Cooking sits at the intersection of science and art. It is possible to produce dishes using precise measurements and processes, but truly great cooks also tend to be creative and artistic, using personal taste to fine-tune the seasoning and enhance the sensory presentation of each item. Many great chefs don’t mind sharing recipes because they know that measuring and assembling ingredients from a recipe isn’t enough; it’s the wisdom in human tweaking, alongside access to special kitchen tools, that will distinguish a pretty good home meal from a great, restaurant-quality experience.

Yet recipes — and the cookbooks that contain them — are critically important to understanding excellent food and beverages. And luckily for everyone on the planet, recipes can’t be copyrighted, which has inspired the some of the world’s most creative chefs to spread their knowledge far and wide instead of hoarding secrets. So after our first column on spherical ice for drinks and our second on temperature-controlled water baths for food, today’s Kitchen Tech is devoted to a foundational topic: smart modern cookbooks.

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Two of the cookbook sets I discuss inside are absolute monsters, so big and expensive that only the most serious gourmets would consider buying them. Although some of their recipes require special tools that are well beyond the budgets of most home cooks, I’ve included them because they are ingeniously assembled and provide collegiate-level insight into modern cooking at price points lower than taking a typical college class. Most of my recommendations are for cooks with entry-level or moderate kitchen skills, with relatively few and affordable modern kitchen tools.

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It’s possible to produce a cookbook for a single type of cookie that still manages to confound some readers. Bérengère Abraham’s cookbook focused solely on French macarons, appropriately titled Macarons, provides a “foolproof” technique for making the notoriously delicate treats, reliant on little more than almonds, sugar, egg whites, and a flavored filling. It doesn’t seem difficult. Yet some purchasers described the core recipe as “faulty,” with “poor directions,” and leading to batter that was “too runny,” and if the core recipe doesn’t work, nothing else in the book does, either. It can be a lot harder to perfectly reproduce a wonderful item than one might imagine.

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Instead of focusing on a single or even conventional type of recipe, Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio (available as a book, Kindle eBook, iBooks eBook, and iOS app) is designed to help home cooks learn the fundamentals of preparing doughs, batters — including cakes, cookies, and pancakes — sauces, stocks, ground meats, and custards. Ratio explains that each of these items can be assembled by remembering a “simple code,” such as “1 part sugar to 2 parts fat to 3 parts flour” for making cookies, or “3 parts meat to 1 part fat” when making sausage.

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Ruhlman’s goal is to free people from hunting for Internet recipes by distilling basic items (“bread”) into their core ingredients (flour and water, plus yeast and salt), then enabling them to experiment by playing with other flavor additions — rosemary and garlic, jalapeño and corn, or olive and walnuts. No special tools or expertise are needed to understand Ratio, and its lessons are useful across timeless, popular items. The interactive app version even handles unit multiplication for you.

Recipes From The World’s Best Chef

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Let’s say you wanted to learn from the world’s best chef – Ferran Adrià, whose avant garde Spanish restaurant elBulli was repeatedly named the world’s best by San Pellegrino, and now oversees a foundation devoted to spreading culinary knowledge worldwide. You have options. If you want to be completely bowled over by elBulli’s innovation and have around $600 to spend, go straight to the remarkable seven-book hardcover set elBulli 2005-2011 published by Phaidon this year. Six of the volumes cover elBulli’s final seven years, including over 750 of the restaurant’s most jaw-dropping dishes and cocktails.

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Each item was gorgeously photographed during the year it was served, systematically explained down to the individual ingredients and (sometimes special) tools required for preparation, and listed in an easily referenced numerical order. A collection of the dishes are part of the remarkably organic Natura series of desserts developed by Ferran’s genius brother Albert Adrià, which inspired a book of the same name.

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The seventh book in the elBulli set, titled Evolutionary Analysis, is the narrative star of the show. Its over 500 pages detail not just the stories and inspirations behind the recipes in the first six books, but also the manner in which elBulli’s cuisine evolved with new tools and culinary techniques over time. This is where home cooks can learn how small ideas later led to glorious drinks and dishes, as well as failures that elBulli’s team nonetheless embraced and iterated upon. “Back to the drawing board” dishes are discussed in almost as much detail as successes, and amusing stories of chance inspiration (a visit to Jamba Juice in San Francisco, or a journalist handing off special Japanese caramels during a culinary conference) provide you with a sense of how the creative process actually works in the modern world of food.

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But most people probably don’t want to dive that deep into a single modernist restaurant, even if it was the best in the world. A more accessible option is The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adriá, which for around $20 does away with virtually all of elBulli’s kitchen magic in favor of approachable recipes that were served to the cooks who worked at the restaurant. They’re excellent, well-vetted versions of classics, all arranged as three-course meals with commonly available ingredients and straightforward prep schedules. Unlike elBulli 2005-2011, The Family Meal recommends only one modern kitchen tool you might not have: the amazing iSi Gourmet Whip Plus (which we’d suggest buying in Pint size), along with genuine (food safe) iSi N2O cream chargers. iSi’s whips make the most wonderfully airy creams you’ll ever have, amongst other tricks, and we consider them modern kitchen essentials.

A Complete Study Of Traditional And Modern Cuisine

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Another set of incredible cookbooks comes from Nathan Myhrvold’s team at Modernist Cuisine. Myhrvold, a multi-millionaire ex-Microsoft CTO with a particular passion for homemade barbecue, assembled a team to tell the story of culinary evolution, explaining the rise of “modernist” or avant garde cooking. The team wound up recreating and photographing everything from foundational basics to the very latest in cooking techniques from around the world, releasing a multi-book set to cover as much ground as possible. Part history lesson, part education in kitchen tools and varied food products, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (currently $510) includes six books: book 1 focuses on history and fundamentals, book 2 on techniques and equipment, book 3 on animals and plants, book 4 on ingredients and preparations, and book 5 on plated-dish recipes, while book 6 is a compact and spill-resistant “kitchen manual” with recipes and cooking tables.

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Just like the Adrià books above, home chefs could skip the six-book set in favor of a more approachable version for home use. Modernist Cuisine at Home sells for $120, focusing on a smaller set of modern tools and techniques that budding home cooks will find approachable. Myhrvold notably used the original books in part to champion and demystify sous vide cooking – the topic of our second Kitchen Tech piece – and sous vide is a critical component in the Modernist Cuisine at Home book, as well. While the large set is solely available in hardcover form, Modernist Cuisine at Home is also available as a digital Inkling edition at a discount of $80.

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The one and only reason to prefer the Modernist Cuisine books in printed form is the sheer size of the canvases Myhrvold uses for stunning photography. Roughly 13″ tall by 10″ wide per page, expanding to 20″ widths for two-page spreads, the Modernist Cuisine books amazed people by beautifully depicting recipes in the midst of assembly, and impossibly cross-sectioned kitchen tools in the process of being used. If you want to have an IMAX-style visual experience with food photography, go for printed books; if you prefer the convenience of anywhere access to recipes, go digital.

Additional Options

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Difficulty Level: Easy. If you’d prefer to focus more on making beautiful-looking, intensely-flavored dishes than experimenting with new kitchen tools, check out Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America ($25 and under in hardcover, Kindle, or iBookstore format) by James Beard Award-winning chef José Andrés. Beyond focusing on widely accessible ingredients, Andrés’s book uses photos to illustrate organic but modern plating, balancing shapes, colors, and textures to thrill the eyes before the first bite is ever taken. Spanish classics such as “traditional garlic shrimp” and “squid in its own ink” are balanced against modern dishes such as “quail eggs with trout roe” and “tomato and watermelon skewers ‘Ferran Adrià,’ ” borrowed from Andrés’s long-time mentor and friend. Special tools such as a microplane grater and 12-inch paella pan are strictly optional. We’re also fans of the sequel, Made in Spain: Spanish Dishes for the American Kitchen ($26 and under in hardcover or digital versions).

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Difficulty Level: Medium. If you don’t mind acquiring a few affordable new tools (including an iSi whip, a drill, and a vacuum sealer) and some modernist ingredients (such as gelatin sheets, Xanthan gum, and alginate), you’ll be able to make all of the eye-popping, wide grin-inducing dishes in Albert Adrià’s latest cookbook Tapas: Tickets Cuisine. Taken from the menu of the more casual, Barcelona-based follow-up to elBulli, Tapas includes gorgeous photos and straightforward recipes for modern classics such as Mini Airbags Filled With Manchego Cheese Espuma and Toasted Steamed Brioche With Truffled Cheese, as well as the 41 Degrees Nordic Landscape, a Noma-inspired snack that was once served at Tickets’ more formal neighbor, 41 Degrees. The English version of Tapas can be ordered online via an email to reservations@ticketsbar.es; the Castilian version “Tapas, la cocina del Tickets” is sold online if you’re able to read Spanish.

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A choice that’s somewhere between easy and medium is Aki Kamozawa’s and Alexander H. Talbot’s Maximum Flavor: Recipes That Will Change The Way You Cook ($22 and under in hardcover or digital versions). Maximum Flavor spans various types of cuisine ranging from American to Chinese, Italian, Korean, and Mexican, using a combination of modernist tools and smart techniques to make seemingly familiar dishes look and taste special. If you’ve ever wanted to learn the secrets to making ultra-crispy Korean-style chicken wings or how to make a whole wheat-crusted ginger tart, you’ll find great recipes here. Expect to see requests for sous vide, iSi whip, and pressure cooker hardware amongst other modernist tools.

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Difficulty Level: Advanced. Over 300 pages in length, Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef ($60, currently $43 at Amazon) by noted Italian avant garde chef Massimo Bottura doesn’t formally start its brief recipe section until page 276, instead using the first 90% of the book to explain how each of the modern dishes evolved from classical Italian roots. Elegant though sometimes clinical photography leads to reflection and intrigue rather than raw salivation, while Bottura’s stories from Osteria Francescana – currently ranked the number 3 restaurant in the world by San Pellegrino – provide a warm, human contrast, and reasons to explore his riffs on the classics. Tools such as a sous vide machine, vacuum sealer, dehydrator and centrifugal juicer are required for some of the recipes; other recipes call for specialty items such as a thermal mixer, rotary evaporator, or blast chiller. Unless you have a huge budget for new gadgets, don’t expect to be able to make everything in this cookbook at home.

My earlier Kitchen Tech colums are available here.

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