Issue 05
Words by

Better eats

14th September 2021
17 Mins

The kitchen of 2020 looks mostly the same as that of 1960. But what we do in it has changed dramatically, almost entirely for the better—due to a culture of culinary innovation.

There’s a story told about kitchens since the start of the 20th century: between 1900 and 1960, almost everything about them changed, but since 1960, virtually nothing has. The story is meant to illustrate a wider point about the slowdown in physical technology that seems to have taken place in other walks of life — not just how we eat, but how we transport people and build things.

There is a lot of truth to this story, even if it neglects the value of home sous vide and the Instant Pot. But it misses another type of technological change that did happen and which might be even more important in determining the quality and deliciousness of the food we eat.

The change has come in the form of things we cannot touch or feel, but nevertheless matter: new ideas, recipes, and techniques. And that tells an equally important story: of how intangible capital has grown in importance in our lives and the wider economy — a less visible, but just as valuable, form of technological advancement as the advancements in tangible capital we made in the half-century before.

Let’s set the stage: There was a series of key kitchen appliances that were invented in the early 20th century, facilitated by the introduction of electricity and running water. These included the domestic refrigerator, the electric stove and oven, the dishwasher, the blender, the kettle, and, in 1947, the microwave. Although it took time for many of these to make their way into normal people’s homes, the changes meant that, as the story goes, by the 1960s, home kitchens looked completely different to how they had in 1900.

As Rachel Laudan writes in her history of food Cuisine and Empire, “The home kitchen ceased to be a place where dirty, dangerous, smelly processing was carried out and became a place for final meal preparation.” By 1960, home cooks were no longer surrounded by the noxious fumes of open flames and instead had chilled or canned ingredients and electric tools to prepare them.

These advances set the stage for a new way to cook. But that new way to cook depended on more than cooks and their new technologies alone; it required a change in goals and horizons. After all, most American cooking was highly practical, for cooks with limited ingredients and budgets. Take the 19th-century hit cookbook The Frugal Housewife (1829), which barely discerns between cooking itself and the work of managing a household and its finances. It advises home cooks to use leftover rum to wash hair and boil flour in milk to cure dysentery. Cooking wasn’t yet just about making nice meals.

As these constraints loosened, a new wave of cookbooks emerged. Again from Laudan:

“In the West, cookbooks from the 1960s on promised their readers authentic reproductions of foreign cuisines. Mediterranean Food (1950) and French Country Cooking (1951) by Elizabeth David inspired cooks weary of modern English food. The two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961, 1970) by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle, and Julia Child made high French cuisine acceptable by explaining in detail how to prepare it with American ingredients.”

The new wave of cookbooks led to higher ambitions for home cooks, who wanted to create fine food at home. Dinner parties full of vichyssoise and crêpes suzette became a new way to demonstrate sophistication and skill. The new cookbooks reworked Continental European dishes for the American kitchen, providing home cooks a new culinary tradition to play with.

Joel Mokyr, in A Culture of Growth, argues that innovation can be stifled by a fear of “disrespecting the past” or an excessive adherence to tradition. In the kitchen, the new cookbooks made it possible for cooks to replicate traditional recipes at home. But focus tended to be on how to best replicate those recipes that were born in professional kitchens, not to figure out what the home was best suited for. By the 1980s, a new idea began to emerge: that home cooks could even best restaurants if guided by a scientific approach.

Scientifically guided cooking has deep roots in the history of American food. It’s apparent in early calls for standardization and precision in early hit cookbooks like The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, where Farmer obsessed over ultra-precise measurements, down to eighths of teaspoons, and standardizing measurement of the liquid’s meniscus (keep it below the line).

But the founder of modern scientific home cooking is Harold McGee, with his book On Food and Cooking (1984). On Food and Cooking is an encyclopedic, 800-page tome answering nearly every question on food science imaginable, from which proteins are in egg whites to why blueberries are blue. It doesn’t have recipes either, besides when he uses them to illustrate scientific points. At the time it was the most complete work of food science, and by many accounts still is.

As food writer — and author of his own cookbook grounded in the scientific approach — Kenji Lopez-Alt describes it, McGee’s book brought food science out of “the realms of industrial production and laboratories” and into the home. Armed with the work of McGee and others, recipe writers, and sometimes even home cooks themselves, began to wonder if they could improve on traditional techniques instead of just copying them. After all, weren’t those fancy chefs we used to admire just stubbornly following tradition?

So began an explosion of popular food science. Through the late 1980s and 1990s, chefs like Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck, Grant Achatz of Alinea, and Ferran Adrià of El Bulli became famous proponents of the approach. Blumenthal figured out how to make scotch eggs with runny yolks. Achatz made floating, edible apple balloons. This movement was sometimes termed “molecular gastronomy”, but the term can be something of a misnomer: it confuses the general practice of scientifically guided cooking and recipe crafting with turning juices into spheres. Blumenthal and others have disavowed the term.

New publications began to popularize food science in the home for those unwilling to dig through On Food and Cooking. Cooks Illustrated, which launched in 1993, created recipes and techniques specialized for home cooks in their test kitchen. Serious Eats joined it in 2006, giving each recipe a “why it works” section to explain its food-scientific logic. Alton Brown’s Good Eats premiered on the Food Network in 1999 and truly took the food science approach to the masses, with Brown as a funny and entertaining guide through the world of science and cooking.

By the 2000s, food science–oriented outlets were debunking dozens of common myths with the new approach. Pasta doesn’t need to be boiled in loads of water. That water doesn’t need to be “salty as the sea” either. Sea water is about 3.5% salt; 1% is probably plenty. And it doesn’t matter whether the salt is added before or after the water comes to a boil (both sides had proponents). You don’t need to rest steaks before you cook them. Nor do you need to worry about just flipping steak once. Searing doesn’t “lock in juices,” either, it creates the maillard reaction, and you can do it either before or after roasting a piece of meat for the same effect. Even the practice of marinating itself was called into question. The list goes on.

It’s not just little tips and tricks either. Food science created new recipes, and indeed whole new categories of recipes. Mark Bittman and Jim Lahey’s “no-knead bread” (published in 2006) is an example of this new attitude in action: we don’t need to follow traditional bakers’ three-day sourdough recipes; we can make delicious bread overnight with almost no work:

  1. Combine flour, yeast, and salt. Stir in water.
  2. Leave for 12 to 18 hours in a warm room
  3. Shape the dough and rise for two more hours
  4. Bake in preheated dutch oven at 450 degrees Fahrenheit

It’s not that the idea is totally new either; there’s a history of bakers using a similar process, autolyse, where water and flour is mixed and let sit. This weakens enzymes in the flour, which reduces the overall time needed for kneading. But Bittman’s codification of the recipe turned bread baking, an enterprise that can feel vast and riddled with strange terms and practices, into a simple method. The recipe combines the insights of food science with effective framing. It could be perceived as disrespectful by violating old “rules” of baking, but really it’s just a more sensible way to do things at home. With the rules out the window, recipe crafters could focus on what best fits the tastes and resources of the home cook.

Further refinements followed and a category of no-knead baking was born. Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François published Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, introducing more no-knead styles. Chad Robertson published Tartine Bread, where he combined no-knead with more advanced sourdough techniques. Other baked goods, like english muffins, got no-knead recipes. Lopez-Alt updated Bittman’s original recipe 15 years after it was originally published.

It’s a familiar pattern in how innovation seems to work. The central thesis of Anton Howes’s Arts and Minds, a history of the Royal Society of Arts, is that the Industrial Revolution was driven by a new “ideology of innovation.” This ideology held that everything could be improved by careful tinkering and experimentation. And this ideology spread from person to person. People become more inclined to experiment when they see others doing it and succeeding. Copying, not innovating, is the basic human skill.

Home cooking culture is now defined by this obsessive tinkering and experimenting. Take the french fry, for example. Laudan explains that its predecessor, the pomme frite, was considered haute cuisine. In 1965, the modern french fry was invented when John Richard Simplot convinced McDonald’s that frozen fries were superior, both in quality and reliability. It’s early-20th-century technology and innovation in action. But in 1994, Heston Blumenthal, through experimentation and his understanding of food science, invented the triple-cooked chips method. He recommended, in addition to the traditional two “cooks” (the low-temperature and high-temperature frys), to first boil the potatoes, and to fully cool them between each step. The result is a thick chip that is fluffy inside but with an outside that shatters like glass when you bite into it, and it has been copied and reimagined by countless others since.

And the process keeps going: Adam Ragusea posts his take on the recipe, arguing that baking fries can obtains a similar result and is more practical than deep frying at home. Then Ethan Chlebowski does a “remastering” of the new recipe, where he recommends adding salt and vinegar to the boiling water and using peanut oil instead of olive oil. Their followers try the recipes, sometimes with their own modifications, and post them to Instagram.

But it’s not just that certain people produce this knowledge; we get better at cooking because what they discover is efficiently distributed. These new channels like YouTube, internet recipe sites, and social media (particularly Reddit and Instagram, and eGullet before them) have led to the creation and adoption of new techniques much better suited for the home kitchen, like making pizza in a cast iron skillet, reverse-searing steaks, and using immersion blenders for easy emulsions such as mayonnaise, hollandaise, and béarnaise.

There are also now genres of convenient cooking methods, like one-pot recipes, and cast iron meals. Most of these techniques wouldn’t make nearly as much sense in professional kitchens, where chefs are trying to prepare hundreds of meals a night. It’s not that these techniques have no antecedent in the home either. Rather, their popularity demonstrates that categorizing and naming is a technology in and of itself. Categories and names allow us to connect ideas and techniques into an easy-to-remember bundle. Trying to explain to someone that you want to make your pasta sauce on a baking sheet would be weird and difficult. But when you have “sheet pan dinner” as a distinct category, you can convey the idea easily and develop meta-recipes with rules like, “Cut vegetables into sizes according to how long they take to cook,” from which cooks can create new quick and easy meals on the fly. And meta-recipes can also have guiding principles: make a sheet pan meal for low maintenance and an easy cleanup.

Online videos are another cornerstone of this knowledge base. They are particularly good at conveying technique, not just in traditional terms (like knife skills) but also how a cook can prep and clean efficiently. It’s what Michael Polyanyi termed “tacit knowledge.” Many cooking methods can’t easily be easily conveyed in writing and used to have to be transmitted person to person, in culinary apprenticeships or within families. But with video at scale, the best of them can be transmitted to anyone and preserved indefinitely.

Sometimes that tacit knowledge is in the form of high technique. We can learn from the master himself, Jaques Pépin, in his Essential Techniques videos. Sometimes it’s cross-cultural transmission. Chinese Cooking Demystified explains tacit knowledge in Chinese tradition to Western cooks. And then there are channels like Food Wishes or Adam Ragusea, where we simply watch a smart, recreational cook explain the tacit knowledge they’ve developed in their cooking.

So kitchens might not have changed their outward appearance much in the last 60 years, but the cooking that takes place in them has been transformed. It’s transformed because of what home cooks have access to: the recipes, techniques, knowledge, and know-how for cooking food better. We’ve built up a vast array of knowledge and technique well tailored to the home, ranging across cuisines, styles, and goals. It’s what Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake call intangible capital, all the stuff in the production process we don’t see: our systems, our software, our skills, our techniques. We can’t touch this intangible capital, so it’s easy to underrate. But a new method for making bread overnight can be just as useful as a new machine that does it.

Is this actually progress? If you are an amateur chef (like myself), we’re living in a golden age. But excessive focus on new techniques for the home misses the larger shift in how we eat that’s taken place over the last century.

In Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, Tim Harford explains the importance of the TV dinner, and more generally the impact of highly convenient processed foods. Food, according to Harford, was “the last cottage industry; it was something that for generations was overwhelmingly produced in the home.” It was TV dinners, along with related technologies like freezers, microwaves, and industrial food production, that began to change it. And these changes were able to liberate time — particularly women’s time — in a way even earlier domestic technologies failed to do. As Harford writes, “The washing machine didn’t save much time, and the ready meal did, because we were willing to stink, but we weren’t willing to starve.”

That’s the economically and socially important change in cooking: How the tremendous and unequal burden of cooking was alleviated by technology. It’s not how we came to spend two days cooking ramen from scratch over the weekend. It’s that we can make a satisfying meal from packaged ramen in five minutes. That’s the technology that’s really making the average person’s life better.

This is to be expected, as cooking is rarely one’s comparative advantage, even in the case of highly skilled home cooks. It’s more often the consequence of pesky transaction costs: You can’t easily add a paid hour of your regular work in the evening, nor can you easily hire someone to prepare your food (though this is quickly changing with modern food delivery), so you cook.

But we should want that to change! Cooking is something relatively few people truly enjoy. A study from Harvard Business Review found that only 10% of Americans “loved” cooking; the rest were lukewarm or disliked it and just cook to save money and eat healthier. If new restaurant models — perhaps in the form of ghost kitchens enabled by food delivery apps, or pre-prepared meal kits — can provide healthy food to the home at a low cost, home cooking will look even worse in comparison. That’s the kind of technology that alleviates hours of tiresome work and drives GDP growth. Few kitchen appliances on the horizon can make similar promises.

Yet preparing ready-made meals is often met with disdain, especially when home cooking is moralized. This has been particularly prevalent in the “slow food” movement, spearheaded by Michael Pollan and Alice Water. These writers argue that modern food and the system used to create it is ecologically, nutritionally, and morally corrupt. Instead, food should be more thoughtfully prepared from scratch. But, as sociologists Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott argue in Pressure Cooker, this rhetoric has created an undue mystique around home cooking that creates unnecessary pressures on women, particularly those in vulnerable positions. That is even before you consider how dubious the underlying claims are, as Rachel Laudan has explored at length.

And really, aren’t people who cook from scratch the ones being irrational? Economist Ryan Murphy argues that the desire for “DIY” is a manifestation of evolutionary intuitions that make us unduly skeptical of our current technological and institutional environment. This makes us prone to doing costly things ourselves instead of just paying someone else who is better at it to do it for us. Frozen and pre-prepared food seems unnatural, so we take questionable health and moral claims about them for granted. Even claims about home cooking being less expensive are more complex than they might appear, once the opportunity cost of one’s time is fully accounted for — if you don’t enjoy doing it, cooking uses up scarce leisure time that could be spent with family, or watching TV, instead.

So home cooking won’t save the world, nor will it drive growth, nor will it even necessarily make us healthier or save us money. But for those who do enjoy cooking, Anton Howes’s “culture of innovation” is alive and well among internet chefs and the home cooks who watch and read them. That we innovate even without strong incentives is a testament to how strong the culture is. And it reminds us that each time we try to innovate, to do something a little bit better, we improve the world.

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