch of water into a very broad flat pan.

  • 13:36:02

    MYHRVOLDBelieve it or not, the color of the pan matters because that determines the rate at which it absorbs and emits thermal radiation, infrared light basically. You can't see it but anything that's hot is emitting infrared light. And so all of those factors can play a role. Now, for some kinds of cooking, it doesn't matter, but there are cases where it can make a big difference.

  • 13:36:24

    NNAMDIIn that sense, how do you think basic shortcomings of scientific knowledge related to the most -- or relate to the most common mistakes that casual chefs might make in the kitchen?

  • 13:36:37

    MYHRVOLDWell, there's some pretty basic things that -- I think they're basic that no one ever seems to teach cooks. One is the tremendous amount of energy that it takes to boil water. When water goes from liquid form into vapor, and that’s whether you're boiling it or it's evaporating, it takes a tremendous amount of energy with it. That's why when you climb out of a swimming pool and your skin is wet and a little breeze hits you, you feel it cold right away. And that's because the evaporation carries huge amounts of energy.

  • 13:37:10

    MYHRVOLDWell, that whole point about evaporation is very critical to different kinds of cooking. It's the difference between covering a pot and not or wrapping something in foil or not. And it makes a giant difference in the actual temperature. So that's something that I think is not very well understood. Another is the way heat is conducted through food. So if you have a steak that's 1" thick and a steak that's 2" thick, how much longer do you think it takes the 2" thick steak to cook, all things being equal?

  • 13:37:41

    MYHRVOLDAnd when I ask this most people don't have a good idea of that. It turns out there's a general rule of thumb which is only approximate. There's some differences but in general it takes four times longer if the food is twice as thick. It goes like the square of the thickness. Now that's a simple rule that I just told everybody. And if you think about it, it has a huge impact on how thin you slice food, how you make it -- if you want to cook it for the same period of time, it should all be the same size. But again, it's something that's commonly not taught to chefs.

  • 13:38:14

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Vera who said, "Having spent most of the morning trying to bake palatably on a gluten-free diet without Xanthan gum, which I don't have, I wonder if there's any advantage to using it for any other purpose other than avoiding wheat? Incidentally, I purchase gluten-free flour and added soda and cream of tartar. Not too bad." What do you say?

  • 13:38:34

    MYHRVOLDOkay. Well, we use -- you know, traditional cooking uses a very wide range of ingredients. We use an even wider range in this book, although many of them come from a traditional cuisine somewhere. So for example, in traditional western food we use gelatin to make Jell-O, to set desserts and so forth. Gelatin, however, melts at about body temperature so you can't make anything hot out of it. But agar, which is a gelling compound derived from seaweed has been used in Asia for more than a thousand years, so we have a lot of things that use agar, as an example.

  • 13:39:15

    MYHRVOLDXanthan gum is made by fermenting bacteria. In that sense it's very similar to vinegar, which is also made by fermenting bacteria. And it's a fantastic way to thicken things. It's much better than thickening them with starch or flour, which is a more traditional way that you'd thicken a sauce. It's better because it has what we call better flavor release, meaning it -- the flavor stays brighter. It doesn't get dulled down by the starch and flour. And you only need a tiny bit. Just a tiny amount of Xanthan will make something thick, usually less than a tenth of a percent to maybe two-tenths of one percent. So a tiny amount is a tremendous amount of thickening. So it's very good for that.

  • 13:40:01

    NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation call us at 800-433--8850. Would you put several hours into cooking an egg if it promised to be perfect? Why or why not? 800-433--8850. What would it take for you to thrown down $600 on this single 2400-page cookbook? 800-433-8850. It seems that the modernist cuisine process of cooking deviates from the popular craze of organic simple cooking. Why do you think food can be made better using the more abstract and labor intensive techniques that you use?

  • 13:40:37

    MYHRVOLDWell, you know, the -- cooking is a very broad topic. There's so many different kinds of food. And of course great organic ingredients, or just great ingredients are a terrific thing to start with. If you start with bad ingredients, it's very hard to have a good result. But technique can also elevate a food to enormous heights.

  • 13:41:00

    MYHRVOLDYou know, ice cream is about technique. Wine and cheese and pasta and bread, those are very high-technique foods. I was talking to someone about the -- this, and they said, gosh, you know, they -- they only like simple food like a bowl of pasta with some red wine, cheese and bread. And I said, my God, that's the most complicated food in the world.

  • 13:41:23

    MYHRVOLDEach of those things requires huge technique, and thank God, because wine is better than grape juice, and, you know, cheese is a fantastic addition. I -- it broadens dairy well beyond fresh milk, and so forth. So I think great technique, when combined with great ingredients, can make something magical.

  • 13:41:45

    NNAMDIGotta take short break. When we come back, we'll continue our Food Wednesday conversation on modernist cooking. Nathan Myhrvold is one of the authors of the book "Modernist Cuisine: The Science and Art of Cooking." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. How do you feel about restaurants that are pushing the boundaries of culinary science? Is there something to be said for kitchens that take the keep-it-simple approach? 800-433-8850, or you can go to our website kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:44:02

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our Food Wednesday conversation with Nathan Myhrvold. He is one of the authors of "Modernist Cuisine: The Science and Art of Cooking." He's a former chief technology officer at Microsoft, and he's the founder of Intellectual Ventures, where he's currently the chief executive officer. Let's jump to some of the accusations that have been made about Intellectual Ventures.

  • 13:44:21

    NNAMDIIt's been accused of, as our earlier caller said, of patent trolling, buying up multiple patents and then suing large and small companies alike for infringing upon these patents. IP Watchdog, an intellectual property site, called your company patent troll public enemy number one. That and other blogs say that you've been amassing one of the largest patent portfolios in existence, and going around to tech companies demanding money to license these patents. How do you respond to these kinds of accusations?

  • 13:44:52

    MYHRVOLDWell, the patent business is controversial, particularly among people who take inventions and don't want to pay for them. And I think that's the source of a lot of this controversy. Our company invests in invention, and that means that we both create our own inventions, we finance inventors who are creating inventions. We also will invest in existing inventions. I think that's a great thing to do, because if we can supply capital to inventors, they can create more inventions, some of which will fail.

  • 13:45:28

    MYHRVOLDBut those that work only make our lives all better. Now, in order for that business model to work, you do have to have people license the inventions and get paid for them. And of course, that's been the law of the land in the United States since -- actually, since the very beginning. The first U.S. patent was signed by both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. They didn't have a patent office then, so the President and Vice President actually signed the patents.

  • 13:45:53

    MYHRVOLDAnd the patent system overall I think is very good. And there are some people that have legitimate concerns about various aspects of the patent system, but I'm very happy with what our company does, and I think it's mischaracterizing it to call us names when in fact we're out there trying to both create brand new inventions and help other inventors invent more interesting stuff.

  • 13:46:20

    NNAMDINow onto the critiques of modernist cuisine. Some well-known chefs such as Alton Brown from Food Network's "Good Eats," claims that what's also known as molecular gastronomy is distracting aspiring chefs from the fundamentals of cooking. He says that, quoting here, "Leeks should taste like leeks. Beef should taste like beef. And if I live the rest of my culinary life without seeing another foam, I'll be okay." What do you say to people who call out modernist cuisine as detracting from the basics of food?

  • 13:46:51

    MYHRVOLDWell, you know, food is an area where everyone has strong opinions, and Mr. Brown is entitled to his. I can't believe he will never want to see another foam because bread is a foam, ice cream is a foam, whipped cream is a foam. I could go on and on with lots of foams in traditional food. In terms of should a leek taste like a leek? Well, yes. That's one way that you can serve leeks.

  • 13:47:16

    MYHRVOLDBut as we were discussing earlier, grape juice and wine are different things. And I actually do want my wine to taste like wine, not like grape juice. So the idea that all food has to taste like what it originally is, I think is very limiting, and it's inconsistent with frankly what almost any cuisine is like. But whenever you change things and upset the apple cart, there's people that complain about it.

  • 13:47:44

    NNAMDIAnd there's people that want to talk to you on the phone. So let's start with Gerald in Annapolis, Md. Gerald, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:47:51

    GERALDHi, good afternoon. When Mr. Myhrvold started his conversation, he mentioned that the method he uses is used -- is called sous vide. And we're looking up the word sous vide, and we know that the French are very particular about their language and its purity, but could he spell those two words, or is it one word?

  • 13:48:13

    NNAMDII'll spell them for you, he'll explain them. They're two words. The first is sous S-O-U-S, the second is vide V-I-D-E. Now, here is Nathan Myhrvold to explain what sous vide cooking is.

  • 13:48:25

    MYHRVOLDSo the history of it is quite interesting. Sous vide cooking in some ways got its origin in NASA programs to develop sealed food for astronauts to eat. Then it was developed further in Sweden by a Swedish hospital system. Interestingly enough, in the research we did for the book, the first sous vide food ever served to paying customers in a restaurant appears to have been at a Holiday Inn in Greenville, South Carolina, believe it or not.

  • 13:48:58

    MYHRVOLDBut that was in the 1970s. By the late '70s, chefs in France had developed it, and they call is Sous Vide, which is -- it's a term for vacuum. It really means without life, but it refers to the fact that many of these systems would seal the food -- vacuum seal it in a plastic bag. And they did that so that they could store it for a period of time.

  • 13:49:25

    MYHRVOLDFor example, these hospitals would cook all of their food in a central kitchen, and then ship it out to multiple hospitals, or ship to say an airline for use up there, and the vacuum keeps it fresh. It's possible to cook sous vide food without the vacuum, and that's -- a vacuum without vacuum sounds a little bit strange, but today what the technique has really come to mean is a set of ways that you use, uh, low temperature cooking to very precisely and gently cook food.

  • 13:49:54

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Gerald. Does that help?

  • 13:49:56

    GERALDYes, it does. It means without air. That's just the way it -- it checks in the French dictionary. So we thank you and you're not conjuring up the purity of the French language which they're very particular about.

  • 13:50:12

    NNAMDIThank you. I'm glad. I'm glad we haven't wasted the last hour here, Gerald. Thank you for your call. Here is Roxy in Washington D.C. Roxy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:50:22

    ROXYHi, Kojo. How are you doing?

  • 13:50:24

    NNAMDII am well, Roxy.

  • 13:50:26

    ROXYGood. Um, Mr., uh, let's see, Mr. Myhrvold, I have two questions for you. I like to cook and I like to make pot roast, but I'm in a debate with my great aunt on whether to sear it or not. Because when I sear the pot roast, I see a lot of liquid come out and that bothers me. I think it's drying out the meat. And my second question is what is the best oven temperature for roast chicken, because sometimes I make the roast chicken and the interior is still raw, but the outside looks beautiful. So I think it's too hot. So if you could help me with these things, that'd be great. Thank you.

  • 13:51:08

    MYHRVOLDOkay. So on the first point, you're absolutely right that when you sear your pot roast you're drying it out. On the other hand, the flavors that you create by searing it, a lot of people like. And so that's one of life's little trade-offs. What -- a technique we mention in the book, is if you have some meat scraps or some trimmings from the meat, you can brown those in a pan and put them into the -- in with the pot roast to cook, and that will transfer a bunch of the flavors without drying out your main piece of meat.

  • 13:51:44

    MYHRVOLDIn terms of the roast chicken, roast chicken is a fundamental dilemma. The dilemma is that we want the outside to be crispy, and that requires high heat. And we want the inside to be juicy, and that requires low heat. So any single temperature that you pick is going to be compromise. You know, most people like to roast a chicken around 350 degrees.

  • 13:52:09

    MYHRVOLDIn the book, we have an elaborate recipe which I'm not gonna recommend necessarily for your home oven because you'd have to check that it would hold the temperature properly, but we actually cook the chicken at 145 degrees for four-and-a-half hours, take it out, heat the oven up to almost 600 degrees, then we put the chicken in for five minutes.

  • 13:52:30

    MYHRVOLDBut that only works if your oven will hold 145 degrees accurately. Most home ovens won't, and also up at the top. But so I would probably suggest, you know, 300, 325, maybe even a little bit lower than that, and then if you -- if the outside is not done to your liking, take the bird out, let it rest under some -- put some foil loosely on it and let it rest. Crank the oven up to as high as it will go, and then put the oven -- put the bird in for a few minutes at the end. That's probably the best approach.

  • 13:53:04

    NNAMDIRoxy, thank you very much for your call.

  • 13:53:07

    ROXYThank you very much. These are great suggestions. Thank you.

  • 13:53:10

    NNAMDIHere is Dina in Great Falls, Va. Dina, you're on the air. Your turn.

  • 13:53:15

    DINAHi, this is fascinating. I've been following Jose Andreas' certain methods and at one point he uses lecithin with mandarin orange juice, and I went out and bought lecithin, and I probably bought the wrong type. I bought sort of a liquid, you know, like a...

  • 13:53:36

    MYHRVOLDLiquid, yeah.

  • 13:53:36

    DINA...what seemed like a very thick oil.

  • 13:53:39


  • 13:53:40

    DINAAnyway it made little...

  • 13:53:40

    MYHRVOLDWell, that'll -- that'll work.

  • 13:53:41

    DINA...it made these balls.

  • 13:53:43

    NNAMDIWhat -- what happened, Dina?

  • 13:53:46

    DINAIt's supposed to -- it's supposed to make these like balls.

  • 13:53:51

    NNAMDIAnd what -- how'd it turn out for you?

  • 13:53:55

    DINAIt didn't...

  • 13:53:55


  • 13:53:56

    DINA...it didn't do that.

  • 13:53:57

    NNAMDIWhy not, Nathan?

  • 13:53:58

    MYHRVOLDOkay. So I think there's probably some confusion on the recipe. So lecithin is a substance that comes from soybeans, and it's present in lots of things. We use it to foam stuff most often, or as an emulsifier. So if you wanted to make a light foam out of your orange juice, you'd add some lecithin and that liquid lecithin will work fine, and so will powdered. You add a little bit and then beat it with a beater, and it'll stay into a -- a very light frothy foam.

  • 13:54:30

    MYHRVOLDSo that's a thing you can do with lecithin very easily. To make little balls like you're describing, that's a technique called spherification, and that's a little more complicated. That -- there you need a special gel made -- another seaweed derivative, not agar that I talked about before. It's one called alginate. And it's kind of a complicated procedure, but we do describe it in the book. And that makes a little ball that almost looks like a salmon egg. Is that what you're thinking of, is something like that?

  • 13:55:00

    DINAOh, yes.

  • 13:55:01


  • 13:55:02

    DINAOh, I think I was confused. I think it was the foam stuff. But, you know, I -- there again I use that liquidy lecithin, and not the powder.

  • 13:55:11

    MYHRVOLDWell, the liquid lecithin will work. The powder would also work. You know, if you take a say -- oh, let's say you took two cups of orange juice and if you put in teaspoon of the lecithin, either the powder or the liquid, and put it in a blender and blend it up, it should get pretty frothy. If you use a hand blender, or a mixer with a beat attachment, it'll get even frothier.

  • 13:55:39

    NNAMDIDina, thank you very much for your call. In a lot of ways, Nathan, it's like we're living in the era of the food recall. Every couple of months there's a scare e-coli or salmonella. Your team used its first volume to dive deeply into the science of food safety. What were some of the bigger surprises you uncovered during this research?

  • 13:56:00

    MYHRVOLDWell, we found quite a few interesting things. You know, food safety is very poorly taught. Most of the food safety things that our moms taught us, or frankly, even that chef learned in chef school, are just not right. Sometimes they've been oversimplified to make them safer, but maybe also ruin the food. In other cases, they've been oversimplified in the other direction. So one example is a lot of people think, oh, you can only get e-coli or these bad things from meat.

  • 13:56:30

    MYHRVOLDBut in fact, as we've seen in recent years, spinach or peanuts or strawberries, all of those sorts of things can get it, because it turns out those pathogens are not in the food intrinsically. They're in contamination. And I don't want to be disgusting, but the primary contaminant is fecal matter. It's either animal feces or human feces. And that is the main thing we're looking out for. And why they don't teach people this more I don't know.

  • 13:57:00

    MYHRVOLDSo when you have one of these food recalls, what's often the case is some feces contaminated something, and then that, you know, took it from there. There's a case that's ongoing right now, I think it's strawberries, and the latest thing I saw this morning is that they think it may have been deer. Deer who -- that broke into the fields of the strawberries were -- defecated on the strawberries. Often the process by which you wash that fruit -- you think, oh, my God, why didn't they wash the fruit?

  • 13:57:33

    MYHRVOLDWell, often they wash it in a big tank. And when they wash it in a big tank, if any contamination gets into the tank, it actually spreads the contamination further rather than actually doing a good job of cleaning.

  • 13:57:45

    NNAMDIJust one of the things that you find out if you happen to pick up "Modernist Cuisine: The Science and Art of Cooking." We've been talking with one of the authors, Nathan Myhrvold. He's former chief technology officer at Microsoft and the founder of Intellectual Ventures where he's currently the chief executive officer. Nathan Myhrvold, thank you so much for spending time with us.

  • 13:58:05

    MYHRVOLDWell, thank you. It's been fun.

  • 13:58:07

    NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, and Tayla Burney, with help from Caitlin Langfitt. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. Our engineer today, Andrew Chadwick. A.C. Valdez has been on the phones. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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